Hawkeyes columnkst Chad Leistikow lays down his predictions for how he thinks teams will fare in the Big Ten Conference this season. Aaron Young
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team returns enough high-end talent to be the prohibitive favorites to win a second consecutive Big Ten West title this fall.
But what lies beneath that glossy surface should concern Hawkeye fans and will be the primary focus of the team’s four-week runup to its Sept. 3 opener against Miami of Ohio.
How deep is this Iowa squad, how capable of withstanding injuries? On offense, there’s little experience on the second string beyond the running back position. On defense, the edge positions are dotted with unknowns on the line. Depth at cornerback is iffy (beyond Iowa's pair of proven starters). By the time you start looking at kickers and punters, well, you’ll definitely want to check back in a month for a progress report there.
Below is a position-by-position look at where the Hawkeyes stand entering August camp, which began Thursday, with a depth confidence graded on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most confident):
Locked-in: Senior C.J. Beathard (6-2, 215) showed last year that he’s a tough guy who can play well despite injury. He guided the offense to 31 points per game and a 12-2 record even with a torn groin muscle and a date with a surgeon in January to correct a sports hernia problem. He’s healthy now, and Iowa will need him to stay that way.
August camp intrigue: It’s very simple – keep developing sophomore Tyler Wiegers (6-4, 225) to a point where he can fill in should Beathard be sidelined (and hope that this does not occur). Wiegers completed 3-of-4 passes a year ago, but coaches have been impressed with his development. Redshirt freshman Drew Cook (6-5, 230) is the No. 3 guy for now, but he and true freshman Nathan Stanley (6-5, 212) will spend most of their time on the scout team. If Stanley doesn’t end up redshirting, then something has gone horribly awry for the Hawkeyes.
Depth confidence: 4. Iowa is all-in on Beathard, and needs to be. He gives the Hawkeyes a shot to win every game; his understudies will get their chance to battle for playing time in the spring.
Locked-in: LeShun Daniels Jr. (6-0, 225) and Akrum Wadley (5-11, 191) are a potent one-two punch at tailback, combining for 1,142 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns last season. Junior Derrick Mitchell Jr. (6-1, 220) is an intriguing third option after picking up 303 combined yards a year ago.
August camp intrigue: The fullback position (and Iowa will often use one) is up in the air as August begins, the battle seeming to be between junior Drake Kulick (6-1, 236) and redshirt freshman Brady Ross (6-1, 240). At tailback, it’s a matter of establishing a pecking order beyond those top three. Incoming freshmen Toks Akinribade (6-0, 205) and Toren Young (5-11, 220) will get every shot to move ahead of sophomore Marcel Joly (5-11, 195) as the No.4 guy, and early indications are that Akinribade is making a strong push for immediate playing time.
Running backs coach Chris White said he doesn't really look at it as the Hawkeyes having a clear No. 1 tailback. "I really think all three of them could be starters," he said Saturday. "It's playing the hot hand, but we're going to give LeShun every opportunity to be it."
Depth confidence: 8. This isn’t a 10 only because Iowa needs to identify a fullback, which it undoubtedly will do soon. This is the strongest position group on offense.
More media day coverage:
Wide receivers/tight ends
Locked-in: Senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg (6-1, 190) and senior tight end George Kittle (6-4, 250) combined for 85 catches and 10 touchdowns last year and give Beathard two sure-handed targets. Senior wide receiver Riley McCarron (5-9, 186) figures to get the first shot at being the slot option but only caught five passes a year ago.
August camp intrigue: Sophomores Jerminic Smith (6-1, 187) and Jay Scheel (6-1, 195) are battling to emerge as the starting split end. Smith has the edge in experience after playing in 13 games last season, but Scheel has long been a tantalizing figure for Hawkeye fans based on the flashes of talent shown in spring games. Beathard needs a deep option, and at least one of these two needs to make a big step forward. Sophomore Adrian Falconer (6-1, 190) and converted quarterbackRyan Boyle (6-1, 208) will vie for a role. And true freshman Devonte Young (6-0, 195) has the speed to become a potential breakout star early. At tight end, there is no experience behind Kittle, which is troubling for a team that likes to feature two- and even three-tight end sets. Juniors Peter Pekar (6-4, 250) and Jon Wisnieski (6-5, 250) are next in line. But there are two redshirt freshmen and three true freshmen in camp that may get their shot sooner rather than later.
Scheel is generating the most buzz, again. "He’s made a lot of big plays. He’s a guy that has definitely jumped out to me and I think a lot of the guys on the team and coaches," Beathard said Saturday. "He’s had a great three days so far, it’s just a matter of him stacking good days on top of each other.”
Depth confidence: 5. There are a lot of numbers here, and Beathard is the kind of quarterback who can make average receivers look very good. But VandeBerg and Kittle need to be constants in order for this all to work.
