Leistikow: For 2018 Hawkeyes to be great, a big jump needed from these 5 players

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For 2018 to be a very good or even great year for Iowa football, stars must be born.

The past two seasons, the Hawkeyes started with a built-in advantage in that their elite players returned for a final year — C.J. Beathard and Desmond King in 2016; Josey Jewell and Akrum Wadley in 2017.

But going into preparations for the 2018 season, there's little argument that the Hawkeyes are losing their five best players off an 8-5 team to graduation or early entry to the NFL — consensus all-America linebacker Jewell, two-time 1,000-yard running back Wadley, consensus all-America cornerback Josh Jackson and offensive linemen James Daniels and Sean Welsh.

Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette pulls in a 29-yard pass during the Hawkeyes' game against No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

That’s probably the reason that expectations for Iowa are already being tempered in Big Ten country. The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein recently pegged Iowa eighth out of 14 teams in his early 2018 conference rankings. That’s not representative of the nine- or 10-win season a lot of Hawkeye fans are understandably pining for.

That projection underscores Iowa's lack of returning star power.

The process of finding some is about to begin.

Iowa's spring-semester classes start Tuesday.

Chris Doyle’s all-important winter strength-and-conditioning program begins Wednesday.

Who needs to take the biggest jumps for Iowa to upgrade over the 8-5 marks of the past two seasons?

I’ve picked five guys who, with a giant leap forward off promising career beginnings, could make the 2018 Hawkeyes special.

Ryan Gersonde (2) attempted 13 punts as a true freshman and showed he could have a potent left leg.

5. Ryan Gersonde

Before a question was even asked in his Wednesday press conference at the Iowa Football Performance Center, head coach Kirk Ferentz said this: “Obviously, our punting game has to improve.”

This is clearly a high-priority area for the Hawkeyes.

Their punting woes became a punch line in 2017. Some fans joked that quarterback Nate Stanley, who pooched two of his three punts inside the 20 on quick kicks, was the team’s best punter. They may have been correct.

To change this from a weakness to a strength in LeVar Woods’ first year as full-time special-teams coach, Gersonde must take command of the punting job. The Milwaukee native was brought out of his redshirt in the fall to replace struggling Colten Rastetter, and he showed flashes that he can be a difference-maker.

Against Northwestern, he boomed five punts for an average of 52.6 yards. He showed height on those puppies, too.

But his season was limited to just 13 punts after an injury gave the job back to Rastetter, who finished the season averaging 37.8 yards on 55 punts. The NCAA website lists 107 qualified punters in its final 2017 statistics; Rastetter ranked 106th.

Iowa gave Gersonde a scholarship for a reason. I’ve watched him kick in warmups. He’s got a leg. His consistency isn't there. But when he’s good, he’s really good.

Ferentz’s formula banks on winning the field-position game, and the punter is a major factor in that. Iowa failed there in 2017; it absolutely cannot in 2018.

Iowa cornerback Manny Rugamba (5) started eight of Iowa's 13 games but had some November struggles, including against Wisconsin and Purdue.

4. Manny Rugamba

On Wednesday, Ferentz referenced the importance of Year 2 players making a giant step into Year 3. After a disappointing sophomore season, Rugamba has all the tools to come through with a breakout junior campaign.

The key for him may be more mental than anything.

Rugamba was suspended for Iowa’s season opener and never gained firm footing last fall. He was injured against Penn State and wasn’t the same player after that. He ultimately got benched after a disastrous in-game sequence against Purdue that led to impressive true freshman Matt Hankins taking over his starting role.

While it’s probably too much to ask Rugamba (6 feet, 185 pounds) to make a Josh Jackson-type leap, he showed in three starts as a true freshman that he can be a rangy cover guy who causes mayhem.

The past three seasons, Iowa has trotted out a lock-down corner — King in 2015 and ’16, Jackson in ’17. Rugamba can be that guy in ’18.

Iowa freshman A.J. Epenesa (94) recorded a sack in his Hawkeye debut and ended up as a part of the four-man defensive end rotation all season.

3. A.J. Epenesa

There’s surely excitement — and maybe a little pressure — inside the Iowa weight room about how quickly this mega-prospect can develop in his first trip through Doyle’s winter program.

Hopes are high for the former five-star defensive end, not the type of raw talent the Hawkeyes usually bring through their doors.

What can Epenesa become? Well, he played at 6-5, 270 as a true freshman and totaled 4½ sacks among his 15 tackles.

Defensive end might be Iowa’s deepest position entering 2018, with starters Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse returning. So just think about the advantage of rolling Epenesa inside to tackle at times. All Epenesa lacks is more size, which Doyle can add. He’s got the speed and explosiveness to be dominant, no matter where he lines up.

Controlling the defensive trenches is essential for Iowa to have a very good 2018, as it replaces its top four linebackers. Rapid Epenesa growth could help make that happen.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette recorded one of the signature plays of the 2017 Hawkeye season: This game-ending overtime catch at Iowa State to give Iowa a 44-41 win.

2. Ihmir Smith-Marsette

Smith-Marsette was perhaps the most tantalizing of the 10 true freshmen Iowa unfurled in 2017.

He showed electric speed with a 74-yard kickoff return at Nebraska.

He showed athleticism with a fantastic 29-yard catch against Penn State.

And he showed clutch hands, with two diving, second-half touchdowns at Iowa State — including the walk-off game-winner in overtime.

But the talented rookie (6-2, 175) also had too many drops and lacked the strength and experience to be an every-down player that he needs to be now.

Coaches clearly see something special in Smith-Marsette. They know they need a game-breaking star in the passing game to play opposite of reliable returning receiver Nick Easley, a walk-on last fall who recently was put on scholarship.

An out-wide threat would help open up the middle of the field for Iowa’s running game and productive tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.

Smith-Marsette is fully equipped to be that guy.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley threw 26 touchdowns as a first-year starter but knows he must improve in all areas as he takes control of the team entering his junior year.

1. Nate Stanley

In college football, a great quarterback can be a great equalizer.

Stanley (6-5, 238) has the tools to be that and more.

The next eight months are critical in developing this strong, intelligent, big-armed QB. For the first time, he heads into the winter/spring portion of Iowa's football calendar as the unquestioned starter.

This is a key Year 2 of tutelage under quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe and attempted mastery of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz's offense.

As a sophomore, Stanley exceeded expectations but had some low moments, too. He threw for 26 touchdowns in his 13 starts. Improved mobility, ball security and ability to react on the fly are on his to-do list.

Behind Stanley, the Hawkeyes have no proven options. He's their (only) guy. With a huge junior year, Stanley can help Iowa overcome big questions at offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker.

In short: Stanley's development might be the most important factor in the 2018 Hawkeyes' fortunes.

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.