Who's next? How the 2017 Hawkeyes must adjust after bowl game
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Alphabetical order allowed Iowa’s senior quarterback to start Friday’s Senior Day festivities.
C.J. Beathard trotted out to his family with a smile on his face, as a star and spokesman with one last chance to lead the Hawkeyes onto the field at Kinnick Stadium.
Thirteen classmates followed with different levels of excitement and emotion. Next season will kick off with new names and faces, but it’s hard to imagine the 2017 opener against Wyoming matching the intensity of Friday’s 40-10 win over Nebraska for the Hawkeyes who have to follow in these seniors’ footsteps.
“I think if you combine every aspect of the game, I think we played as good as we have all year,” Beathard said after Iowa’s third consecutive victory.
Twelve of the 14 seniors honored before Friday’s game got on the field against No. 15 Nebraska (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten). Offensive lineman Cole Croston and cornerback Greg Mabin, injured and wearing protective boots, walked out to ovations.
They were all mentioned and considered during the postgame celebration, even though their competitive playing days in Iowa City are now over.
“After the game I just kind of let all the emotions spill out,” Iowa tight end George Kittle said. “I’m just extremely passionate about this game. It’s fun.”
The Hawkeyes (8-4, 6-3) did not spend Friday night considering the future. Picking up their third straight win and the Hy-Vee Heroes Trophy made November’s difficult schedule feel special.
But the next time Kinnick’s crowd can see Iowa line up, units will look different.
“Really happy for them, the entire team,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Friday night. “But especially the seniors. To finish up in Kinnick in this kind of fashion … they just played one heck of a game.”
Here’s a quick rundown of what the Hawkeyes are losing with this senior class and who their replacements might be.
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Beathard left the field Friday tied for third in Iowa history with 21 wins as starting quarterback and still possessing the opportunity to surpass Matt Rodgers and Drew Tate in a bowl game. The Tennessee native has led the Hawkeyes to wins in seven of their past eight trophy games and has succeeded despite a statistical drop this season.
“I don’t really care about stats, to be honest,” Beathard said. “As long as we’re winning games.
“I’m not going to remember how many yards I threw for against Michigan. But I’ll remember the feeling I had in the locker room after the win.”
On the depth chart behind the tough senior quarterback are true freshman Nathan Stanley and sophomore Tyler Wiegers. Stanley has appeared in five games, going 5-for-8 passing for 62 yards. Wiegers has not played since making a brief appearance against Minnesota last year.
Leaving the backfield with Beathard is Iowa’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2011, powerful running back LeShun Daniels. Oft-injured and splitting duties this season with junior — and elusive heir apparent — Akrum Wadley, Daniels rolled over Nebraska to the tune of 158 yards and two touchdowns.
“Nobody has a better attitude than (Daniels),” Ferentz said. “I mean, he’s been so easy to coach for four years, and this year clearly he’s played his best football.”
A reeling receiving corps is losing its top target in former walk-on Riley McCarron. The Dubuque native caught 41 passes for 506 yards and four touchdowns this season, emerging after Matt VandeBerg’s injury, and had to feel good breaking free for a 77-yard touchdown against Nebraska.
VandeBerg is a senior but did not join the Senior Day line. He is expected to receive a medical redshirt, which should allow him to be eligible again next season. His availability would help alleviate the loss of McCarron and Kittle, the hard-nosed starting tight end.
Both of Kittle’s catches on Friday went for touchdowns, capping a 21-catch, four-score senior campaign in which he missed two November games to injury.
“I was going to play this week, regardless,” Kittle said. “Scoring two touchdowns is pretty cool, and I’ve never done it. Just being able to add on what we were doing the entire night … felt like we were rolling and couldn’t be stopped.”
His explosive blocking will be missed, but sophomore Peter Pekar started opposite him for most of the season and redshirt freshman Nate Wieting took run-game snaps in his absence.
