Leistikow: 10 thoughts, predictions heading into Iowa's 2021 football season
IOWA CITY, Ia. — When it comes to providing season-preview content, some topics don't lend themselves to columns or full-length features.
So, enjoy these 10 Iowa-football topics (in no particular order) as we impatiently wait for actual games to begin.
(Soon, people. Soon.)
1. Here are the five Hawkeyes you should be most excited to watch this fall.
No. 1: Center Tyler Linderbaum. Try to focus on him sometimes instead of the football and watch how powerful (and fast) he is.
No. 2: Running back Tyler Goodson. Already first-team all-Big Ten, the junior looks like he’s ready to explode on the national scene. He should get 3-4 pass targets a game, too. (And he’s the “Wildcat” quarterback!)
No. 3: Linebacker Jack Campbell. There's so much buzz around this 6-foot-5 thumper in the middle of Iowa’s defense, he’s going to be fascinating to watch over 12-13 games. Turn on last year’s Nebraska tape if you need a reminder.
No. 4: Tight end Sam LaPorta. He’s got such a T.J. Hockenson vibe with the size, hands, now experience … and, eventually, NFL future.
No. 5: Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. It’ll be interesting to see how many ways he’s used offensively. "Sweet Feet" also brings bravado and fun to the field, much like Ihmir Smith-Marsette did.
2. Is this the year Iowa’s quarterback injury luck runs out?
It’s truly remarkable to consider that only once for one game over the last 11 seasons — C.J. Beathard in for Jake Rudock at Purdue in 2014 — has the Hawkeyes’ starting quarterback missed a game due to injury.
Ricky Stanzi started every game in his final year, 2010; James Vandenberg started all 25 games in 2011 and 2012; Rudock made 24 of 25 starts in 2013 and 2014 before transferring to Michigan; Beathard was banged up but started 27-of-27 games after landing the No. 1 role in 2015; Nate Stanley started all 39 games from 2017 through 2019; and Spencer Petras was in command for all eight games in 2020.
Credit Iowa’s strength program, pass protection and good luck for such a run. Quarterback injuries can torpedo a season. Just ask Wisconsin in 2018 or Northwestern and Purdue in 2019.
If something happens to Petras this fall, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has affirmed that he would feel comfortable with No. 2 Alex Padilla running the offense. But the best-case scenario is for the Hawkeyes to get solid play — as they usually do — from their QB1. That run of health is a big reason Iowa holds a 53-21 record (.716 winning percentage) and has used just three starting QBs since 2015.
3. Petras' numbers can be manipulated to fit any narrative.
Not a Petras fan? Then you’re probably pointing to his completion percentage as a sophomore (57.1%) being 84th out of 100 qualifying FBS quarterbacks or that Pro Football Focus in July ranked him No. 112 out of 130 expected FBS starters this fall.
More of a Petras backer? Then you’re likely to lean on the fact that he’s carrying a six-game win streak as a starter; that he averaged 6.97 yards per attempt during that 6-0 run (vs. 5.40 in the 0-2 start), a number not far behind what Stanley averaged in his four-year career (7.18).
A big reason Iowa coaches really like Petras is that he has a high rate of smart decisions. He only threw two interceptions in Iowa’s final six games, and by all accounts he’s improved on his accuracy in the offseason — including via two trips to New Jersey to work with specialized quarterbacks coach Tony Racioppi. Petras’ short-range throws have been a big focus (to allow playmakers to, well, make plays after the catch), and he’s more than willing to accept a throw-away incompletion to his stats rather than making a bonehead throw. That’s not sexy, but turnover margin is a major factor in Iowa's annual success.
One other stat of note: Petras averaged 44.5 pass attempts in Iowa’s 0-2 start last fall; he averaged 26 in the 6-0 finish. If his pass attempts can stay under 30 a game, that's likely a winning number for the Hawkeyes. It means he's being efficient and the ground game is working well.
4. The Phil Parker defense needs to find some game-wreckers.
Parker has enjoyed defensive-line dominance over the last three seasons. In 2018, the combination of Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa was overpowering at times. In 2019, Epenesa and Chauncey Golston were warriors off the edge. In 2020, it was Golston and consensus all-American Daviyon Nixon doing damage.
It is so important to be able to apply quarterback pressure without blitzing, so it’s no wonder that Parker’s defenses over the last three years have finished seventh, 12th and eighth nationally in total yardage. While I do think Iowa’s back seven is going to be in the solid-to-terrific range, they might not see the prolific turnover numbers they’ve enjoyed in recent years (64 interceptions since 2017, most in FBS) without a steady pass rush.
Unless another Nixon-type emergence bubbles up, it might be wise to expect a step back in big plays on defense.
5. Will the Brian Ferentz podcast change how fans/media approach their analysis?
For those that missed my 3-hour, 12-minute conversation with Iowa’s fifth-year offensive coordinator, there’s still time to catch it before the season in your podcast feeds (search “Hawk Central”) or online — or just listen above.
While the entire podcast is compelling, one thing that stood out was how every call that makes Ferentz’s final play sheet (roughly 65 to 75 calls) has a purpose and has been well-rehearsed. He has calls for almost every down-and-distance situation, but not too many. For example, there probably aren’t 15 calls in the “Wildcat” package on the sheet … maybe there are five, and those plays have been specially selected for that week's matchup.
