Leistikow: Projecting the Iowa football starters in 2018
NEW YORK — After an 8-5 finish with a young team against one of the nation's most difficult schedules, things should be looking even brighter for Iowa football in 2018 ... right?
Indeed, the Hawkeyes have some fantastic building blocks for years to come at quarterback, tight end and offensive line. A 27-20 bowl victory against Boston College should also provide a boost heading into the eight-month lead-up to the Sept. 1, 2018 season opener against Northern Illinois.
“It’s huge," returning quarterback Nate Stanley, whose 26 touchdown passes wound up one shy of Chuck Long's single-season record. "... I think this springs us forward into the offseason and into next year.”
But Iowa's ceiling in 2018 will be limited unless it bolsters a defense that struggled to stop the run (4.13 yards per carry allowed, second-most in the program since 2001) and will likely lose two consensus all-Americans in Josey Jewell and Josh Jackson (assuming he turns pro).
Linebacker, running back and punter are probably the top three gaps entering 2018. Here's a look at what the starting lineup might look like.
2018 projected starting lineup
SE — Ihmir Smith-Marsette (soph.): Wide receiver will continue to be a question mark that it was in 2017 for the Hawkeyes. Smith-Marsette, though, clearly showed promise by launching himself into the rotation from the get-go as a true freshman. His signature moment — a game-winning touchdown catch in overtime — came in Week 2 at Iowa State. His hands need to improve, but he could be a good one.
TE — Noah Fant (jr.): Enjoyed a breakout season in his first year as a starter, showing a combination of size and speed that burned the linebackers and safeties who tried to cover him. The Omaha native wound up with 11 touchdown receptions, tops in the Big Ten. With steady improvement, Fant could challenge the likes of Marv Cook and Dallas Clark as one of the best tight ends in Iowa history.
LT — Tristan Wirfs (soph.): One of the many young players thrust into action this year, Wirfs ended up becoming the first true freshman in the Kirk Ferentz era to be a starting tackle. He started eight games, seven on the right side and one on the left in the Pinstripe Bowl. His huge, athletic frame (6-5, 315) makes him a prototypical left tackle for years to come.
LG — Ross Reynolds (sr.): Though he only made one start (in the season opener against Wyoming), the Waukee native was essentially a half-time starter in a rotation here with Keegan Render. Iowa needs the competition to ramp up here with the loss of first-team all-Big Ten guard Sean Welsh. It'll be interesting to see what Iowa does with Levi Paulsen, who started the Pinstripe Bowl at right tackle but has also played guard.
C — James Daniels (sr.): If he doesn't turn pro early, Daniels (an athletic 6-4, 295) will enter 2018 as one of the top centers in college football. He won't turn 21 until September, yet has already amassed 25 career starts. If he does choose to leave, redshirt sophomores Cole Banwart and Spencer Williams could be vying for this crucial spot.
RG — Keegan Render (sr.): Considering he has 20 career starts (19 at guard), he almost certainly will be somewhere inside on Iowa's 2018 offensive line. The Indianola product has even played center, so he offers the Hawkeyes some flexibility.
RT — Alaric Jackson (soph.): Started 12 games at left tackle before being suspended for the bowl game for undisclosed reasons. At 6-7, 320, he should only get better. Deserves much credit for helping keep Iowa’s offensive line afloat after season-ending injuries to tackles Ike Boettger and Boone Myers. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger of Bettendorf, too. He was taking second-team left tackle reps in bowl prep.
TE — T.J. Hockenson (soph.): Became a clutch, crucial piece to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s two-tight end offense as a redshirt freshman. Seventeen of his 24 receptions went for first downs, and he also showed excellent blocking skills that will only get better. Could be a special player before his career is done. Look for sophomore Shaun Beyer to also be in the mix after a strong December.
WR — Nick Easley (sr.): The walk-on from Newton became Iowa’s leading receiver in 2017 and should be on scholarship soon. Brian Ferentz likes Easley’s willingness to go into “dark places” over the middle to make difficult catches. Runs great routes and should be a reliable target in his final year.
QB — Nate Stanley (jr.): Undoubtedly Iowa’s quarterback for the next two years after a strong true-sophomore season that saw him throw for 2,437 yards, 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He could eventually be a great one. It’ll be interesting to see who Stanley’s backup is in 2018, though. Will Tyler Wiegers and/or Ryan Boyle (current Nos. 2-3) transfer? If so, it could be either be redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell or true freshman Spencer Petras, who is enrolling in January.
FB — Brady Ross (jr.): The fullback position isn’t going away at Iowa, and with Drake Kulick’s eligibility expired, Ross’ role will increase. Iowa likes to split this thankless blocking role, so look for senior walk-on Austin Kelly to get some action here, too.
