IOWA CITY, Ia. –The countdown in days to the start of the 2015 Iowa football season is in the single digits. But as much as the focus is on wins and losses during 12 Saturdays starting Sept. 5 against Illinois State, there should also be special attention paid to some younger players.
Let’s call them, without getting too dramatic, the future of the program.
In assessing 10 "building blocks" for the future of Hawkeye football, two freshmen, six sophomores and two juniors were chosen. These 10 guys will have a significant impact on how things pan out at Iowa, not only this fall but for perhaps influencing whether Kirk Ferentz coaches to the end of his well-documented contract that expires after the 2019 season:
C.J. Beathard, quarterback
Background: The family lineage is interesting enough about Beathard. He’s the grandson of longtime NFL executive, Bobby, and the son of country-music songwriter, Casey. But the kid whose childhood in the Nashville, Tenn., area was spent hanging out with folks like Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and Michael Vick slings a mean football, too. Yet he wouldn’t be wearing black and gold at Iowa, let alone performing as its starting quarterback, if Ole Miss hadn’t forced the resignation of Houston Nutt after the 2011 season. On the eve of National Signing Day 2012, Beathard flipped his commitment from Ole Miss, which hired Hugh Freeze to install a spread-option attack, to Iowa.
2015 outlook: For all the publicity Beathard has gotten for being anointed the starter over now-at-Michigan Jake Rudock after the TaxSlayer Bowl, it’s easy to forget that outside the one game he’s started at Iowa (a 24-10 win at Purdue when Rudock was hurt), he’s taken very few meaningful snaps. That’s why he’s piqued so much curiosity in becoming the most essential building block for the next two seasons. A lot is riding on the 6-foot-2, 209-pounder’s success and health – with zero proven experience backing him up. And for that reason, 17th-year head coach Ferentz’s job stability has a heavy stake in Beathard, too.
2016 and beyond: Steadily emanating from Evashevski Drive are anecdotes of how Beathard has become a uniting leader, on and off the field, for the 84 other scholarship guys plus walk-ons. Beathard should be well-positioned for a big senior year personally, and, in meantime, he’s charged himself with grooming young QBs – Tyler Wiegers, Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook – for their eventual times to shine. Beathard is arguably the single most important athlete in Iowa City for the next two years.
LeShun Daniels Jr., running back
Background: The Warren, Ohio, native is entering his third year in the program. And 13 of his 51 career carries came in the 59-3 rout of Western Michigan in 2013. So why is he listed No. 1 in a competitive four-horse running-back derby also involving proven senior Jordan Canzeri and high-energy sophomores Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr.? Iowa coaches trust him. When they asked Daniels to cut 10 pounds, he did. And at 6-0, 225, he has the prototypical every-down back frame.
2015 outlook: The plan is to give Daniels every chance to be Iowa’s bell-cow for the next two years, at a more explosive rate than Mark Weisman was for the past three. “We want to get him 20-25 carries like Mark did,” running backs coach Chris White said, “and see if we can break some runs.” Staying healthy is key for Daniels, who missed the back half of last season following foot surgery. Best-case scenario, he'll average 5-plus yards a carry and be Iowa’s third 1,000-yard rusher (joining Shonn Greene in 2008 and Marcus Coker in 2011) in 10 seasons.
The No. 1 running back on Iowa's depth chart spoke after Saturday's open practice.
2016 and beyond: Daniels’ importance is magnified at a position in the program that has been stricken with injuries and attrition for most of the past decade. There’s a lot of trust (there’s that word again) being placed upon Daniels to be a reliable run-game catalyst. Also interesting: Next year if not sooner, Daniels could be running extensively behind his little (but physically bigger) brother – true freshman offensive lineman James (more on him later). The Daniels brothers have the potential for significant program impact.
Ike Boettger, right tackle
Background: First targeted by Iowa as a 215-pound quarterback at Cedar Falls, Boettger became a project for strength coach Chris Doyle’s Petri dish. Learning from Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff (the No. 5 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft) and eating everything in sight, Boettger now has 300 pounds packed around his skillful 6-6 frame. He got a brief taste at left tackle in 2014 when Scherff got hurt against Ball State. “He didn't play well,” offensive coach Brian Ferentz said this spring. “He didn't look very good doing it, but the wheels didn't come off, and he lived to fight another day.”
2015 outlook: On the right side, Boettger replaces fourth-round NFL draft pick Andrew Donnal. He’s had his hands full with senior defensive end Nate Meier in practice. Every rep between now and Sept. 5 becomes that much more urgent and meaningful. The good news is that Iowa doesn’t face any proven pass-rushing ends early in the schedule, so Iowa (and Boettger) might be able to stomach some growing pains.
