Leistikow: Projecting Iowa football's starters for the 2022 season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Now more than ever, college football rosters are fluid and unpredictable from day to day. That's what makes the annual exercise of projecting the next year's starting lineup for Iowa football a little dicey, whenever it publishes.

But, hey, let's give it a shot. Last year's version was incredibly accurate, the only real whiff was not expecting cornerback Matt Hankins to return for a fifth-year senior season.

Regardless of some NFL decisions still to be made (and I'll update this file online as information unfolds), the Hawkeyes should be salty on defense. There are so many quality defensive backs in the fold that Phil Parker has a good problem on his hands, and the expected linebacker trio has a chance to be the best ever under Kirk Ferentz.

There's excitement at defensive line and running back. There are question marks at quarterback and wide receiver. And for the first time since I started doing these after the 2014 season, I did use an "or" in these projections and you'll understand why when you get to the offensive line. If some key NFL decisions go Iowa's way, the Hawkeyes should be favored to repeat as Big Ten West Division champions.

Who could start on the Hawkeye's offense?

WR (“X”) — Brody Brecht (6-4, 205, RS freshman): Let’s get nuts right out of the gate. In a May radio interview, wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland described his perfect "X" as “a longer, linear, bigger-framed athlete that can demand double coverage and … block safeties." Iowa didn’t have that perfect guy this year; Brecht certainly looks the part. His development was slowed by right thumb injury in the fall. How much football work he gets in the spring (he’s also an ace pitching prospect for the baseball team) will be telling.

LT — Mason Richman (6-6, 296, RS sophomore): Coaches liked the combination of athleticism and aggression from Richman back in fall camp to the point where they made him their No. 1 left tackle. Richman had some tough moments but hung in there, starting 12 games (missed 2½ with an injury). His downfield effort on Sam LaPorta's Citrus Bowl screen-and-run touchdown catch showed his potential. Alaric Jackson became a four-year starting left tackle from 2017-20; could Richman be following the same track?

LG — Cody Ince (6-4, 282, RS senior): Ince was supposed to be a central piece of Iowa’s offensive line but just couldn’t stay healthy in 2021. He’ll have plenty of competition; Iowa has recruited well on the line in recent years. Kyler Schott won't return after declaring for the NFL.

C — Michael Myslinski (6-3, 278, RS freshman) *OR* Tyler Linderbaum (6-3, 290, RS senior): I can't in good conscience get your hopes up too much about Linderbaum returning, but surprisingly it still can't be ruled out that the program's 28th consensus all-American and this year's Rimington Trophy winner comes back to the school he loves. If Linderbaum, a projected first-round pick, does go to the NFL, Myslinksi is being groomed. He’s got a scrappy reputation and a strong recruiting pedigree, having decommitted from Texas. Iowa also is in the mix for Cornell graduate transfer Hunter Nourzad.

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RG — Justin Britt (6-4, 302, RS junior): After starting Iowa’s first three games of the year, Britt returned to a rotational role and then the bench as Schott came back from a foot injury. Britt has always had potential but has had trouble staying healthy; there are countless stories of Hawkeye linemen breaking through in their fourth or fifth years. The guard competition should be intense. Don’t be surprised if redshirt freshman Beau Stephens (6-6, 300) forces his way into the lineup.

RT — Connor Colby (6-6, 298, sophomore): He started Iowa’s final 11 games at right guard, showing a physical side particularly in run blocking. Colby’s pairing of athleticism and power lends itself to a role at tackle, where Iowa struggled in 2021. Jack Plumb (nine career starts) did have a solid Citrus Bowl and can’t be discounted. The development of David Davidkov, who was the No. 2 left tackle in bowl prep, is something we'll watch in the spring.

TE — Sam LaPorta (6-4, 249, senior): Rolling the dice here that LaPorta opts to stay at Iowa after his seven-catch, 122-yard Citrus Bowl performance. LaPorta became the first Iowa tight end since Alan Cross in 1992 to lead Iowa in catches (53) and receiving yards (670). Sophomore-to-be Luke Lachey (6-6, 248) looks the part and is ticketed to be the next No. 1 tight end after LaPorta. If both are around, Iowa could have a 2018 vibe with a lot of "12" personnel (two tight-end sets) in 2022.

WR (“F” or “slot”) — Arland Bruce IV (5-10, 193, sophomore): His toughness, quickness and football smarts elevated him into a prominent role this season that will only get bigger. Bruce caught 25 passes for 209 yards as a true freshman; the next step is to reel off some big plays. He was a fun running threat, too, this season (three rushing touchdowns). Bruce has surpassed Nico Ragaini (6-0, 191), whose production tailed off after his winning touchdown against Penn State.

More:Iowa football's Keagan Johnson misses Citrus Bowl vs. Kentucky due to illness: 'Just unfortunate'

WR  (“Z”) — Keagan Johnson (6-1, 197, sophomore): Johnson played the “X” as a true freshman as a way to learn the college game and get on the field, but Copeland believes the “Z” — where Ihmir Smith-Marsette starred — is Johnson’s perfect position. It is the most complex and important receiver position in the offense. Johnson is ready after averaging 19.6 yards per catch this season. If Big Ten return specialist of the year Charlie Jones returns for a sixth season, he’ll be a contributor at the “Z” as well.

Spencer Petras at this point has to be considered the favorite to be Iowa's starting quarterback in 2022, but in today's college football world, anything can change in a hurry.

QB — Spencer Petras (6-5, 233, RS senior): There are really four options here — Petras, Alex Padilla, Joey Labas or a transfer-portal guy. The coaches showed their hand in letting Petras start and finish the Citrus Bowl. By all accounts, Labas has the moxie and mobility to provide a really interesting challenge in spring ball. Petras said he would be working this offseason to become more mobile; perhaps we’ll see a sleeker version of him in the fall.