RB — Toren Young (soph.): With Akrum Wadley and James Butler moving on, the running-back position at Iowa gets a lot younger. The role will likely be shared, but Young has the size (5-11, 220) and durability to rack up the team’s most carries. Ivory Kelly-Martin could become the primary third-down back after an impressive true-freshman season. Incoming freshman Henry Geil might also play immediately.
PK — Miguel Recinos (sr.): Newly placed on scholarship, Recinos had an impressive first season as Iowa’s full-time placekicker, making 55 of his 57 total attempts. After beating out incumbent Keith Duncan for the role, the Mason City native was particularly solid on kickoffs. His emergence allowed Duncan to redshirt and preserve three years of eligibility.
LE — Anthony Nelson (jr.): The 6-foot-7, 260-pounder from Waukee was Iowa’s best edge rusher, and he keeps getting better. He had a tremendously disruptive game in the regular-season finale at Nebraska, and followed it up with a game-changing strip sack in New York. Nelson now has 14½ career sacks his junior year; he could easily surpass 30 before his career is over if he stays two more seasons. Nelson’s backup, Sam Brincks, played well this fall and will be in the rotation, too.
LT — Matt Nelson (sr.): Seemed to gain traction toward the end of his first season as 6-foot-8 defensive tackle after spending his first two playing seasons at defensive end. Replacing the gritty work of Nathan Bazata (37 career starts) will be difficult.
RT — Cedrick Lattimore (jr.): Needs to take a big step from his sophomore to junior year, as many Iowa defensive tackles in years past have done. Think Louis Trinca-Pasat. This position, though, will feature a rotation no matter who starts. Brady Reiff and Garret Jansen are the undersized guys, and incoming junior-college transfer Daviyon Nixon will compete for playing time, too.
RE — A.J. Epenesa (soph.): Putting the true sophomore here is no slight against Parker Hesse, who made his 34rd career start Wednesday and is a team leader. But it’s going to be hard to keep Epenesa out of the starting lineup after his first winter and spring with Chris Doyle. Of all the 247Sports five-star recruits from the 2018 class, Epenesa had the fourth-highest regular season grade from Pro Football Focus. Hesse will have a role, perhaps as a utility guy on the D-line, and Chauncey Golston could be in the rotation, too.
WLB — Aaron Mends (sr.): “Where’s Mends?” has been a frequent question over the years. The supremely strong, fast player needs to improve on the mental side of the game. The prediction here is he puts it together for his fifth year, much like Cole Fisher did for Iowa in 2015.
MLB — Kristian Welch (jr.): Replacing Josey Jewell will be an impossible task, but somebody’s got to do it. Welch seems to have the inside track over Jack Hockaday and Amani Jones (who will also battle Mends at weak-side linebacker) at this point, though this will likely be an ongoing story that could spill into the season. Iowa has to get this one right.
OLB — Jake Gervase (sr.): Going out on a limb here, but when Phil Parker mentioned he might move a safety into this role in 2018, it would make sense if Gervase is that guy. If he can add five pounds to get to 6-1, 215, he could be the hybrid cover guy and run stopper that the Hawkeyes need as three-year starter Ben Niemann moves on. Also watch for Nick Niemann, Ben’s brother and a sophomore-to-be, to get a shot here.
LC — Manny Rugamba (jr.): The assumption here is that junior all-American Josh Jackson turns pro. Rugamba had a wobbly sophomore campaign. He was suspended for the season opener, then later lost his starting job after struggling against Purdue. Still, he has loads of talent and should be able to rebound.
SS — Amani Hooker (jr.): Became one of Iowa’s most impactful players in his true sophomore year, down to the finish when he made two touchdown-saving tackles against Boston College. Had 13 tackles in his first career start against Penn State, and his pick-six to open the game against Ohio State helped pave the way to a shocking upset. Ended up with 56 tackles (fifth on the team) despite missing three games with a knee injury.
FS — Brandon Snyder (sr.): This will be an interesting story to follow. Snyder is recovering from his second ACL tear and also must work his way back into good standing after his December OWI arrest. If healthy, Snyder is a disruptive, hard-hitting player who directs defensive traffic. If he isn’t ready, maybe it's Gervase or Geno Stone or even incoming freshman Dallas Craddieth.
RC — Matt Hankins (soph.): Got his chance late in the year and ran with it; made seven tackles in the Pinstripe Bowl. Iowa has recruited a lot of defensive backs in the last two cycles as it tries to bolster its secondary, so the competition will be crowded.
P — Ryan Gersonde (soph.): A major weakness in 2017. Gersonde, who is on scholarship, got his chance midway through the season and showed a booming leg but wild inconsistency before an injury sidelined him down the stretch. This will likely be a position battle that goes into August with Colten Rastetter, who struggled mightily but might still have a role as Iowa’s rugby-style punter.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.