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Leistikow: Projecting Iowa's football starters for the 2021 season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

After the TransPerfect Music City Bowl was canceled, the Iowa football team spent this week wrapping up 2020 business. That serves as a transition to start looking ahead to the 2021 Hawkeyes.

The next Hawkeye team will be building off a 6-2 record amid a pandemic-shortened season. It was a productive fall, considering it looked (for about 35 days) like the Big Ten Conference wouldn’t play any football. Development is key at Iowa, and we saw a lot of it occur on and off the field.

Though there are a few unknown stay-or-go decisions, we can safely say that the Hawkeyes will return their starting quarterback, an all-American center, their all-Big Ten running back, a promising set of linebackers and the conference’s best punter.

Typically, I put out a lineup of projected starters for next year a few days after the Iowa bowl game. This year, despite no bowl and less clarity on rosters than ever, I was determined to continue that tradition. The free year of eligibility afforded by the NCAA (and looser transfer rules) could throw some wrinkles into what 2021 rosters look like everywhere, not just Iowa.

So, with that backdrop in mind, here is a snapshot of a possible 2021 starting point. And an important note about eligibility: Instead of using “RS” for red-shirt as usual, each player’s eligibility and number of year in school (effective fall 2021) is used.

Quarterback Spencer Petras, left, and running back Tyler Goodson bring experience at key positions for the 2021 Hawkeyes.

Offense

WR (“X”) — Tyrone Tracy Jr. (5-11, 203, soph.-4Y): Iowa does have a returning big-body candidate to replace Brandon Smith outside in Desmond Hutson (6-3, 210), and incoming true freshman Brody Brecht figures to compete there eventually. But Iowa’s quest to get its best three receivers on the field needs to include Tracy, and he was an excellent fill-in for Smith in 2019 (recall the big-play touchdowns against Northwestern and Wisconsin). Tracy should be Iowa's best big-play threat at receiver, wherever he lines up.

LT — Mark Kallenberger (6-5, 290, jr.-5Y): For the first time since 2016 — isn’t that hard to believe? — the Hawkeyes will need to plug in a regular left tackle not named Alaric Jackson, whose 42 starts in four years are off to the NFL. Kallenberger has the most returning experience and good athleticism and length. However, none of his nine starts are at left tackle. Perhaps Nick DeJong (6-6, 296) could throw his hat in the ring here, too.

LG — Cody Ince (6-4, 285, soph.-4Y): Ince started Iowa’s final six games at left guard and … you know how those went. Hard to imagine Iowa going away from a guy that was a fixture during a six-game winning streak, in which the ground game was potent and the points kept coming (35.7 ppg). Iowa wound up averaging 4.62 yards a carry, its highest for a season since 2008.  

C — Tyler Linderbaum (6-3, 289, soph.-4Y): Linderbaum has given Iowa the ultimate gift for 2021 by announcing Thursday he'll return with the Hawkeyes for his third season at starting center, even though he easily could've taken the next step to the NFL. The Rimington Trophy finalist was arguably the biggest reason for the aforementioned yards-per-carry increase. He is instantly Iowa's best player in 2021 and will be a preseason first-team all-American.

RG — Kyler Schott (6-2, 293, soph.-4Y): “Shooter” broke onto the scene as a neat walk-on story in 2019 and will likely be fighting for a starting spot again with a bevy of guard options, including Justin Britt (6-5, 293). Schott or Britt are the lead candidates at center if Linderbaum ever gets dinged. We also know Iowa coaches were high on true freshmen Tyler Elsbury (6-5, 302) and Mason Richman (6-6, 289) this past season, so their growth will be monitored.

RT — Jack Plumb (6-7, 293, soph.-4Y): Plumb got his feet wet in his first two college starts (both at right tackle) against Nebraska and Illinois with Kallenberger and Coy Cronk injured. His size is tantalizing, and with a strong developmental year could become a candidate to be a two-year left tackle, too. Incoming true freshman David Davidkov (who chose Iowa over Ohio State and Michigan) has the size (6-6, 290) and pedigree to compete for early playing time.