2016 and beyond: Iowa under Kirk Ferentz has a proven track record of turning athletic bodies into all-American tackles (Robert Gallery and Scherff are two cases in point). Boettger may not win the Outland Trophy like those two top-five NFL draft picks did, but he has all the physical makings to become a great one by his senior year of 2017.
Josey Jewell, middle linebacker
Background: Iowa provided Jewell’s only major scholarship offer out of Decorah High School. As a redshirt freshman last fall, two unfortunate things happened to forge his unlikely path into the starting lineup: Reggie Spearman got busted for OWI and was suspended for two games, then next-man-in Travis Perry broke his leg covering a kick against Minnesota. Jewell started Iowa’s last four games of 2014 at weak-side linebacker and was named defensive MVP after recording 14 tackles in an otherwise forgettable TaxSlayer Bowl. Six days later, Kirk Ferentz named him the starting middle linebacker to replace departed senior Quinton Alston.
2015 outlook: The middle linebacker makes the defensive calls, which gives Jewell some ownership of the Iowa defense. While he's not flashy, Jewell’s depth-chart rise has a lot to do with smarts. “It's not all physical talent that allows to you make a (tackle for loss), to make a sack, to make a great play,” linebackers coach Jim Reid said in the spring. “It's having anticipation. It's reading the line of scrimmage. It's seeing the splits. It's knowing what the formation is. It's knowing what the down and distance is.”
2016 and beyond: Iowa’s last standout middle linebacker, James Morris, has a good chance to make the New England Patriots roster. Jewell isn’t in Morris’ class yet, but nobody on the roster is. Morris ranks No. 6 all-time in tackles at Iowa with 400 from 2010 to 2013; Jewell has 51. But if he can be a rock of stability for three years, Jewell might be at 300-plus by the end of 2017.
Derrick Mitchell Jr., running back
Background: The story of Mitchell’s conversion from wide receiver to running back has been well-told – him wowing coaches by impersonating Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon on the scout team in November. Iowa was one of the first schools to have offered Mitchell, who remained loyal to the Hawkeyes despite offers from the likes of Nebraska, Kansas State and others. The St. Louis, Mo., native was viewed as one of the Hawkeyes’ spring-game sensations and has quickly moved past Wadley to No. 3 in the running-back pecking order.
2015 outlook: Mitchell passes the “look” test. While still learning the nuances of running back, his 216-pound frame on a 6-1 body mixed with excellent agility and speed offer a tantalizing combination. He could be deployed in many different ways – perhaps lining up out wide, given his pass-catching acumen, or even step into the featured-back role if Daniels and/or Canzeri struggle or get hurt. “Probably in the future, that’ll come – me being in the slot, being out wide as the third-down back, bringing something different to the game,” Mitchell said.
2016 and beyond: If Mitchell continues to learn the position and progress, he could at minimum take over for Canzeri as Daniels’ 2016 sidekick, then be in position for the featured role as a senior. While coaches have expressed concerns about classmate Wadley’s weight control and ball security, the feedback on Mitchell has been all positive. He might just be the out-of-the-box play-maker Iowa needs.
Boone Myers, left tackle
Background: Myers came to Iowa in 2013 as a walk-on, 250-pound tight end from Webster City. Two years later, he’s up to 300 and the first choice to replace Outland Trophy-winning Scherff as Iowa’s starting left tackle. No pressure, right?
The Iowa offensive coordinator likes what he has seen in the offensive line, particularly with new tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger.
2015 outlook: Everyone who saw (or read about) the Aug. 15 Kids Day scrimmage knows that Myers had no success stopping defensive end Drew Ott. Left tackle has become the offense’s biggest red flag, which led Kirk Ferentz to say Myers was having a tougher time mentally than physically. “He’s a better football player than he thinks he is right now,” Ferentz said then. “But that’s part of practice.” Myers will more than likely have some visible struggles this season. But the coaches believe in him – don’t be surprised by a slow start, followed by a solid finish.
2016 and beyond: Iowa's last four multi-year starters at left tackle have ended up as first-round NFL draft picks. For Myers to follow in the footsteps of Gallery, Bryan Bulaga, Riley Reiff and Scherff wouldn’t be a surprise, given Ferentz’s left-tackle tradition. Live with the struggles now; reap the rewards from them later.
Ben Niemann, outside linebacker
Background: The Sycamore, Ill., native de-committed from Northern Illinois to take Iowa’s scholarship offer in the summer of 2013, and now as a true sophomore he might be the Hawkeyes’ most anticipated linebacker. He played almost entirely on special teams a year ago – famously blocking a Northwestern punt and scoring a touchdown on it – but then got thrust into extended game action in the TaxSlayer Bowl after starter Bo Bower's benching. Niemann has been on the No. 1 line at outside linebacker ever since.
