As extra eligibility looms, several Iowa football seniors focus on Illinois, strong finish
Iowa's final home game on Saturday against Illinois holds significance for two reasons: Big Ten West division implications and a pregame ceremony for a group that head coach Kirk Ferentz described as "special" this week.
Sixteen Iowa football seniors will be honored on senior day at Kinnick Stadium. COVID-19 prevented last year's class from having a packed house but this year's players will receive a proper send-off.
Illinois coach Bret Bielema's absence from the game is one reminder of COVID's still-present impact on college football. Another reminder is what directly affects the Iowa seniors.
Because of last season's uncertainty, the NCAA granted every player an extra year of eligibility. Some seniors such as defensive players Matt Hankins and Zach VanValkenburg will certainly play in Kinnick for the last time, but others such as Charlie Jones, Riley Moss and Kyler Schott have a decision to make: one more year at Iowa or pursue the NFL.
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"I'm going to treat (Saturday's game) as it is my last, but I don't even know," Moss said. "There's still some time for me to make that decision but just in case I'm going to make sure I get the full experience in this week."
With a trip to the Big Ten championship game still in the balance, the seniors are brushing off thinking about what's next. This team is 8-2 and has a chance to become one of Iowa's elite teams in history.
"Obviously we need (Wisconsin) to lose to somebody," Schott said. "But we have to win first, that's what's important. If we don't win it doesn't matter so that's what we need to focus on."
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Players like Moss and Schott are multi-year starters but might use the extra year of eligibility to continue proving their stock. Both have missed games due to injury this year.
According to Moss, multiple factors will help shape the decision. That includes looking at teammates like Hankins, who has benefitted greatly from returning this season, as well as buzz from NFL personnel and conversations with Iowa coaches.
Others like Jones are in a different situation. Jones missed a year when he transferred from Buffalo to Iowa in 2019. Another year would help him recoup those lost snaps.
"I want to have as much film as I possibly can," Jones said. "Sitting out a year because of transferring wasn't ideal but it was something that I knew would be a potential consequence of leaving."
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The implications of extra players returning holds more weight in 2022 as they'll count against the 85-scholarship limit. Iowa will likely sign a small recruiting class but coaches have closely monitored all possibilities. Ferentz said that with the current seniors it's an ongoing conversation.
"I'll make the rounds, just touch base and go temperature check," Ferentz said. "During our bye week with guys - where it might be appropriate. And we'll talk more specifically once the season is over. December, there's all kinds of time in December to start thinking a little bit more vividly about that or concretely about that."
Before December arrives there are two more games that will decide Iowa's fate. The Hawkeyes hold the No. 17 spot in the college football playoff rankings. Two more wins would secure a 10-win season and potential positioning for a New Year's Six bowl game. And a bowl game victory would make this team only the fourth 11-win team in Ferentz's tenure.
"We talk about (winning 10-11 games) all the time," Jones said. "Winning the next game is the most important, the next game is the most important game. Can't get to 10 or 11 without winning the next one so that's been our mindset."
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Before the ball's kicked off Saturday, players will be preparing for an emotional ceremony.
"It's what I dreamed of but didn't know if it would be possible," Schott said. "I'm going to walk out there, see my parents and it'll probably a little emotional but a great day."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.