Leistikow: 2015 Hawkeye football seniors provide detailed blueprint for 2018 success
If you look closely, parallels can be found between the makeup of the 2018 Iowa football team and the last time the Hawkeye program experienced a magical, unexpected season.
The year was 2015, of course. The year the Hawkeyes were within one yard of the College Football Playoff.
The 2015 Hawkeyes had a promising junior quarterback in C.J. Beathard; 2018 has one, too, in Nate Stanley.
The 2015 Hawkeyes were coming off a 7-5 regular-season record that was dogged by disappointing, narrow losses; the same will be true for 2018.
And perhaps most notably, the 2015 Hawkeyes had a senior class without a bona fide star — but with impressive character — while enjoying a slew of up-and-coming stars like Beathard, Desmond King and Josey Jewell.
That’s where the theme of this story is headed.
The 2018 Hawkeye senior class is small (just 11 scholarship players), but can it be mighty? Of the 11 seniors, five are former walk-ons and none is a sure-fire NFL draft pick.
But underneath them, there is obvious rising talent with ample experience — players like Stanley, Noah Fant, Anthony Nelson, Amani Hooker, T.J. Hockenson, A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs … to name a few. Each of those names I listed? Health permitting, I think you’ll see 100 percent of them in the NFL someday.
That was the exact complexion of the 2015 team — one that was led by a diligent, strong senior class. It's something that defensive end Parker Hesse, the most experienced player on the 2018 roster with 34 college starts, has identified.
“That’s really a special group of senior leaders, that 2015 team," Hesse said. "Now that I’m in that position as one of the older guys on the team, you try to model the way they kept guys in check, the way they encouraged players. That’s kind of the standard, at least in my experience, for leadership."
But how do Hesse and the Hawkeyes go about repeating what worked in a season that ended with a school-record 12 wins and a Rose Bowl?
To try to uncover the secrets of that memorable season’s success, I tracked down three of that team’s impactful fifth-year seniors — center Austin Blythe, running back Jordan Canzeri and safety Jordan Lomax — and asked them how (and if) the 2015 formula could be repeated in Iowa City in 2018.
Here is what they had to say.
The humbling 'HawkSlayer' Bowl triggered change.
Canzeri, who would become the gritty leader of Iowa’s 2015 running game, remembers clearly what he saw and felt after the Jan. 2, 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
What he saw: A group of seniors, including Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff, who ended their Hawkeye careers in stunned disappointment. A 45-28 drubbing by Tennessee — a game that wasn’t that close, and one that Iowa assistant Brian Ferentz would later refer to as the “HawkSlayer” Bowl — cemented an unfulfilling season that had unraveled.
What he felt: Regret about not playing better to send off the seniors with a win. And determination that expectations had to be raised.
“We thought that was the bar,” Canzeri said. “But we knew, we had to raise it even higher.”
Accountability became a daily buzz word among the seniors, 13 of whom were named to the 2015 team’s leadership group — Blythe, Canzeri, Lomax, Darian Cooper, Adam Cox, Jake Duzey, Jacob Hillyer, Marshall Koehn, Nate Meier, Drew Ott, Travis Perry, Macon Plewa and Tevaun Smith.
What did accountability look like?
“Everybody bought in,” said Blythe, the only Hawkeye chosen in the 2016 NFL draft (five spots before the last pick of the last round). “There wasn’t anybody off doing their own thing.”
Everybody. From veterans to rookies.
But it had to start with the seniors.
“The leadership was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of,” Lomax said. “It wasn’t one person individually. That was the beauty of it.”
It became well-documented that the team book called “The Slight Edge” by author Jeff Olson served as a reference guide to restoring the Hawkeye culture. Seniors gave lesson-specific presentations to younger teammates.
The habits stuck and became contagious.
“Each senior bought into 'The Slight Edge' principles on a daily basis,” Lomax said. “When you see a positive example coming from the leaders of a team, it trickles down into the juniors, sophomores and freshmen. And they all got on the same page as well.”
“We probably had one of our better spring balls since I’ve been there,” Lomax said. “And we carried those daily habits into the summer.”
By all accounts, the 2018 Hawkeyes are off to a similar start.
Players like Hesse and fifth-year lineman Keegan Render report a renewed hunger at the Iowa Football Performance Center after back-to-back 8-5 seasons.
They realize, as seniors, they must set the locker-room tone.
They seem confident, so far, that a similar groundwork has been set; the one they learned in 2015 as redshirt freshmen.
“We have a really good group of guys right now,” Hesse said. “One thing that’s really special about it is we really enjoy each other’s presence — any age on the team, any position group.”
A new team book has been introduced — “Pound the Stone: 7 Lessons to Develop Grit on the Path to Mastery” by Joshua Medcalf. If that title sounds familiar, it should.
Longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle introduced a “Break the Rock” mantra to a Hawkeye program that required a massive rebuild in 1999. Those principles led to three straight national top-10 finishes from 2002 to 2004.
Break the Rock; The Slight Edge; Pound the Stone.
Lessons of 1999 and 2015 are being applied with the goal of a resounding 2018.
“Just every day, showing up and swinging,” Hesse said. “You never know when that moment’s going to come, the big breakthrough, the big moment of success. But it’s not that moment that’s significant; it was all the swings of the hammer before.”
One thing is certain: Adversity will come.
It’s one thing to identify a winning plan — and even see it through until the end of August camp.
