Leistikow: Projecting Iowa's football starters for the 2020 season
Iowa’s 49-24 rout of USC in the Holiday Bowl offered validation that there’s a lot to build on heading into the 2020 football season.
For those of us (raising my hand, too) who 3-4 months ago looked ahead to immediate life after the 2019 Hawkeyes and thought, “rebuilding year and lucky to make a bowl game,” perceptions may be changing.
(I guess that’s probably how a developmental program is supposed to work.)
Replacing the three-year starting, winning quarterback in Nate Stanley won’t be easy. But whoever steps in will be taking snaps from a proven center, get protection from a fourth-year starting left tackle and enjoy having every key 2019 playmaker back for another season.
That’s exciting to think about, especially on the heels of the Hawkeyes’ best offensive performance of the 2019 season.
If any of the three third-year juniors considering a jump to the NFL return, that’s even better.
Defensively, Iowa needs to replenish up front. But a large collection of young, talented linebackers and defensive backs should make for a competitive, productive offseason.
The 2020 schedule hasn’t changed. Games against Iowa State in Minnesota in a seven-day September stretch will be a chore; so will back-to-back road trips to Penn State and Ohio State, with both of their quarterbacks returning; not to mention the difficult finishing game against Wisconsin.
But there’s a lot to like about Iowa as we take our annual look ahead to projecting Iowa’s 2020 starting lineup.
WR (“X”) — Brandon Smith (6-2, 218, sr.): A big-radius receiver who was really starting to hum (nine catches, 106 yards vs. Purdue) until he suffered a high-ankle sprain that derailed his season. After surgery and recovery, Smith showed his value as a reliable chain-mover in the Holiday Bowl and should be a prime red-zone target in 2020.
LT — Alaric Jackson (6-6, 320, RS sr.): Said he's returning for his final year of eligibility and was playing only at 70% this season after suffering a Week 1 knee injury. We haven't seen Jackson's best yet, and he's already a two-time all-Big Ten pick. What a huge luxury for the new quarterback, to have a fourth-year starting left tackle (34 career starts) leading the protection.
LG — Cole Banwart (6-4, 300, RS sr.): Will be coming off an ACL injury that cost him the final eight games of 2019. Has had an injury history, so will be pushed by the likes of Cody Ince (6-4, 287) and others. Spring will be a time for youngsters like Nick DeJong, Tyler Endres and Ezra Miller to push forward.
C — Tyler Linderbaum (6-3, 286, RS soph.): Plays with a fierce edge and looked like a veteran, even as a freshman. Seems to improve every game. Shotgun snaps are on the money. Could be a star by next season.
RG — Kyler Schott (6-2, 290, RS jr.): An early-season revelation as a walk-on now must take the next step. Iowa’s insufficient guard play was a sore spot. Freshman Justin Britt (6-5, 290) is a name to watch, after getting four games of action. He has a ton of upside.
RT — Mark Kallenberger (6-5, 291, RS jr.): Was a five-game starter at guard and had ups and downs, but earned some much-valued trust by getting the bowl-game start over Landan Paulsen. Assuming Tristan Wirfs is gone, this will be one of Iowa’s most high-interest position battles in the offseason. Jack Plumb (6-7, 272) and others will try to earn their shot.
TE — Sam LaPorta (6-4, 242, soph.): Plays with a feel for the game like a young T.J. Hockenson, passing veteran Shaun Beyer (6-5, 244) as a true freshman and leading Iowa in tight-end receptions with 15. It will be interesting to see if Josiah Miamen (6-4, 235) or incoming true freshman Elijah Yelverton (enrolling in January) can make a splash.
WR (“slot”) — Nico Ragaini (6-0, 192, RS soph.): Ragaini is often a check-down target but showed the ability to beat defenses deep with refined route-running. Tyrone Tracy Jr. (5-11, 200) provides explosive-play potential any time he touches the ball — and also has the ability to play the "X" spot. Brian Ferentz will look for as many ways as possible to get Tracy the football.
WR (“Z”) — Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-1, 183, sr.): Was Iowa's best all-around offensive player in 2019, after racking up the most receiving yards by a Hawkeye wideout (722) since Marvin McNutt in 2011. With a little more weight, he could be a future pro prospect. Oliver Martin (6-1, 200) should benefit from his first spring at Iowa and compete for reps.
QB — Spencer Petras (6-5, 230, RS soph.): The big-armed Californian will have an early edge in Iowa’s first legit quarterback competition in three years. Position coach Ken O’Keefe is excited about the potential of Petras, who will have the benefit of three springs before starting (as opposed to one for predecessor Nate Stanley).
