Following Iowa’s 27-22 Outback Bowl win Tuesday against No. 18 Mississippi State, Kirk Ferentz was asked what it means going into spring football practice on a high note.
“There’s no downside to winning, regardless, that I’m aware of,” said Ferentz, who will enter his 21st year as the Hawkeyes’ head coach. “But most importantly ... I think we are all focused (on) sending our 14 seniors out on a really good note.
“We’re going to enjoy it tonight. We’re going to enjoy Tampa a little bit.”
In other words, Ferentz wasn’t in a hurry to discuss the 2019 season.
But that doesn’t mean we on the outside can’t look ahead. Projecting next year’s starters has become an annual exercise; this is my fifth year doing it, dating to a post-TaxSlayer Bowl piece in 2015. It’s never been 100 percent accurate, but it does help frame where the Hawkeyes should be stronger and weaker in the upcoming season.
Positions of strength will certainly be at quarterback, offensive tackle, defensive end and secondary — no matter what NFL decisions are made.
At the top of my list for positions of uncertainty would be offensive guard, tight end (if T.J. Hockenson indeed joins Noah Fant in turning pro, as expected), defensive tackle and linebacker.
Let’s get to it.
SE — Brandon Smith (jr.): Broke through with a 28-catch sophomore season and could become the favorite target of Nate Stanley in 2019. Became increasingly dependable as the season went on, and could be a prime red-zone target with his size (6-foot-3, 219 pounds). Also the team's best run-blocking receiver.
TE — Shaun Beyer (jr.): The leading candidate to replace some of Noah Fant's skill set. Has the size (6-5, 240) and speed that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz likes from the tight end position, but remains an unknown (no career catches). Should be back this month from a knee injury.
LT — Alaric Jackson (jr.): Earned second-team all-Big Ten honors from the media but he knows there’s lots of room for growth in pass protection. With a dominant year, Jackson (6-7, 320) will have an NFL decision to make.
LG — Cole Banwart (jr.): Would have been a full-season starter at right guard if not for an early-season ankle injury. A plausible scenario is that Banwart starts the season at center, then moves back to guard.
C — Tyler Linderbaum (fr.): A high-end recruit was hand-picked by Kirk Ferentz to switch from defensive tackle in December. Teammates say he’s picking up the center position remarkably quick. Linderbaum might not be a Week 1 starter as a redshirt freshman, but he'll be tough to keep off the field.
RG — Levi Paulsen (sr.): While tackles are pretty set, there are many guard candidates. The safe pick would be Paulsen (6-5, 305), who has at least one start in each of his three years. His twin brother, Landan, is another possibility. If backup tackle Mark Kallenberger (6-6, 282 and growing) shows he is one of Iowa’s top five, coaches won’t hesitate to make him a one-year guard.
RT — Tristan Wirfs (jr.): Has unlimited potential but admits things haven’t clicked mentally for him in the run game. Still, Wirfs (6-5, 328) is a near flawless pass protector who has all the physical tools to be a first-round NFL Draft pick — maybe as early as 2020.
TE — Nate Wieting (sr.): Insert Mackey Award winner T.J. Hockenson here if he somehow decides to return for his junior season. Otherwise, Wieting (6-5, 250) can be a dependable blocking option. If tight end is thin, look for a lot of three-wide receiver sets that'll open opportunities for freshman Tyrone Tracy Jr.
WR — Ihmir Smith-Marsette (jr.): The affable and speedy return specialist of the year in the Big Ten has shown flashes at receiver but needs consistency. Finished tied with Smith in 2018 with 361 receiving yards. At 6-1, 175, he could use another five to 10 pounds to take the next step.
QB — Nate Stanley (sr.): What a luxury to have a senior quarterback behind what should be a well-coached offensive line. An unquestioned leader and permanent team captain, Stanley needs 22 touchdown passes to tie Chuck Long’s 74 for the career school record. The race to be his backup between Peyton Mansell, Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla will be competitive.
FB — Brady Ross (sr.): Iowa plays its best football when Ross (who missed the final six regular-season games with an ankle injury) is healthy. Also a special-teams captain, he brings immeasurable toughness when he’s on the field. I’ll join the chorus of those wanting to see linebacker Amani Jones, who has similar leadership traits and aggression, try his hand at fullback.
