Five key questions for Iowa football team entering 2018 season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Will there be a hole in the middle of the Iowa defense?

The last time the Hawkeyes had to replace three senior starting linebackers, there were some rough moments defending the run. Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris were a stout unit in 2013 and opponents averaged 128 rushing yards per game. In 2014, that number jumped to 168.

In time, youngsters Bo Bower, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann emerged as the next standout trio of Iowa linebackers.

And now they’re gone. Filling that void is the first order of business for Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker and linebackers coach Seth Wallace. They seem to have landed on two solid options — junior Amani Jones in the middle and sophomore Nick Niemann (Ben’s younger brother) on one side of him. Who gets that third spot, and how well he handles it, could be the key to the season for Iowa’s defense. September alone brings challenges on the ground in the form of Iowa State’s David Montgomery (1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns last year), Northern Iowa’s Marcus Weymiller (809 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games) and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (1,977 and 13).

RELATED:Establishing trust pivotal for Hawkeyes' fledgling linebacker unit

Amani Jones won't just be the man in the middle of media interviews for Iowa this season. He's also set to replace Josey Jewell in the middle of the Hawkeye defense. How well Jones and two other new starters perform at linebacker is one of the key questions entering 2018.

The battle seems to be among Djimon Colbert, Jack Hockaday, Barrington Wade and Kristian Welch. Welch had the edge heading into fall camp. Wade dealt with a minor injury early but is coming on strong. Colbert, a redshirt freshman who is a converted safety, is the darkhorse. Hockaday is the senior who could be the safe option. This contest could extend into the season, but eventually, Iowa needs to get it right.

Buckle up.

When will Kirk Ferentz make history, and will he acknowledge it?

Iowa’s 20th-year head coach enters 2018 tied with Hayden Fry for the most victories in program history at 143. Fry made his mark in 20 seasons in Iowa City as well. It’s remarkable symmetry for the two men who have symbolized Iowa football for generations of fans.

But Ferentz has made it clear that he’s grown weary of being asked about his place in Hawkeye history. He tied Fry’s win mark at the Pinstripe Bowl just before the New Year and it’s been a talking point ever since.

Obviously, Ferentz would love to achieve win No. 144 in the season opener vs. Northern Illinois. Then it wouldn’t be an issue heading into Cy-Hawk week. But whenever it happens, don’t expect Ferentz to be drenched in Gatorade and riding on his players’ shoulders off the Kinnick Stadium turf. It’s not his style. He’s justifiably proud of his link to Fry, one of his former mentors. But Ferentz will flip the switch quickly, and happily, once his record is in the book.

Who will punt the football, and how important is this?

If punting is winning, in the words of a popular-but-snarky phrase Hawkeye fans use on social media, then doing so ineffectively must equate to losing, right? Well, it certainly doesn’t help matters.

Last year, Iowa ranked 89th out of 129 FBS teams with a net average on punts of 36.93 yards. That was 10th in the Big Ten Conference. That is hardly a winning number. Also consider that Iowa averaged six punts per game against Big Ten opponents. That’s a lot of ground that could be covered if improvement is made in the punt game.

The Hawkeyes will look to the same two punters this season — junior Colten Rastetter and sophomore Ryan Gersonde. Consistent excellence from either would be a big boost.

Iowa’s position battles this fall mainly center around backup spots — with offensive line and cornerback chief among those. Punter isn’t as important as finding a third linebacker, certainly, but don’t underestimate the significance of this competition.

Is the Nebraska series about to become much more competitive?

The Hawkeyes have feasted on the Cornhuskers the past two Black Fridays, to the tune of 96-24. That hastened the end of the Mike Riley era in Lincoln. The coach was dismissed approximately 42 seconds after last year’s debacle ended.

Nebraska has turned to former star quarterback Scott Frost to take the chill out of its fan base. And the 43-year-old looks like he might be the man to turn things around. If not this year, then soon.

That’s great news for fans that would love to see Nebraska-Iowa become more of a classic rivalry and less of whatever the past two seasons have been. The game is nationally televised after all, and there is a trophy at stake.

This year, the Cornhuskers come to Iowa City on Nov. 23 for an 11 a.m. kickoff on Fox-TV. The stakes may be high if either of these teams are poised to knock Wisconsin off of its perch atop the Big Ten West. But even if that’s not the case, this game will provide a glimpse of where this series is headed. Don’t expect those blowouts to last forever, Hawkeye fans.

Will Senior Day also be a farewell to key Hawkeye juniors?

That Nebraska game will mark the end of the Kinnick road for 13 Hawkeye seniors. It’s a small class led by stalwart Parker Hesse, who figures to be making his 46th start at defensive end that morning.

But the intrigue will again be which players among a talented junior class might be playing in their home finale. Last season, it was center James Daniels and cornerback Josh Jackson who departed early for the NFL.

This year?

Tight end Noah Fant seems a near-certain bet to move up a level after three seasons in college. He’s already being mentioned as a potential first-round NFL draft pick.

He’s not the only junior who may have a decision to make, however. Defensive end Anthony Nelson is an elite pass-rusher, and everyone knows how valuable those are in the modern NFL. Safety Amani Hooker looks like the next gifted athlete who could emerge from Iowa’s secondary and find a place quickly on an NFL roster. And don’t get too attached to quarterback Nate Stanley. If he shows improved accuracy from a year ago, he certainly has the size and arm strength that NFL teams covet.

There are two other Hawkeye redshirt sophomores that could be longshot NFL prospects this year — tight end T.J. Hockenson and offensive tackle Alaric Jackson. It’s hard to imagine all six of those athletes taking the plunge at once, but whoever opts to leave, that would be a lot of talent walking out of Kinnick Stadium for good.

The lesson for fans: As early entrants to the NFL draft become more commonplace, you can never be sure exactly who you’re waving goodbye to in the season’s final home game. It’s best to salute them all, and then hope they find a place on your favorite NFL team.