2015 outlook: Niemann has beefed up his 6-3 frame to 225. How? “Eating everything in sight, basically,” he said. “I filled out a little bit, but I still have a lot of work to do in that area.” In open practices to the media, Niemann has shown a versatile skill set -- which he’ll need to fight off blocking offensive linemen while covering wide receivers. It’s a demanding position in Iowa’s base 4-3 scheme, so there might be some growing pains.
2016 and beyond: He’s drawn comparisons to A.J. Edds, who played sparingly as a true freshman in 2006 and then was a memorable three-year starter for the Hawkeyes at outside linebacker (albeit at 244 pounds), where he was second-team all-Big Ten as a senior. Niemann seems to be on a similar path, and he and Jewell could be third-year starters together in 2017.
Miles Taylor, strong safety
Background: Once committed to Georgia Tech, Taylor flipped after he said God led him to reconsider and take an official visit to Iowa City. His host on that trip? Current senior free safety Jordan Lomax. Now, the two are paired in Iowa’s starting secondary, with true sophomore Taylor at the strong position – despite just five tackles all of last year, four of them coming in a blowout of Northwestern. Taylor and redshirt freshman walk-on Brandon Snyder endured a hard-fought position battle in the spring to replace John Lowdermilk, and the hard-hitting native of Silver Spring, Md., appears to have won the job.
2015 outlook: The most famous strong safety of the Ferentz era also came from the East Coast – Bob Sanders of Erie, Pa., a future NFL defensive player of the year. See if this quote sounds familiar: “I like how (Iowa’s) safeties come down and hit. That's my game, so I like that.” That was what Taylor told Rivals.com upon committing to Iowa. With secondary being one of Iowa’s positions of strength in 2015 behind Lomax and experienced corners Desmond King and Greg Mabin, Taylor should have free reign to show how he can hit. (Ask LeShun Daniels about Taylor’s power; it was a Taylor tackle that briefly sidelined Daniels and put him in a red no-contact jersey early in fall camp.)
2016 and beyond: Taylor’s younger brother, linebacker Kyle, is one of Iowa’s 22 Class of 2016 commitments. So Miles Taylor’s impact will go beyond his final year of eligibility in 2017. If King doesn’t turn pro after his junior year and Taylor excels, Iowa’s 2016 defensive backfield could be superb.
James Daniels, offensive line
Background: The best thing the 17-year-old younger brother of LeShun did was enroll early at Iowa. Spring practice and four-star athleticism helped push James Daniels onto Iowa’s second-team offensive line during Kids Day. Although he’s lining up at guard for now, Daniels (6-4, 285) projects as a future center – in fact, he already holds the Iowa weight-room record in the 10-yard dash for centers (1.63 seconds).
2015 outlook: If Daniels plays this season, as is expected given Iowa’s dearth on the line and his depth-chart ascent, it’ll likely be at guard. Senior Jordan Walsh and sophomore Sean Welsh are the starters there, but Daniels appears to be gaining ground. “He looks pretty comfortable out there with the first two groups,” Ferentz said Monday. “We’ll see how it goes.” Even if Daniels doesn’t get starters' reps, any experience this year will be valuable.
2016 and beyond: Iowa’s search for a 2016 center may start and end with Daniels, who if successful could carry the job through 2018. Starter Austin Blythe is a senior, and senior Eric Simmons is the top backup. If Daniels can play up to his potential and Iowa’s sophomore tackles progress quickly, offensive line could suddenly be a strength through at least 2017.
Jay Scheel, wide receiver
Background: One of the most heralded members of Iowa’s Class of 2014, the product of Union High School in LaPorte City has had a turbulent last 16 months. He had knee surgery before arriving on campus and was never really right all last fall. He spread his wings in the spring, hauling in two catches for 23 yards while looking impressive in the spring game. He moved onto the depth chart’s second team entering fall camp, but he’s since fallen out of the top four – with junior former walk-on Riley McCarron taking that spot. Scheel was spotted in a red no-contact jersey after Monday’s practice, and Ferentz acknowledged a minor nick.
2015 outlook: Scheel is one of many freshmen – redshirt and true – who are being looked at as possible contributors in what receivers coach Bobby Kennedy wants to be a six-man rotation. His size (6-1, 195) and athleticism could be exactly what Iowa needs to produce more explosive plays. If healthy, a realistic expectation for Scheel would be 10 to 15 receptions.
2016 and beyond: Two of Iowa’s top three receivers are seniors in Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer. So while Scheel might get a hall pass to figure things out and get healthy this fall, he needs to become a play-making threat by 2016. Beathard would appreciate that, too.