Leistikow:On Spencer Petras and a Hawkeye team that fought for each other for 14 games

FB — Monte Pottebaum (6-1, 246, RS senior): Became a cult hero of sorts with his long, blonde hair and punishing blocks in the run game. (Just think if he could’ve hauled in that halfback pass in the Big Ten title game.) Pottebaum also carried 15 times for 76 yards. He was dinged up this season and, honestly, deserves to be used even more next year.

RB — Gavin Williams (6-0, 211, RS soph.): The power with which Williams ran in the Citrus Bowl (16 carries, 98 yards) was exciting, and classmate Leshon Williams (5-10, 205) ran with an edge that offers a lot of hope for this position in 2022. I really like incoming freshman Kaleb Johnson (6-1, 210) and think Iowa might have three quality options next season.

PK — Drew Stevens (6-0, 175, freshman): Stevens arrives this month as a preferred walk-on from South Carolina. He had the same kicking coach as former Hawkeye all-American Keith Duncan, who also started as a true freshman. Stevens and Oskaloosa product Aaron Blom (5-11, 190) will likely be the top two candidates to fill the all-American shoes of Caleb Shudak.

More from Leistikow:Is Iowa football's offense too complex? A conversation about identity ahead of Citrus Bowl

Possible Hawkeye defensive starters

LE — John Waggoner (6-5, 266, RS senior): Though Waggoner’s statistics may look pedestrian compared to his peers (25 tackles, two sacks in 14 starts), his workmanlike play helped free up others for splash plays. At a position that needs help next season, Waggoner offers stability. If Iowa wanted to grab a defensive player in the transfer portal, though, edge rusher would be the priority.

LT Noah Shannon (6-0, 289, RS senior): Undersized but undeterred, Shannon’s scrappy play on the interior flashed all season long. And, like Waggoner, he was durable, logging 47 tackles in 14 starts. It’ll be a key spring story to see how much U.S. Army All-American Logan Jones (6-3, 282) gains ground after missing the 2021 season with a knee injury.

RT — Logan Lee (6-5, 277, RS junior): Back in Week 2, Lee made an impressive tackle-for-loss of Iowa State’s Brock Purdy that was powerful yet unassuming. The recruited tight end continuously made plays this fall, racking up 48 tackles, and got better each week. His backup, Yahya Black, needs to take the next step.

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RE — Lukas Van Ness (6-5, 264, RS sophomore): Plot twist! Van Ness is well-put together and his athleticism at tackle was a major asset, tying for the team lead in sacks (with Joe Evans’ seven) as a backup defensive tackle. Van Ness has the flexibility to play outside, and Evans (6-2, 248) continues to be a weapon in pass-rush situations. Ethan Hurkett and Deontae Craig also showed promise as redshirt freshmen.

MLB — Jack Campbell (6-5, 243, senior): Here's projecting that Campbell stays on campus for one more year, even after the Cedar Falls native who loves the Hawkeyes recorded 143 tackles (the most by a Hawkeye since Pat Angerer in 2009) and earned first-team all-Big Ten honors. Campbell’s size, toughness and speed will make him a preseason all-America candidate.

Jack Campbell (31), Seth Benson (44) and the Iowa defense should be very salty in 2022.

WLB — Seth Benson (6-0, 229, RS senior): This may be sacrilege, but Benson’s closing speed is reminiscent of Josey Jewell’s. He finished the season with 105 tackles and eight quarterback hurries. Benson and Campbell are close friends and complement each other well.

OLB — Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 236, RS junior): It feels like Jacobs can still take another big step forward. Iowa coaches did a good job sprinkling Jacobs into the lineup in creative ways, including in a 3-3-5 look and as an inside linebacker in the 4-2-5 on passing downs.

Cash — Riley Moss (6-1, 194, RS senior): With 10 career interceptions and coming off a season in which he was named Big Ten defensive back of the year, Moss has already left his mark. Now he has a chance to become an all-time great defensive back at Iowa. Moving to a slot-corner role, which the NFL covets, could increase Moss’ stock. Getting his left knee to 100% (after tearing a PCL mid-season) is the first priority.

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LCB — Jermari Harris (6-1, 185, RS junior): Give Harris a lot of credit. He stayed ahead of highly touted transfer Xavior Williams as the No. 4 corner, then took advantage of his chance when injuries struck for Hankins and Moss. The Chicago native started just six games but had four interceptions.

SS — Kaevon Merriweather (6-0, 211, RS senior): The Duke Slater Golden Gavel Award winner is pleasant with the media but packs a mean punch on the field. Merriweather’s next step is to make more splash plays.

FS — Xavier Nwankpa (6-2, 190, freshman): First-team all-Big Ten defensive back Dane Belton is turning pro. Nwankpa (the highest-rated recruit of the Kirk Ferentz era) is going to have every chance to get on the field somewhere as a true freshman. With Jack Koerner's departure, free safety — a great spot for a play-maker like Nwankpa — is open.

RCB — Terry Roberts (5-10, 180, RS senior): Hawkeye nation will be rooting for Roberts to have a big year. A special-teams star, Roberts got one start against Purdue then suffered a bone bruise that caused him to miss the second half of the season. Cooper DeJean (6-1, 203) will certainly be a factor in Iowa’s plans after burning his redshirt and could swing to safety, too.

P — Tory Taylor (6-4, 231, junior): Yes, the booming Punter from Down Under said he is returning even though he is NFL Draft-eligible. Taylor upped his punting average by 2 yards (from 44.1 in 2020 to 46.1 in 2021) while converting to a more traditional style (as opposed to rugby-style kicks), but his touchbacks increased from one to 13 and he had two punts blocked. There is plenty of room to improve.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.