Ten building blocks for Iowa football team

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team is a week away from beginning a 2016 season filled with high expectations based on last season’s 12-2 record and plenty of returning star power.

But an important foundation will be laid for autumns to come as young players are called on — many for the first time — to fill vital roles. They will become the leaders of 2017 and 2018 teams that will try to build on the momentum achieved last year.

Iowa linebacker Aaron Mends, celebrating the victory over Nebraska last year, could be a hard-to-contain mainstay for the Hawkeye defense for three more seasons.

Here are 10 potential “building blocks” for Iowa’s future, all players who will have at least two years of eligibility remaining whenever and wherever this season ends. We have chosen five offensive players and five defensive, five sophomores and five freshmen. 

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James Daniels, offensive lineman

Background: The “little” brother of Hawkeye tailback LeShun Daniels Jr. made an immediate impact after arriving in Iowa City last year at just 17 years old. A four-star recruit out of Warren, Ohio, Daniels quickly showed he had the talent and smarts to go head to head with players with four more years of experience than him, playing in all 14 games in 2015.

2016 outlook: Daniels (6-foot-4, 295 pounds) is projected to be the right guard, but may find his true home as a center, the quarterback of the offensive line. When he plays right guard, junior Sean Welsh takes over at center. That’s a plus duo for Iowa no matter how they line up.

2017 and beyond: Daniels figures to be a mainstay on Iowa’s offensive line for two seasons to come, probably at center, which is his natural position. The son of former Ohio State offensive lineman LeShun Daniels has the pedigree, the poise and, most importantly, the speed and strength to be among Iowa’s all-time best at his position. And that’s saying something.

Joshua Jackson, cornerback

Background: The Texas native was briefly moved to wide receiver in 2015 before returning to the defensive side of the ball, where he saw action in every game. Jackson made eight tackles and broke up two passes while gaining vital experience and confidence. His emergence was likely a factor in senior cornerback Maurice Fleming’s decision to transfer to West Virginia this spring.

2016 outlook: Jackson (6-1, 185) enters the season as the potential third corner at Iowa — behind seniors Desmond King and Greg Mabin — but could start for many teams. He’ll be the first option to play in nickel packages, and showed terrific coverage skills in Iowa’s Kids Day scrimmage this month, even intercepting quarterback C.J. Beathard once.

2017 and beyond: Jackson hopes to be first in line to replace King, and that could be a daunting task. He may never be a Thorpe Award winner, but he could pair with redshirt freshman Michael Ojemudia to give the Hawkeyes a solid cornerback tandem for two more years.

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Aaron Mends, linebacker

Background: Everyone raves about Mends’ strength. But he is more than just a weight-room wonder. He got on the field in 13 games last year, with four tackles and a blocked punt, and rose to the top of the depth chart in the spring at weakside linebacker.

2016 outlook: Mends (6-0, 223) was battling junior Bo Bower for a starting role, but even if he winds up as the fourth linebacker, where he is currently listed, he could have a significant impact on Iowa’s fortunes. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker touted Mends as a strong option to play in Iowa’s special pass-rushing packages. Remember his sack against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game? It may become a more familiar sight this fall.

2017 and beyond: With more strength, speed and experience, Mends could be deployed as the “wild card” in Iowa’s defense, lining up all over the field and forcing opposing offenses to account for him or pay the price. He has the skill but must demonstrate the consistency.

Jay Scheel, wide receiver

Background: He’s been the source of hype for two injury-hindered seasons at Iowa and is almost sheepish about all the attention being paid to someone with no collegiate receptions on his resume. But there’s no ignoring Scheel’s talent; teammates and coaches are constantly pointing to him as a potential difference-maker.

2016 outlook: Scheel (6-1, 195) once again has climbed to the top of the depth chart at split end, where he was in competition with fellow sophomore Jerminic Smith this offseason. He was slowed slightly by a hamstring injury this summer, but all signs point to him finally getting on the field. He’s the likeliest option to become the deep threat that Beathard craves.

2017 and beyond: So much depends on what Scheel is able to accomplish this season. If he stays healthy, and if he fulfills his long-held promise, he could be a big-play option for whichever novice quarterback is chosen to replace Beathard. And that would provide a lot of comfort for offensive coordinator Greg Davis.

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Brandon Snyder, safety

Background: Arriving as a walk-on out of West Lyon High School, Snyder quickly impressed Iowa coaches with his practice habits, earning team leader awards on both defense and special teams while redshirting in 2014. Last year, playing on both of those units, he picked up 11 tackles in 14 games and added a team hustle award. He was named the starter at free safety this spring and put on scholarship this summer.

2016 outlook: Snyder (6-1, 210) looks to be in the mold of past Hawkeye safeties such as Derek Pagel, Sean Considine and Brett Greenwood. He is praised as a quick learner. He clearly loves to hit. The only question is his speed. Snyder may make some mistakes early, but look for him to settle into his role as the season goes on. Surrounded by experienced players like King, Mabin and junior strong safety Miles Taylor, Snyder should round out a first-rate secondary.

2017 and beyond: Free safeties are the leaders of defenses, and Snyder appears to be a natural at that aspect. This position is in great hands at Iowa, as it always seems to be.