Reserve offensive linemen Steve Ferentz, Mitch Keppy and Ryan Ward all saw action on Senior Day, but the biggest loss will be Croston. A former walk-on from Sergeant Bluff, Croston made 17 career starts and played the first five games of 2016 at left tackle. Junior Boone Myers took his spot starting in Week 6 and a leg injury has kept Croston out since. It's painful for the senior but beneficial for Iowa’s future continuity — all of Friday’s starters are expected to return next season.
“As a coach, you get to see how much guys invest and especially in our sport where we only get 12 games,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “The one thing about injuries, it’s nobody’s fault … you feel bad for them on a personal note.”
Senior defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie walked off the field Friday hand-in-hand. The 310-pounder from Illinois and the 290-pounder from Ontario will easily be the biggest losses to Iowa’s lineup in 2017.
Johnson has 54 tackles and a team-high 7.5 sacks entering the bowl game and will likely have pro football options.
“After the Penn State loss, we could have thrown the towel in or taken positive steps to move forward,” Johnson said. “We kept moving forward.”
Nathan Bazata started ahead of Ekakitie until an injury limited his snaps, but he’ll be the top returner as a senior inside. True freshman Cedrick Lattimore was listed behind Johnson on the depth chart, but he would need a major boost after seeing action in just five games and recording one tackle. Former Pella standout Garret Jansen has played in 11 games as a reserve.
The rotation of defensive ends will be back — adding five-star recruit A.J. Epenesa — and the entire linebacker corps has eligibility remaining. Junior middle linebacker Josey Jewell led the Big Ten in tackles this season and told the Register this week he’ll return for his senior season.
The secondary will take a thud with the loss of Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King. The All-American from Detroit received one of Friday’s loudest pregame roars when he hugged his mother, Yvette, near midfield, and he will go down as one of the top defensive backs in school history.
“It was everything I dreamed it could be,” King said. “Running out there and seeing my mom, I knew she was going to be crying. They were tears of joy, tears of happiness. I know she was very proud of what I’ve accomplished over the years here. And I’m proud to have such a great team behind my back.”
King has been credited with 268 tackles, 13 interceptions for 231 return yards and 33 pass break-ups in his career.
“It mean a lot to have my name under those titles, up there with Nile Kinnick, Chuck Long, guys like that, who have been tremendous here on and off the field,” King said. “The things I’ve contributed to the team, being captain, sacrificing to better the team, that would mean a lot to me. I’d be blessed to have that opportunity.”
Opposite King until Week 11 was Mabin, who recorded 37 tackles and three break-ups until a foot injury ended his regular season. Replacements include true freshman Manny Rugamba, redshirt freshman Michael Ojemudia and sophomore Josh Jackson, all of whom got loads of experience late in the season.
And a surprising addition to the key senior list was strong safety Anthony Gair, He spelled starter Miles Taylor after an early injury against No. 3 Michigan and held on to the job with aggressive performances, including five tackles against Nebraska.
Taylor and the rest of Iowa’s safeties are expected to return.
Ron Coluzzi only spent one season as a Hawkeye after transferring as a graduate from Central Michigan, but he made a gigantic impact to Ferentz’s team this fall. The Naperville, Ill., native booted 68 punts at an average of 41.2 yards per pop, with 33 being fair caught and 22 going inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“He’s just jumped right in, been part of our team, part of our culture,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “To see what he’s added to our group and what he’s contributed, but also the things that I think he’s enjoyed, those are just really special.”
Redshirt freshman punter Colten Rastetter took one kick in relief of Coluzzi this season, and it carried 42 yards.
No special teams report would be complete without King, again. The sensational cornerback was a constant threat as a punt and kick returner, too, averaging 9.8 yards per punt return and 27.2 yards per kick return. McCarron handled the rest of the punt return duties, including a 29-yard break on Friday.
Those big plays will be missed, but Ferentz thinks they’re being built into the program.
“Maybe as representative as anything was the block that Desmond King threw on Riley McCarron’s last punt return,” Ferentz said Friday night. “I think it was a great effort, and I think it represents the unselfishness this team has, the care they have for each other.”