The conversation was a good window into how being an offensive coordinator is a lot easier on Xbox than in real life. Ferentz pointed out that in the 2020 Nebraska game, the Cornhuskers played Iowa differently than he expected and he junked the original plan after the first quarter. (Iowa would win, 26-20.) That serves as another good reminder to football viewers: Sometimes early play calls set things up for later in the game.
The podcast also provided more appreciation, I hope, for how much is on the plate of an Iowa quarterback — to get in and out of the huddle and make the right reads at the line of scrimmage, let alone execute 25 to 40 throws a game. It’s impressive how much football understanding these guys have. The fewer in-game “hot takes” on quarterback play the better, media included.
6. Let's take a moment to talk about Iowa’s punter, Tory Taylor.
This actually dovetails well with the Brian Ferentz podcast, because Taylor is a true offensive (or defensive) weapon at Iowa’s disposal, someone who typically makes punting a positive decision.
The reigning Big Ten punter of the year and first-team preseason all-American by The Athletic, Taylor has a rocket leg that has also been precise in pinning teams inside their own five- or 10-yard line. His boots yield almost zero return yardage (44.1-yard gross and a remarkable 42.8 net in 2020 — compared to a 36.7 net for opponents). Put another way, if both teams punt five times a game, that's an average 30 yards of field position in Iowa's favor.
Let's see what kind of amped-up distance Taylor can find in hot September weather. Remember, most of his rugby-style excellence a year ago was put together in cold November and December conditions. Taylor is working on a more conventional punting style as he prepares for an NFL career, so there could be a few shanks in his bag. But as far as punters go, he’s as good as it gets.
7. Lots of fans have asked … will Iowa have to forfeit a game because of COVID-19?
Of course, we don’t know. But it’s an elephant in the room, considering the University of Iowa is the only Big Ten Conference school that doesn’t have either a vaccine or mask mandate. Ohio State on Tuesday mandated COVID-19 vaccines for all students, given the FDA has granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Also this week, the Big Ten outlined its forfeiture policy to say if a team impacted by COVID-19 cannot play, it will have to count that game as a loss.
Even if Iowa is on the low end of team-wide vaccinations in the Big Ten (as was the case a month ago), it's probably unlikely that things spiral to a forfeit level. However, it's very possible that one or more Hawkeye players are sidelined this fall due to contact tracing or a positive COVID-19 test.
"I realize nothing is foolproof with vaccinations. But I do know, at least at this point, if you're vaccinated, you're free from contact tracing,” Kirk Ferentz said Aug. 13. “Which is huge.”
Some prominent universities (including LSU and Oregon) are mandating proof of vaccines or a negative test for 12 and older. No Big Ten stadiums had followed suit as of Thursday. But it’s a safe bet to say COVID-19 will have an impact on this college season.
8. It's a good year to have your two-point conversion game humming.
When Stanley’s quarterback draw was stuffed inches short of the goal line in a 24-22 at Wisconsin in 2019, it marked the 10th straight failed two-point conversion attempt by the Hawkeyes.
But finally, in 2020, Iowa broke that odd streak (that dated to 2016) by converting all three two-point conversions it tried — a Goodson run at Minnesota, a Goodson catch at Illinois and a Brandon Smith catch vs. Wisconsin.
Teams might need to have a page of go-to two-point calls in 2021. One of college football’s most significant rule changes is that teams must attempt a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown in the second overtime (it was previously the third). Then, if the game is still tied after two overtimes, teams will have alternating two-point conversion tries until a winner is decided.
So truly, just like the Big Ten West came down to a two-point conversion in Madison in 2019 … it could be decided by the right two-point call(s) going forward.
9. Here are three bold Hawkeye football predictions.
No. 1: Arland Bruce IV will have the biggest impact of any true freshman. Since early-enrolling in January, Bruce has impressed Iowa coaches at every turn. Plus, he’s got short-area quickness that works well with Petras’ quick-release plan.
No. 2: Caleb Shudak will be the first-team all-Big Ten kicker. He and Keith Duncan were neck-and-neck for years. Now is his chance to shine. Plus, he’s valuable at kickoffs, too.
No. 3: Nov. 13 against Minnesota will be the most entertaining home game of the year. Between the lingering timeout flap with P.J. Fleck, six straight Iowa wins, a Minnesota team that’s supposed to be pretty good and a heated rivalry on the heels of the Wisconsin and Northwestern road games? Can’t wait. Even better if it’s at night.
10. The return of fans plus full-stadium beer sales plus a top-20 matchup equals …
… Quite the festive atmosphere Sept. 4 at Duke Slater Field at Kinnick Stadium.
While I don’t think Kinnick will be much more unruly than in past years with general-public alcohol sales for the first time, it is something to prepare for, particularly with high-80s temperatures possible for the opener against Indiana (2:30 p.m. CT, BTN).
If you’re going to the game: Hydrate. Allow extra time for entry. Grab your first Kinnick beer, if that’s your thing. (But remember, all concessions are cashless this year.) Be patient with bathroom lines and UI/stadium officials. Enjoy “The Wave.” Appreciate the fact that this is the first Iowa home game with fans since Nov. 23, 2019. And be kind to everyone around you.
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.