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Toks Akinribade, tailback

Background: It’s pronounced “Toeks A-KIN-ri-body.” Fans will want to get used to saying that name from the outset. Akinribade arrives after a standout career at Brownsburg High School in Indiana that included 59 touchdowns and he chose Iowa over Michigan, among others. In the Kids Day scrimmage, the first time Hawkeye fans got a look at him, he showed a tantalizing mix of power and elusiveness.

2016 outlook: The only problem for Akinribade (6-0, 205) is that he’s situated behind three experienced tailbacks in his first year (Daniels, Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr.). Barring injury, his playing time may consist of mop-up duty. But look for him to force his coaches’ hands sooner rather than later. Running backs coach Chris White doesn’t miss an opportunity to talk up Akinribade.

2017 and beyond: Wadley and Mitchell will have one more year of eligibility, but Akinribade should certainly find a larger role in the offense in Year Two. He appears to be in the mold of the more prototypical first- and second-down back, a ball-carrier who can handle a heavy workload while wearing down defenses. Especially as he adds some size. Of course, next year highly touted incoming freshman Eno Benjamin may be on this list and pushing him for playing time. It looks as if Iowa will have an embarrassment of riches in its tailback derby for years to come.

T.J. Hockenson, tight end

Background: The Chariton native holds every pass-catching record at his school, including 49 career touchdowns. He stood out the most among a crowded field of young tight ends at the Kids Day scrimmage, with a team-high three receptions.

2016 outlook: There is immediate playing time available at a position that Iowa values more than many schools, and Hockenson (6-5, 230) could work his way on to the field in his first year (so could true freshman Noah Fant). Senior George Kittle is the only experienced tight end for the Hawkeyes entering the season. Jon Wisnieski, who was battling fellow junior Peter Pekar to be Kittle’s primary backup, is out with a knee injury. There probably wouldn’t be many passes thrown Hockenson’s way if he does play, but proving himself a capable blocker would be a good first step for him.

2017 and beyond: Once Kittle graduates, the search for a pass-catching tight end will begin in earnest. Hockenson, Fant and redshirt freshmen Nate Vejvoda and Nate Wieting all will look to fill the void. If Hockenson can emerge at the top of that large heap, he would have three years to make his mark.

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Cedrick Lattimore, defensive tackle

Background: A defensive end at East English Village Prep in the Detroit area (the same school that produced Desmond King), Lattimore was quickly shifted to defensive line this summer. He has already put on 25 pounds, up to 285 on his 6-5 frame, and looks the part of an interior lineman. He had 17 sacks as a high school senior.

2016 outlook: An injury to Jake Hulett opened the door for Lattimore and he has barged through to be the No. 4 option at defensive tackle. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker, cautioning that Lattimore still has much to learn, said he nevertheless is in line to play right away, and not just in specialty packages. Look for Lattimore to see action from the outset, Saturday against Miami of Ohio (a school that also recruited him). He should be a solid contributor this season backing up Nathan Bazata and Jaleel Johnson.

2017 and beyond: There will be a starting spot open next year, after Johnson graduates, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lattimore earn that. He may even be approaching 300 pounds by that time. That would give him three more years to grow into the role of hard-to-move run-stopper.

Anthony Nelson, defensive end

Background: The Urbandale native and Waukee graduate redshirted last season and worked his way up to second string in the spring. Nelson’s father, Jeff, started on the defensive line at Iowa in 1991 and ’92.

2016 outlook: Nelson (6-7, 250) is a fantastic athlete who may be the most gifted pass-rusher among a young quartet of defensive ends. He is listed as a co-starter along with sophomore Matt Nelson, but defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Anthony could be the third-down option when the Hawkeyes are looking to bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks. He has a great chance to be the team’s leader in sacks whether or not he starts.

2017 and beyond: As he adds weight, Nelson only figures to be a more disruptive force to opposing offenses. Whether he ever becomes an every-down player, he could certainly carve out a legacy as a long-limbed pass-rusher supreme.

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Nathan Stanley, quarterback

Background: Injured during his junior year at Menomonie (Wis.) High School, Stanley posted modest numbers as a senior (1,728 yards and 16 touchdowns) while playing in a wing-T offense. Perhaps that was why he was not heavily recruited and became the first player to commit to Iowa’s 2016 class. By the time he arrived, though, Stanley was the only four-star recruit in that class. He showed a big arm and a deft touch during the Kids Day scrimmage and already is battling redshirt sophomore Tyler Wiegers for second-string status.

2016 outlook: Iowa would love to be able to redshirt Stanley (6-5, 212) and trust Wiegers to handle any snaps that Beathard can’t, but things don’t always go according to plan. It’s certainly possible that the true freshman gets his feet wet this fall. If so, it will be a testament to his talent and ability to quickly pick up the playbook.

2017 and beyond: Stanley has clearly put himself in the discussion to be the starting quarterback once Beathard graduates. Wiegers will have some say in that, of course, but if Stanley beats him out, the reins would be his for three full seasons, with loads of promising young wide receivers at his disposal. Quarterback prospects often generate the most fervor among fans. This is one time it may be justified.

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