But once game-day pressure hits, it’s quite another thing to execute the plan.
Even if the 2018 Hawkeyes do everything right this offseason, they need to navigate toward a place of resiliency in the face of Saturday adversity — just like the 2015 team did.
The first true test came Sept. 12, 2015 — week two at Iowa State. Here was an opponent that had barged into Kinnick Stadium a year earlier and (with a second-half comeback and a last-second field goal) stunned Iowa, 20-17.
And now, the Hawkeyes were at halftime inside revved-up Jack Trice Stadium, having lost their best defensive player to injury (Drew Ott) and trailing, 17-10, after a failed fake field goal.
“That second half,” Lomax said, “we had to really pull together and fight.”
Iowa would shut out the Cyclones after halftime. And after a 31-17 win, players locked arms as they retrieved the rivalry trophy from the Iowa State sideline.
“The locker room was excited, ecstatic,” Lomax said. “From there, our belief just kept growing.”
And the lessons kept coming.
Koehn’s game-ending 57-yard field goal the following week to beat Pittsburgh, 27-24, demonstrated the importance of playing a full 60 minutes.
Two weeks later, Meier’s forced fourth-quarter fumble at the goal line preserved a 10-6 win at Wisconsin — the type of “Break the Rock" triumph the program needed after not having beaten the Badgers since 2009.
Canzeri remembers that victory, which moved the Hawkeyes to 5-0, cementing a belief among players that something special was afoot. But inside the game, he also found personal motivation.
Canzeri was beating himself up, knowing his late fumble nearly cost the Hawkeyes (thankfully for Iowa, Cole Croston recovered). Hillyer, a senior teammate, offered uplifting words to Canzeri that stuck with him.
And so, as maybe it was meant to be, Canzeri was the one to deliver the finishing hammer a week later vs. Illinois.
A 43-carry, 256-yard rushing performance earned Canzeri national player-of-the-week honors. With Beathard laboring through an earlier injury, Iowa resorted almost exclusively to handoffs — and Canzeri got 11 straight on a clinching drive that consumed nearly seven minutes in a 29-20 win.
“That really epitomizes that season,” Blythe recalled. “Just bearing down and gritting through things. … That’s a testament to Jordan, a testament to the rest of the players on the team that kind of willed us through that adversity.”
One of the most important factors in the 2015 team’s success, though, was the depth that was built in the offseason. Canzeri remembers his senior group being especially cognizant of making sure young players would be ready to go.
“We were close with the freshmen," Canzeri said.
That execution was no more necessary than the following week at Northwestern.
Beathard could barely walk but played anyway; a decimated offensive line forced a true freshman, James Daniels, to make his first career start; and third- and fourth-stringers Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr. shouldered the run game in relief of injury-sidelined Canzeri and LeShun Daniels Jr.
Iowa rushed for 294 yards and its patchwork lineup routed the favored Wildcats, 40-10.
Suddenly, the Hawkeyes were 7-0.
And outsiders were believing what the Hawkeye players already did — that this team was for real.
“We lost so many guys that year,” Lomax said. “You could just see guys were bought in, whether you were first string, second string or third string.
“As the wins kept piling up, our confidence kept piling up.”
After a bye week, a determined Iowa roster would not be deterred.
Even with Beathard operating through severe pain that would require offseason sports-hernia surgery, Iowa finished with wins against Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska to complete a historic 12-0 regular season.
Iowa, despite lacking a single senior star, was the talk of college football.
(Take note, 2018 Hawkeyes.)
“That’s the beauty of football. It’s not just a one-man sport,” Lomax said. “As long as your team is committed to putting in those daily habits that will eventually lead you to a win, you can be unstoppable.”
Some supportive advice from Iowa's 2015 seniors.
Those who played on the 2015 team share a similar takeaway.
First, they know it'll be a season forever remembered in Hawkeye history.
"12-0 and inches away from the College Football Playoff,” Blythe said. “I’m getting goosebumps talking about it.”
But the 16-13, last-minute loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, then a 45-16 Rose Bowl drubbing against Stanford brings regret.
“It still nags at me,” Lomax said.
Surveying the 2018 Iowa season ahead, there’s another notable similarity with 2015 — a regular-season schedule that offers opportunity.
The Hawkeyes won’t play Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State from the Big Ten East. Three of Iowa's four rivalry games occur at home — Iowa State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
The schedule is still tricky, though. An Oct. 27 date at Penn State is one of four Hawkeye road games in a span of five middle-of-the-season Saturdays.
So, how about some parting advice from the guys who got it (mostly) done in 2015?
Lomax’s message to the 2018 seniors like Hesse, Jake Gervase, Aaron Mends, Matt Nelson and Brandon Snyder: “They were on that team. They have the recipe. They know what to do. It just comes down to them owning up to it; taking that leadership accountability and bringing the guys together.”
From Blythe, who now plays for the Los Angeles Rams: “Make it your team. It’s your last go-round. Ultimately, 2018 is going to be remembered for the seniors, just like I think 2015 was remembered for us. I tell people that we wanted to be one of those teams Coach (Kirk) Ferentz referenced for five, 10, 15 years down the road.”
And lastly, from Canzeri: “Don’t pressure yourselves. Don’t think of anybody outside the facility. Just you and your brother. Don’t let your emotions get to you. Always be ready for the next play. Always keep each other up. Keep the energy going. Keep the love going. And it’ll slowly fall into place.”
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.