FB — Turner Pallissard (6-0, 242, RS soph.): What happens to this position after the departure of program cog Brady Ross will be interesting. It’s hard to imagine Kirk Ferentz scrapping the fullback, but we could see it scaled back significantly. Perhaps a non-starting linebacker (someone like Seth Benson?) could make a position switch this offseason.
RB — Tyler Goodson (5-10, 190, soph.): Iowa’s most exciting running back since Akrum Wadley became the first true freshman in program history to lead the team in rushing yards (638). Some more offseason weight can provide added durability. I wouldn’t be shocked if Toren Young or Mekhi Sargent explores a transfer. Don’t forget about Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-10, 203); the one-time starter was able to redshirt and has two years left.
PK — Keith Duncan (5-10, 180, RS sr.): The consensus all-American wants to add more weight in the offseason and prove he can connect from 50-plus and handle kickoffs, which he’ll likely do with Caleb Shudak likely to grad-transfer.
LE — Chauncey Golston (6-5, 270, RS sr.): With all the attention Epenesa gets, Golston’s contributions often get underrated. His return gives Iowa a durable, every-down end who can make big plays (18½ career tackles for loss).
LT — Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 309, RS jr.): Had a strong year of development and will be the top returning defensive tackle with Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff departed. Nixon showed a burst of speed for his size, too, but will now need to prepare for playing 50 or more snaps a game.
RT — Austin Schulte (6-4, 287, RS sr.): Will get the inside track at starting after a solid backup season, but Iowa likes to use a by-committee approach inside. Noah Shannon (6-0, 294) will play, and so will Logan Lee (a 6-5 athlete who is gaining size and can play inside or outside).
RE — Joe Evans (6-2, 240, RS soph.): Projecting a bit here, that the former Ames High School quarterback adds size and becomes more well-rounded after an impressive year as a pass-rush specialist. He's clearly a good athlete. John Waggoner (6-5, 270) and Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 270) will compete for a starting role, too, and at minimum be rotational pieces.
OLB — Nick Niemann (6-4, 235, RS sr.): When Iowa goes with a 4-3, Niemann has gotten the call (just as older brother Ben, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, did). I’m curious to see where highly touted prospect Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 220) settles in after redshirting. Niemann's strong game off the bench in the Holiday Bowl shows he could be an option at inside linebacker, too, which could put Barrington Wade (6-1, 236) outside.
MLB — Dillon Doyle (6-3, 235, RS soph.): Doyle got two starts with Kristian Welch injured, but the job is hardly a lock to be his. Jack Campbell (6-4, 218) impressed coaches as a true freshman and could be the future at this position if he can add some weight. If Niemann ends up at middle, it would mark the fourth straight year Iowa has a senior middle linebacker (Josey Jewell in 2017; Jack Hockaday in 2018; Welch in 2019).
WLB — Djimon Colbert (6-1, 235, RS jr.): The former safety has been a quietly solid player for two years (23 starts) and, with Welch gone, he and Niemann will be leaders in the linebackers room.
Cash — Dane Belton (6-1, 190, soph.): The Florida freshman’s growth was a quietly important development and allowed Phil Parker to find comfort and trust in his 4-2-5 alignment, which will be needed most of next season. Belton has the flexibility to play safety if Geno Stone turns pro.
LCB — Matt Hankins (6-0, 185, sr.): Hankins has been slowed by nagging injuries, but he’s still been a 19-game starter over three years and would give Iowa its best chance at a first-team all-Big Ten cornerback in 2020. He was up to the challenge against USC's talented fleet of receivers. Has been a consistently effective tackler on the edge, too.
SS — Kaevon Merriweather (6-0, 210, RS soph.): If Stone comes back, then Merriweather's path to the field gets tougher. Parker recently sat down with Merriweather to challenge him to improve. Still new to football, Merriweather has a lot of raw talent but needs to take the next step. If he doesn’t, maybe Belton slides over to settle this important role.
FS — Jack Koerner (6-0, 204, RS jr.): Has earned Parker’s trust in the back end. The Dowling Catholic product is always well-positioned and has had a knack for big plays, much like predecessor Jake Gervase.
RCB — Riley Moss (6-1, 191, jr.): Has the speed, ball skills and understanding of the system that Parker needs to see from his corners. D.J. Johnson (5-11, 183) had a strong run of December practices, and Julius Brents (6-3, 203) will be another one to watch this spring in a competitive defensive-backs room that also saw Terry Roberts and Jermari Harris get spot duty in 2019.
P — A player to be named later: Iowa has liked using the transfer market to pick up kicking help, so I’m guessing the 2020 punter isn’t yet on the Hawkeye roster. Ryan Gersonde missed the season with knee surgery.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.