TE — Sam LaPorta (6-4, 249, soph.-3Y): After leading Iowa with 27 catches (for 271 yards) in 2020, it feels like LaPorta is due for that third-year breakout that Hawkeye tight ends are accustomed to having. If all goes well, he’ll have an NFL decision to make just like T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant did after their third year of 2018. With Shaun Beyer departing, Iowa will need a No. 2 for its multiple-tight end sets. One of three highly recruited prospects (Josiah Miamen, Elijah Yelverton and Luke Lachey) needs to make a jump into the lineup.

Sam LaPorta has 36 catches over his last 10 Hawkeye games and will be an important piece at tight end in 2021.

WR (“slot”) — Nico Ragaini (6-0, 193, soph.-4Y): Ragaini was limited to 18 catches in eight games (after having a team-high 46 grabs as a redshirt freshman), but that was more of a reflection of Iowa’s frequency of two-tight end, two-receiver sets that featured Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Ragaini should be a prime target in 2021. With 65 career catches already, Ragaini could challenge Iowa’s all-time receptions record of 174 if he stays through 2023, as he’s hinted he might do.

WR (“Z”) — Charlie Jones (6-0, 187, jr.-5Y): Jones was a revelation at punt returner (with a Big Ten-best 10.5-yard average) but was also mentioned by teammates as a training-camp receiving star with his knack for making highlight-reel catches. He’ll have competition though, with a great incoming group of freshmen — including four-star Keagan Johnson from suburban Omaha — joining Kelton Copeland’s wide-receiver room.

QB — Spencer Petras (6-5, 233, soph.-4Y): There should be an open competition this spring at quarterback, with Alex Padilla (6-1, 198) and Deuce Hogan (6-4, 213) getting their shots. But Petras will be the man to beat after a decent sophomore campaign in which he got incrementally better by the week. He threw for eight touchdowns with just two interceptions during Iowa’s six-game winning streak and did something predecessor Nate Stanley never did — beat Wisconsin, with a 14-for-25, 211-yard performance in the season finale.

FB — Monte Pottebaum (6-1, 244, soph.-4Y): A fierce, blocking revelation in 2021, Pottebaum enjoyed 15 or 20 smash-mouth snaps a game as a walk-on. He was so good that he didn’t require a rotation partner and was awarded a scholarship by Kirk Ferentz.

RB — Tyler Goodson (5-10, 200, soph.-3Y): What a luxury to have a first-team all-Big Ten running back returning to the Hawkeye backfield. With productive sidekick Mekhi Sargent departing, Goodson’s new primary running mate would be the capable Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-10, 204), who will need time to rehab after December knee surgery. Iowa is thin at running back and needs to find depth.

PK — Caleb Shudak (5-8, 178, sr.-6Y): Shudak and Keith Duncan have been neck-and-neck in practices for years, but Duncan earned the job and produced a memorable career highlighted by two game-winners and 2019 consensus all-American status. If Shudak — Iowa’s excellent kickoff man the last two years — opts to return for a free sixth year (and I think he will), he would be one of the best kickers in the Big Ten. Who snaps to him? If Austin Spiewak doesn’t return for a sixth year, Liam Reardon might be next man up.

Defense

LE — Joe Evans (6-2, 248, soph.-4Y): Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell likes guys he can trust, and he can trust the high-motor Evans to play hard and produce. The same is true for John Waggoner (6-5, 271). Both native central Iowans will be on track for at least rotational snaps, but don't sleep on graduate transfer Matt Lorbeck from Northern Illinois (6-4, 255) or highly acclaimed recruit Deontae Craig (6-3, 249).

LT — Noah Shannon (6-0, 288, soph.-4Y): If there's one position that needs quick development (or perhaps a grad transfer), it's the interior defensive line. With Daviyon Nixon declaring for the NFL Draft and Jack Heflin expected to leave, that'll mean a major hole in the middle. Shannon has backup experience but a solid 2020 defensive-line recruiting class will be asked to step up. That list includes Yahya Black (6-5, 279), who got a cup of coffee at defensive end when Waggoner was out, along with Logan Jones (6-3, 267) and Isaiah Bruce (6-2, 273).