RB — Mekhi Sargent (jr.): Expect Brian Ferentz to continue to rotate multiple running backs, but Sargent showed he’s capable of being a 20-carry guy despite his (estimated) stature of 5-7 and 210 pounds. Incoming freshman Tyler Goodson could be the future.
PK — Keith Duncan (jr.): A position in good hands — and feet. Outgoing kicker Miguel Recinos told me it’s a dead heat between Duncan (the 2016 Michigan game hero) and walk-on Caleb Shudak, and that both showed starter-level accuracy in bowl prep. It wouldn’t surprise me if one handles kickoffs and the other handles placements.
LE — Anthony Nelson (sr.): If Nelson stays in school, which is my prediction, he’ll be a key team leader and build on his already impressive 24 career sacks. Backup Chauncey Golston (6-5, 265) has been extremely productive as Iowa’s fourth defensive end and will be a major contributor, too, perhaps dabbling at tackle at times.
LT — Cedrick Lattimore (sr.): Defensive tackle may be the No. 1 position of concern for the 2019 Hawkeyes. With starters Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks departing and Linderbaum at center, impact contributors are needed. The search begins with Lattimore (6-3, 295), who finally gets his chance to shine.
RT — Brady Reiff (sr.): The Hawkeyes like to roll with four tackles, so even if Reiff earns the starting job a rotation is inevitable. Noah Shannon (6-1, 300) and Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 306) have the most size, but remain mysteries. Perhaps Iowa can comb through the NCAA’s transfer portal for additional options.
RE — A.J. Epenesa (jr.): It’s hard to believe Epenesa will already be in a draft-eligible year. After earning first-team all-Big Ten honors as a backup who delivered 10½ sacks, he’ll get all the attention and playing time fans have been crowing for him to have in 2019. A generational talent with All-American potential.
WLB — Nick Niemann (jr.): Linebacker will be a wide-open position this spring. Niemann and Djimon Colbert (who was fifth on the team with 52 tackles) rotated here during the Outback Bowl. Don't discount incoming freshman Jestin Jacobs, who arrives in a week.
MLB — Kristian Welch (sr.): With Jack Hockaday departing, will Iowa go with the safe veteran or youthful upside? Welch has proven dependable. But don't be shocked if Dillon Doyle (6-3, 227) becomes the quarterback of Iowa's defense as a redshirt freshman. Amani Jones also gets his last chance.
Star — Michael Ojemudia (sr.): This projection assumes Amani Hooker, the Big Ten defensive back of the year, turns pro. Ojemudia (6-1, 199) has shown ability to be strong in run support and in pass coverage, which is what this linebacker/corner hybrid position requires in Iowa’s 4-2-5 defense.
LCB — Matt Hankins (jr.): Probably Iowa’s best cover corner but is still looking for his first career interception. Was terrific in the Outback Bowl. His ill-timed suspension proved costly in the Hawkeyes’ shootout loss at Purdue. Freshman D.J. Johnson is in line to contend for action at star or corner, too.
SS — Kaevon Merriweather (soph.): Defensive coordinator Phil Parker raved about Merriweather’s progress in bowl prep; much like he spoke about Hooker two years ago. Iowa might dabble with versatile Riley Moss, who started five games at cornerback, as a safety this spring.
FS — Geno Stone (jr.): With Jake Gervase gone as the signal-caller of the secondary, look for an experienced guy like Stone to take over. Stone has been a solid tackler and play-maker (four interceptions) at strong safety, but Iowa could use his leadership at free.
RCB — Julius Brents (soph.): Showed athleticism and rangy ball skills in five starts, but some minor injuries kept him off the field down the stretch. With another year in Parker’s system and some added strength, he could be a star.
P — Ryan Gersonde (soph.): Watching the ball come off his foot in warmups at the Outback Bowl, it's clear this scholarship punter has a big leg. After a redshirt year and eight more months of seasoning, here's a flyer that Gersonde beats out incumbent Colten Rastetter — who averaged just 35.8 yards on his final 32 punts of the season.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.