TAMPA, Fla. — The starting lineup that Iowa will deploy in the Outback Bowl against Florida is taking final shape.
First, the good news for the Hawkeyes: It looks like all-Big Ten Conference right tackle Cole Croston, who barely played a snap in November with a lower-leg injury, will return to action.
Croston, a fifth-year senior, was working out with Iowa’s No. 1 offensive line during a 25-minute portion of Wednesday’s practice that was open to media.
The media got about 25 minutes to soak in Wednesday's practice at Tampa University.
“Everything’s looking good right now (for Croston),” head coach Kirk Ferentz said in his final news conference before Monday’s noon CST kickoff on ABC.
“We’ll see what he looks like this week. Hopefully, he can play.”
Iowa’s starting line looks to be (left to right) composed of Boone Myers, Ike Boettger, James Daniels, Sean Welsh and Croston.
The Hawkeyes’ second unit Wednesday was Ryan Ward, Keegan Render (who made seven starts this season, the same number as Croston), Lucas LeGrand, Levi Paulsen and Dalton Ferguson.
Iowa’s run-game health is probably the most important ingredient to its chances for the program’s first bowl victory since 2010. The Hawkeyes don’t throw the ball well, and the Gators have the nation’s third-best pass defense.
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On the other side of the ball, Ferentz announced that fifth-year senior Anthony Gair would start at strong safety. A seldom-used player throughout his career, Gair took over for 23-game starter Miles Taylor early against Michigan and has played good football.
Ferentz said he thought both Gair and Taylor would play Monday.
“It’s not a knock on Miles. They’re both good players,” Ferentz said. “But he’s gone in and played well (for) three games.
“Anthony’s one of the good stories. I talk about for us to have a good season, we need good stories, and certainly he’s one of the good ones.”
Now, the bad news. True freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba, who started Iowa’s last three games in place of out-for-the-season Greg Mabin, won’t return from his shoulder injury. That means sophomore Joshua Jackson will make his first career start, and Iowa enters the game with just three available cornerbacks: Jackson, Desmond King and Michael Ojemudia.
“We’re not going to pull a redshirt off anybody,” Ferentz said. “We’re out of guys. I suppose we could move somebody from the inside to the outside, but I’d have to think about that one for a while.”
Catching up with Barta
With one game to go, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta wasn’t ready to make a final assessment of the Hawkeye football season. But he did speak on a handful of topics Wednesday with a group of reporters.
On upcoming NCAA legislation: Barta thinks the addition of a 10th full-time assistant coach will be approved, as well as some kind of early-signing period for recruits. Barta is pushing for an August signing day for football, in addition to the current one in February, that would allow prospects to take official visits during the summer.
It sounds like the solution will be a compromise.
“I’ve heard August, December or no change,” Barta said. “If we have to modify and go to December, I guess that’d be fine, but I’d be supportive of August.”
Barta and Ferentz also want to put a cap on football support-staff sizes, but right now that issue doesn’t have momentum.
The athletic director spoke about Kirk Ferentz's job performance after an 8-4 regular season.
On ticket sales: Iowa has fewer than 1,000 tickets left in its allotment of 8,500 for the game.
“And I know from talking to the bowl that Hawkeye fans are buying directly from the bowl,” Barta said. “So I know we’ll have a big contingent.”
On football scheduling: Iowa’s next opening is on the 2019 nonconference schedule. Miami of Ohio (home) and Iowa State (road) are on the books.
“We’re close on a couple of conversations,” Barta said, “but not yet ready to announce.”
Florida's new approach
Iowa has been trying to change its bowl-preparation approach to put an end to a miserable run of four straight bowl losses.
Well, even in Year 2 under Jim McElwain, Florida is trying, too.
The Gators were embarrassed by Michigan, 41-7, in last year's Citrus Bowl. While Iowa has tried to make this more of a business trip, McElwain wants his young team to focus on the mental side of this week.
He's been encouraged to see his players watching extra film on their own here.
"I think the big thing was the mindset going in. We talked about your opportunity to be proud of what you put on film," McElwain said. "And no matter what you're striving for, any time you're on film, you're being evaluated, whether you're a young guy going into next year, whether you're an older guy that's going on to the next level. Here's the opportunity for you to prove yourself."
Desmond does the drop; Jaleel doesn't
Desmond King conquered Falcon’s Fury. Fellow first-team all-Big Ten defender Jaleel Johnson did not.
Johnson was happy to opt out of the 335-foot, freestanding drop tower during the Hawkeyes’ Busch Gardens visit Wednesday.
“Couldn’t do the drop. I’m actually terrified of heights,” said Johnson, the Hawkeyes’ fearless 310-pound run clogger on the football field. “I can do a roller coaster but … Falcon’s Fury? Can’t do it. Can’t do the Falcon’s Fury.”
King, the two-time all-America cornerback, braved the ride with teammate LeShun Daniels Jr., and lived to tell about it.
The likely first- or second-round NFL Draft pick joked that his insurance policy might not have included amusement-ride accidents.
“I felt like I was going to slip out of that seat,” King said. “I prayed to God that me and LeShun would make it back down safely.”