Locked-in: If you believe ESPN, this is the best line in America. So no worries, right? And the projected starters do look like a sturdy lot. Those are (left to right) senior Cole Croston (6-5, 307), junior Boone Myers (6-5, 305), junior Sean Welsh (6-3, 290), sophomore James Daniels (6-4, 295) and junior Ike Boettger (6-6, 307). Sophomore Keegan Render (6-4, 308) is listed as the backup at right guard and provides a solid sixth option.
August camp intrigue: Counting on six linemen to take all the snaps in a 12-game season is unwise. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his son, Brian, who mentors the offensive line, are known for churning out talented blockers and they’ll have their work cut out for them to quickly mold some depth. The top contenders are seniors Steve Ferentz (6-2, 282) and Ryan Ward (6-5, 295), sophomores Lucas LeGrand (6-5, 290) and Dalton Ferguson (6-4, 310), and redshirt freshman Brett Waechter (6-5, 290). There are nine other hopefuls in camp, four of them true freshmen.
Depth confidence: 6. The starting unit is impressive and, if Iowa’s history is to be trusted, enough capable fill-ins will emerge. If needed.
Locked-in: Seniors Jaleel Johnson (6-4, 310) and Faith Ekakitie (6-3, 290), along with junior Nathan Bazata (6-2, 285), give Iowa a stout trio of defensive tackles. Johnson certainly has the makings of a future NFLer.
August camp intrigue: Defensive end is the glaring hole on what otherwise appears to be a terrific Hawkeye unit. Who will replace Drew Ott and Nate Meier — and their 12 sacks — will be the biggest story line of the month. Sophomores Matt Nelson (6-8, 282) and Parker Hesse (6-3, 250) are the presumed starters, with redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson (6-7, 253) the likely third man in. Beyond that, it is hoped that sophomore Sam Brincks (6-5, 270) can become a dependable option. But that’s where the experience ends (no pun intended). Five true freshmen will try to make a big impression early, and there certainly is some size there so keep an eye on this one.
The unit has taken a bit of a hit because redshirt freshman Michael Slater (6-2, 285) has not been able to practice so far, coach Kirk Ferentz revealed Saturday. Slater is still recovering from offseason surgery.
Depth confidence: 4. But only because the defensive tackle situation, which includes junior Jake Hulett (6-3, 285), is not a big worry.
Locked-in: Junior Josey Jewell (6-2, 235) is a football star/folk hero in the making at middle linebacker, in the mold of Pat Angerer and Abdul Hodge among past Hawkeye greats. Junior Ben Niemann (6-3, 230) and sophomore Aaron Mends (6-0, 223) will surround him with speed and strength. Junior Bo Bower (6-1, 235) can back them all up when needed.
August camp intrigue: Sophomore Jack Hockaday (6-1, 227) and redshirt freshman Angelo Garbutt (6-2, 230) are the young bucks rising up the depth chart, so it will be interesting to see how ready they are to contribute right away.
Depth confidence: 7. Losing Jewell for any time would be devastating, but there are strong options throughout this unit, and it should be a strength.
Locked-in: Or should it be locked-down? Cornerback Desmond King (5-11, 203) returns for a senior season after winning the Thorpe Award as a junior. No one has ever won that twice, but don’t put that past King, whose only problem may be opposing teams that are afraid to test him. Senior Greg Mabin (6-2, 200) will man the other corner and he’s no slouch either. The starting safeties will be junior Miles Taylor (5-11, 205) and sophomore Brandon Snyder (6-1, 210). Senior Anthony Gair (6-2, 210), a three-year letter winner, provides more experience at the back end of the defense.
August camp intrigue: Can Iowa afford to ever take King and Mabin off the field? There’s not a lot of proven depth behind the cornerbacks, with redshirt freshman Michael Ojemudia (6-2, 190) and sophomore Josh Jackson (6-1, 185) listed as the backups and nickelback hopefuls. Hawkeye coaches will hope a freshman or two can open some eyes in the next four weeks.
Depth confidence: 6. Like the offensive line, the starters here should make this a clear position of strength throughout the fall. Any newcomers who earn playing time would be a bonus.
Locked-in: Junior long-snapper Tyler Kluver (6-0, 220) is the only letter-winner on this unit. That, at least, should be comforting for the slew of punters and kickers hoping to make their marks.
August camp intrigue: Sophomores Miguel Recinos (6-1, 190) and Mick Ellis (5-10, 190) will try to emerge as the placekicker, with true freshmen Caleb Shudak (5-8, 175) and Keith Duncan (5-11, 165) also taking their best shot. At punter, graduate transfer Ron Coluzzi (5-11, 182) is battling redshirt freshman Colton Rastetter (6-2, 205) for the job. These positions are too vital to be overlooked amid the excitement and questions elsewhere.
Depth confidence: 1. There is no depth yet, but Iowa coaches will want to figure these spots out early. If the Big Ten season dawns with no clear winners, it could be trouble for a team expecting to contend for a championship.