Iowa football's championship checklist, Part 3: The offense
Editor's note: This is the last story in a three-part series.
Iowa's fall training camp officially is underway. Friday night's first practice kicked off a four-week race to the regular season. Players and coaches are hunkered down. There is no school or immediately looming opponents to worry about. Just Football 101.
Coach Kirk Ferentz has described this focused stretch, away from interruptions on secluded practice fields, as one of his favorite parts of the year.
This is when accelerated progress can occur. And there’s no more spotlight area needing progress than the third and final part of my “championship checklist” series for Hawkeye football.
Leaving the offense last in the series was by design. If you’ve digested Parts 1 and 2, you’ve already gotten a largely positive feeling about the coaching staff and the state of the defense. In my opinion, those areas are well-positioned to deliver the Hawkeyes a Big Ten West championship in 2019.
But now, Part 3: The offense.
There were a lot of positives a year ago. The school's highest scoring average (31.2 points a game) since the vaunted 2002 juggernaut. The nation's 25th-best touchdown percentage in the red zone, a mark of efficiency that overcame what was the No. 92 offense (out of 130) in the FBS.
But the run game sputtered for a second straight season at under 4.0 yards a carry. Iowa was held without an offensive touchdown in a demoralizing 30-24 loss at Penn State. It scored a meager 10 points in a Big Ten West-tipping home loss to Northwestern. And that production was with two tight ends who were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Still, there's hope that the offense is set to take off in Brian Ferentz's third season as offensive coordinator.
Let's examine the pieces in place and what's possible. (*—denotes preseason depth-chart starters)
Scholarship players (4): Nate Stanley* (6-4, 243, Sr.), Peyton Mansell (6-2, 208, RS Soph.), Alex Padilla (6-1, 193, Fr.), Spencer Petras (6-5, 230, RS Fr.).
What’s to like: Considering everything Iowa asks its quarterback to do, it’s important to have a sharp guy at the top of the depth chart, and the Hawkeyes have that in Stanley — a third-year starter with 52 career touchdowns vs. 16 interceptions who turned down the NFL to return for his senior year. While Stanley has been durable (not missing a snap due to injury in 26 starts), it's good news that he's past a throwing thumb issue that bothered him the last half of the 2018 season.
What needs work: Stanley aims to be a 65% passer this fall, but he’s only 57.7% for his career. Developing a plug-and-play No. 2 QB needs to be a high priority this month. Untested Mansell has that distinction for now.
Looking ahead: We’ll be reporting on a three-way quarterback derby in the spring of 2020. While Petras seems to have the physical gifts and arm that Iowa wants, I’ve liked our first glimpses of Padilla (who enrolled in January). The Hawkeyes are excited about Deuce Hogan, a four-star commitment from Texas in the Class of 2020. It’s too early to say this position is in good hands for years to come, but the talent base is diverse and promising.
Scholarship players (8): Mekhi Sargent* (5-9, 212, RS Jr.), Brady Ross* (6-0, 246, RS Sr.), Shadrick Byrd (5-10, 212, Fr.), Samson Evans (6-0, 210, RS Fr.), Henry Geil (6-0, 215, RS Fr.), Tyler Goodson (5-10, 190, Fr.), Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-10, 203, Jr.), Toren Young (5-11, 223, RS Jr.).
What’s to like: There’s no doubt the room is in a better place than it was a year ago, when Kelly-Martin, Sargent and Young were a committee of green sophomores trying to replace Akrum Wadley. It’s easy to forget about the fullback, but Ross gives Iowa an extremely physical extra blocker. While Sargent emerged late last year, coaches believe Young should be a more prominent part of the attack.
What needs work: Iowa still lacks a dynamic lead running back; big plays from this position have been scarce post-Wadley. If Goodson is as good as advertised, that would be a major help.
Looking ahead: With two Class of 2020 commits in Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams and no senior running backs, this is going to be a crowded position in the near future. That gives the Hawkeyes more chances to find their leading man.
Scholarship players (15): LT Alaric Jackson* (6-6, 320, RS Jr.), LG Landan Paulsen* (6-5, 305, RS Sr.), C Tyler Linderbaum* (6-3, 286, RS Fr.), RG Cole Banwart* (6-4, 300, RS Jr.), RT Tristan Wirfs* (6-5, 322, Jr.), Justin Britt (6-5, 290, Fr.), Tyler Endres (6-6, 307, Fr.), Noah Fenske (6-4, 300, Fr.), Cody Ince (6-4, 287, RS Fr.), Jeff Jenkins (6-3, 266, RS Fr.), Mark Kallenberger (6-5, 291, RS Soph.), Coy Kirkpatrick (6-4, 291, RS Soph.), Ezra Miller (6-6, 305, Fr.), Levi Paulsen (6-5, 305, RS Sr.), Jack Plumb (6-7, 272, RS Fr.).
