Iowa Hawkeyes football: Five key questions for 2017 season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Will there be immediate ‘Brian Ferentz effect?’

It’s only Year 1 of Brian Ferentz’s takeover of the Iowa offense, but expectations are naturally high from a fan base that had grown frustrated with a perceived staleness from predecessor Greg Davis.

When Davis retired after the Hawkeyes spent much of 2016 searching in vain for a viable passing game, head coach Kirk Ferentz quickly turned to his oldest son to forge a different path. But how much different can it be immediately, with a scarcity of experience at wide receiver and a first-year starting quarterback yet to be named?

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“I’m taking on a job that certainly has challenges, expectations and an increased amount of scrutiny that comes with it. And you add my last name and my relationship with the head coach to the mix — there’s going to be added scrutiny,” Brian Ferentz, 34, said when he was promoted from offensive line coach last winter. “I don’t shy away from that, and I understand it.”

Kirk Ferentz has surrounded his son with mentors. Longtime Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe was brought back from the NFL to coach quarterbacks. Tim Polasek, who ran the offense at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, replaced Brian Ferentz as offensive line coach.

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz walks off the field with his players after their Spring Game on Friday, April 21, 2017, in Iowa City.

Ultimately this will be a chance for Brian Ferentz to showcase some new-school philosophies and bring a needed vigor to Iowa’s offense. It won’t be fair to judge his success after just one season — three or four years seems right — but in tailbacks Akrum Wadley and James Butler, in tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, Ferentz has some pieces to move around the field in search of big plays.

It was telling that, during a recent session with reporters, there was a gray hair or two peeking from beneath Brian Ferentz’s ballcap. His time in the spotlight has arrived, and it’ll be fascinating to watch it begin to play out.

How many names of wide receivers will you need to learn?

Matt VandeBerg, you know. He’s done everything at Kinnick Stadium from scorch secondaries to propose marriage. And he’s back for a fifth season after twice breaking his foot. If he’s returned to the athletic form he had at this time a year ago, the Hawkeyes have one reliable option in the passing game.

If not, it looks like wideout roulette. Iowa has plenty of bodies to throw onto the field – from junior-college transfer Nick Easley, to holdovers still looking to break through in Adrian Falconer and Devonte Young, to a bevy of eager freshmen including Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and Max Cooper.

One or two of them must produce. Or else it’s clear that Brian Ferentz won’t hesitate to throw extra tight ends onto the field, or send a tailback into the slot, to try to gain the yardage that his receiving corps can’t.

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Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers were still battling for the starting quarterback job at presstime. Neither will succeed without a solution to the receiver conundrum.

Should Iowa plan to retire A.J. Epenesa's No. 94 now?

OK, it’s premature to look that far ahead, but when has there ever been this much buzz about an incoming freshman who didn’t play a “skill position?” Epenesa is a 6-foot-5, 270-pound load to handle already at defensive end, and hasn’t begun yet to truly understand the nuances of the college game.

Look for the Hawkeyes to utilize his speed on the edge as much as possible, but don’t pigeonhole him as merely a pass-rushing freak. The five-star recruit from Edwardsville, Ill., is strong enough be an every-down player and figures to get a third of Iowa’s snaps from the get-go. Eventually, he may even move inside and play some tackle.

Iowa’s defensive line was a stout, veteran unit before Epenesa’s arrival. With a jolt from the rookie, it can move into elite status, starting this year.

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Will Iowa have two 1,000-yard rushers two years in a row?

Last year, it was the “AkShun” combination of Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. that gave opposing defenses fits, splitting carries so well that both remained fresh for 13 games. Daniels is off to the NFL now, but the jump-cut aficionado Wadley remains, and he’s joined by Nevada transfer Butler.

Butler has eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground the past two years and his sturdy frame (5-9, 215) is built to absorb punishment. The very welcome dilemma for Brian Ferentz is how to utilize both of them to peak production. And that means getting them on the field together at times. To that end, look for Wadley (5-11, 195) to line up in the slot or out wide, searching for mismatches.

Now, it’s just a matter of finding a suitable nickname for the duo. “Wadler” doesn’t quite cut it.

Will Kinnick karma strike again?

Last year, Michigan came to Iowa City for a night game, ranked third and ready to inflict a beatdown. But funny things happen under the lights at Kinnick Stadium, and the Wolverines got a punkin’ from Duncan. Hawkeye freshman Keith Duncan nailed a game-winning field goal as time expired, the stadium erupted and fans flowed onto the field for the high point of the season for Iowa.

This season, Penn State (ranked sixth in the preseason USA TODAY poll) and Ohio State (No. 2) come to Iowa City. Kickoff times have not been announced, but it’s a safe bet at least one of those games will be contested at night.

The Nittany Lions arrive for the Big Ten Conference opener, and the Hawkeyes would love to exact revenge for last season’s 41-14 whipping in State College. Ohio State comes to Kinnick on Nov. 4, a week after its showdown with Penn State. There will be plenty of drama surrounding both games, and Iowa figures to be heavy underdogs again.

That’s all the incentive the Hawkeyes need. Just ask Michigan.