Five big questions facing Iowa football in 2016

Mark Emmert

Will C.J. Beathard be healthy for a full season?

That brace on his left knee? Hawkeye fans better hope that's not an omen for the season to come for star quarterback C.J. Beathard. His health is of vital importance to a team favored to win a second consecutive Big Ten West title.

There’s no question that Iowa’s senior quarterback is tough. He can play with pain, having started all 14 games last season even after suffering a torn groin muscle in Week 3.

But injury concerns are always part of the Beathard narrative. He had offseason hernia surgery. He had a shoulder issue that kept him out of the spring game. He missed three practices this summer with a bruised knee and showed up for the Kids Day scrimmage wearing a brace on it.

Beathard insists that he’s fine, and the Hawkeyes need him at peak health. Not only is he regarded by many as the top senior quarterback prospect in the country, but there’s no experienced backup to stand in for Beathard if he needs some time off. Sophomore Tyler Wiegers is even being pushed by true freshman Nathan Stanley for the second spot on the depth chart.

Beathard at 100 percent is a mobile, accurate nightmare to defend. He gives Iowa a chance to win every game this fall. A gimpy Beathard? Hawkeye fans don’t want to contemplate that scenario.

Who will catch Beathard’s passes?

Senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg had 65 receptions last year. Senior tight end George Kittle had only 20, but six of them were touchdowns. That’s a strong starting point, but not nearly enough for sustained offensive success.

Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr. are good receiving options out of the backfield, but someone will need to provide a deep threat to keep defenses honest. That could be the always touted-but-rarely seen Jay Scheel, a sophomore who has yet to catch a pass in a game but has impressed teammates and coaches with his skill set. Riley McCarron and Jerminic Smith combined for 11 catches a year ago; could one or both be ready to make a big leap? Is there an answer contained in a large group of unproven receivers that includes Adrian Falconer, Ronald Nash and converted quarterback Ryan Boyle? How about true freshman Devonte Young?

Somewhere in that jumble of names, Iowa needs to locate a star. The good news is Beathard is capable of helping create one.

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Who will put the heat on opposing quarterbacks?

It’s well-documented that Iowa’s defensive ends are young — sophomores Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks, plus redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson make up the top four. The best-case scenario is that that quartet grows into a pass-rushing dynamo in the early weeks of the season and proves capable of replicating the production of last year’s starters, Nate Meier and Drew Ott. Anthony Nelson seems to be most likely to fill that void.

Failing that, look for Iowa to blitz more from an experienced linebacker grouping that includes Josey Jewell, Bo Bower, Ben Niemann and Aaron Mends. Or maybe that’s an extra dimension the Hawkeyes get from the nation’s best cornerback, Desmond King.

Whatever it takes, Iowa needs to find ways to rattle the slew of young quarterbacks it will face this season, starting with Miami of Ohio sophomore Billy Bahl on Sept. 3.

Who will be the place-kicker?

Graduate transfer Ron Coluzzi seems to have earned punting and kickoff duties. That’s one big special teams question answered. Now, which of three young kickers will be called on to attempt crucial extra points and field goals?

Freshman Keith Duncan figures to get the first chance and was listed atop the depth chart Iowa released Friday. Sophomores Mick Ellis and Miguel Recinos also could get a look early to see who can handle the pressure.

Last year, Marshall Koehn handled the kicking, providing the winning margin against Pitt with a 57-yard field goal. Five other Hawkeye games were decided by eight points or less, making them one-possession games.

Kicking is like car insurance: You only think about it when you really need it, but then it’s almost all you think about. Iowa fans are hoping that a safe choice emerges soon.

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Can Iowa repeat as Big Ten West champions?

Hawkeyes and hype are rarely synonymous. But that’s certainly the case this year, like it or not.

Iowa is ranked 15th in the coaches’ poll and is the popular choice to win the West. There are even whispers of the Hawkeyes as a dark-horse option to claim a national championship.

That’s what a 12-2 record brings. That’s what having top-tier talent like Beathard, King, Kittle and Jewell brings. That’s what having a favorable schedule brings.

The only ranked opponent on Iowa’s slate is Michigan, and that game is at Kinnick Stadium, under the lights. Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska also come to Iowa City. The toughest road game may be at Minnesota (or possibly Penn State). Every game appears to be winnable.

It’s not in Iowa’s DNA to be cocky — not while being coached by the even-keeled Kirk Ferentz — but this year’s team must embrace the target on its back. The Hawkeyes have the most talent in the Big Ten West and deserve to have a bit of swagger. The surprise should be if they don’t end up playing in Indianapolis again.