RT — Logan Lee (6-5, 267, fr.-3Y): Lee was viewed as a big-time acquisition and needs to have a strong developmental year to take the next step. The aforementioned freshmen make defensive tackle an interesting and important position to watch this spring and during fall camp in August.

RE — Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 270, sr.-6Y): What a gift Iowa received Wednesday when VanValkenburg revealed he would return for a sixth season. A second-team all-Big Ten pick after tying for the national lead with four fumble recoveries, the graduate transfer from Division II Hillsdale College has become a great Iowa story ... and now will continue it, as a defensive-end anchor that is so important to the Hawkeyes' base defense.

MLB — Jack Campbell (6-5, 243, soph.-3Y): An argument could be made that Campbell’s mononucleosis diagnosis (which caused him to miss the first three games) was the difference between Iowa winning the Big Ten West and not. Campbell can cover a ton of ground in a short amount of time. His presence was missed, especially in the second half of the opener at Purdue. He will be a league-wide star next season — big, fast, explosive — and is a future NFL player.

WLB — Seth Benson (6-0, 231, soph.-4Y): Even if Djimon Colbert returns (which I don’t necessarily expect), Benson would probably beat him out. Benson was a fantastic revelation as he and Campbell rotated at middle linebacker. Now with leading tackler Nick Niemann gone, Benson can slide into the other inside-backer slot and make this a positional strength.

OLB — Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 235, fr.-3Y): Jacobs isn’t far behind Campbell and Benson. He has the type of natural ability and size that could make him a dynamic player once things click. Iowa might feel comfortable going with 4-3 sets quite frequently — as it did this past season with Barrington Wade — if Jacobs takes the expected next step.

Jack Campbell, right, and Dane Belton, left, will arguably be the Hawkeyes' two most important defenders in 2021.

Cash — Dane Belton (6-1, 205, soph.-3Y): The most versatile piece in Iowa’s defense, as he can slide back to safety in the 4-3 and be equally proficient. Belton is best at the cash, though, where he's asked to blitz the quarterback, contain the run and cover slot receivers. His presence makes Iowa’s 4-2-5 scheme a problem for opponents. I could see a scenario that would slide Belton outside, depending on where incoming graduate transfer Xavior Williams (5-11, 190), who was a first-team all-MVC talent in 2018 at Northern Iowa, fits best.

LCB — Terry Roberts (5-10, 177, soph.-4Y): Special-teams stars at Iowa often turn into reliable regulars, and Roberts has the speed and knack for the ball that Phil Parker likes at corner. He is undersized, as compared to four-year starter Matt Hankins, but will have a significant role one way or another for the 2021 Hawkeyes.

SS — Kaevon Merriweather (6-0, 205, soph.-4Y): Merriweather is a sound tackler who keeps getting better. He's a talent that Parker can't keep off the field. Perhaps he, too, can become more acclimated to the cash position as Belton insurance.  

FS — Jack Koerner (6-0, 205, jr.-5Y): After being inserted as a stopgap starter against Iowa State in 2019, Koerner has taken the free-safety job and run with it — even after a watercraft accident over the summer. Koerner was a second-team all-Big Ten pick after collecting three interceptions in 2020. Keep an eye on youngsters Reggie Bracy (6-0, 203) and Quinn Schulte (6-1, 197) as future Hawkeye safety options.

RCB — Riley Moss (6-1, 191, jr.-4Y): When will folks appreciate how good Moss really is? He’s got elite speed, ball skills (six career interceptions in 15 starts) and is a fundamentally sound tackler and cover guy. Iowa lost Julius Brents and Daraun McKinney to the transfer portal, so developing corners is a priority this offseason for Parker.

P — Tory Taylor (6-4, 225, fr.-2Y): Just a few months after arriving in the U.S., Taylor was named the Big Ten’s punter of the year. Iowa ranked fourth nationally in net punting (42.85 yards per boot). A phenomenal leg, both in distance and accuracy, from Down Under leaves Iowa’s punting situation in good hands (er, feet) for years to come.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.