What’s to like: It’s possible that we’ll look back on 2019 and say that Jackson and Wirfs comprised the best tackle combo of the Ferentz era. Linderbaum has received rave reviews about his transition to center. While this group is relatively young, it’s big and talented. Some of Iowa's best recruiting the past few years has been on the offensive line.
What needs work: The run game, plain and simple. The yards-per-carry averages of 3.76 (2017) and 3.95 (2018) aren’t good enough. Identifying mauling guards has to be a priority.
Looking ahead: Kallenberger is the next man in at tackle and needs to make fast progress in case Jackson and/or Wirfs turns pro early. As with the tight ends, you can safely assume an Iowa offensive line will be well-coached. The trick is getting good recruits, and Iowa has done that with the likes of Britt, Endres, Miller and others. Linderbaum will be a fan favorite. And the Class of 2020 already has three highly regarded commits in Josh Volk, Tyler Elsbury and Mason Richman.
Scholarship players (5): Nate Wieting* (6-4, 250, RS Sr.), Shaun Beyer (6-5, 244, RS Jr.), Drew Cook (6-5, 252, RS Sr.), Sam LaPorta (6-4, 242, Fr.), Josiah Miamen (6-4, 235, Fr.).
What’s to like: While losing T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant drained this position group, it’s exciting to see what Beyer has to offer. He’s got a similar frame and athleticism that a mostly green George Kittle did entering his redshirt junior year of 2015.
What needs work: With such thin depth, Iowa needs at least one tight end to emerge and stay healthy. Wieting and Cook each have an opportunity to become a fifth-year revelation that Kirk Ferentz loves to see.
Looking ahead: Iowa’s tight-end recruiting has been off the charts, with Miamen drawing Fant comparisons — except he comes into his freshman year 15 pounds heavier than Fant did. Luke Lachey and Elijah Yelverton are two of the jewels of Iowa’s Class of 2020. This should be a loaded position group down the road, but 2019 remains a mystery.
Scholarship players (9): Brandon Smith* (6-2, 218, Jr.), Ihmir Smith-Marsette* (6-1, 183, Jr.), Nico Ragaini* (6-0, 192, RS Fr.), Max Cooper (6-0, 188, Jr.), Desmond Hutson (6-3, 200, Fr.), Calvin Lockett (6-2, 182, RS Fr.), Henry Marchese (6-3, 196, RS Soph.), Oliver Martin (6-1, 200, RS Soph.), Tyrone Tracy Jr. (5-11, 200, RS Fr.).
What’s to like: There’s genuine excitement, at last, for this embattled Iowa position group. The addition of Martin will be a game-changer, whenever he’s eligible. Smith seems poised for bigger things as the “X” receiver. Ragaini and Tracy received rave reviews in the spring; this freshman pair has the potential for us to forget about the losses of Fant and Hockenson at tight end. For the first time in years, Iowa has the personnel to be dangerous in three- or four-wide sets.
What needs work: Iowa’s offense desperately needs receivers who can space the field for the run game. We just haven’t seen it historically, so we’ll have to wait to see it to believe it.
Looking ahead: I expect Ragaini to be Iowa’s receptions leader this season. Martin has gotten a ton of (deserved) ink, but you’ll be hearing about Buffalo transfer Charlie Jones going into 2020. Lockett is a big receiver on the rise, too (No. 5 in the rotation entering fall camp). With no seniors in the group and two Class of 2020 commits (in Quavon Matthews and Diante Vines), Iowa clearly is going all-in to once and for all solve its wide-receiver problems.
Brian Ferentz is an exceptionally smart coach who knows how a humming offense should look. And, with that New England Patriots background, he knows what it takes to get there. He just hasn’t yet had the pieces in place since becoming Iowa’s offensive coordinator in early 2017. And, still at just 36 years old, he’s been learning as a play-caller, too.
Now he’s got his best chance ever to help the Hawkeyes take that championship step. He’s got the veteran quarterback, a more seasoned group of running backs, an offensive line with the potential to be dominant and more playmakers than ever at receiver.
Right now, the offense’s championship box is unchecked. Iowa is not yet an offense that is feared across the Big Ten. If it can become one … then an early-December trip to Indianapolis (and maybe even a win there) is within reach.
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.