Despite loss, bright spots at key positions give Iowa football optimism for 2022
ORLANDO, Fla. — Iowa's last-minute 20-17 loss to Kentucky in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl will leave a sour taste in the Hawkeyes' mouths for the next few months. The loss is especially painful for the players who won't be back next year: the senior class.
"We really wanted this win for the seniors to end the 2021 season off right," sophomore cornerback Jermari Harris said. "Sad that the seniors are leaving but the underclassmen, we've got work to do. We're hoping to come back in 2022 stronger."
Harris put forth the best game of his early career on Saturday with 4.5 tackles, two pass deflections and one interception late in the fourth quarter. He represents one of several young, bright spots that arose from Saturday's loss.
The Hawkeyes fell short in their ultimate goal, winning the game, but certain moments provided optimism that question marks could turn into positions of strength next year.
"It's really cool to see those guys step for us when they need it most," junior tight end Sam LaPorta said. "They have been working hard all season. It doesn't surprise me, the efforts they showed today, because we see it every day in practice. They worked hard like everybody else. Over time, we develop guys, and they were ready to hit the spotlight today."
One of the biggest storylines entering Saturday was how Iowa's rushing offense would fare against Kentucky's 17th-nationally-ranked rush defense. The Hawkeyes were without two-time All-Big Ten selection running back Tyler Goodson, who declared for the NFL Draft and opted out of the bowl game.
The responsibility was thought to be left to senior Ivory Kelly-Martin, but two redshirt freshmen shined brightest: Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams. Gavin Williams served as the second running back during the latter part of the season but Leshon Williams had yet to earn a carry due to the logjam at the position.
The running backs aren't related by blood but often refer to themselves as "The Williams Brothers" and talked throughout the month about putting forth a strong performance on Saturday.
"(Tyler) declared for the draft and everyone's wondering what's going to happen next," Gavin Williams said. "Our big goal this week was trying to keep the run game as smoothly as we can. Try to keep the run game in it and try to keep the defense honest."
The duo combined for 140 rushing yards (Gavin with 98) and a combined 5 yards per carry. Overall, Iowa rushed for 175 yards and 5.8 yards per carry. On a day where the passing offense couldn't execute, the running game not only stabilized the offense but kept it moving forward.
Looking ahead to next year, Gavin Williams is excited about what he and Leshon can bring to the offense as more featured players. Both backs are 200-plus pounds; their physical style of running wore Kentucky's defense down as the game went on.
"We run very similar," Gavin Williams said. "We only had one game to complement each other but I feel like it'll be a different experience next year. I feel like going into the offseason, getting more reps together and figuring out how each one of us play will benefit the team."
Gavin Williams was quick to credit the offensive line for their performance. The inconsistency up front is arguably the biggest reason for Iowa's struggles on offense this year. But Saturday might've been the unit's cleanest performance of the season statistically.
Iowa gained 384 yards of total offense and averaged 6 yards per play. The offensive line didn't allow a sack, allowed only two tackles for loss and paved the way for the aforementioned rushing success. Tyler Linderbaum's greatness is understood but it's been chaotic around him. Iowa's started five different offensive line combinations this season and has rotated players in every game.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game that Saturday's group, which features one true freshman, one redshirt freshman and several others who were starting for the first time this year, took a step forward. Linderbaum's likely departure will leave a massive void in the middle of the line but there's reason to believe it'll be a much improved unit next season.
"I feel like our line has matured as we have gone along," Ferentz said. "Not there yet, but that showed a little bit today, too, against a big front there. They have got some big, physical guys, and I thought we showed growth again today, so that is encouraging. I think we have been gaining ground. We are going to lose some good players, but we have to keep moving other guys forward just like you do each and every year."
The defensive line also had an up-and-down fall. Saturday's performance resembled its seven-sack performance against Kent State early in the season. By halftime, the Hawkeyes recorded three sacks and six tackles for loss. By game's end, that number swelled to six sacks and nine tackles for loss.
The effort was led by a senior in Zach VanValkenburg's eight tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks, but he's the only departure from a unit that played up to nine defensive linemen per game this year. That group will be highlighted by veteran interior lineman Noah Shannon, talented redshirt freshman Lukas Van Ness and the team's leading sack-getter in Joe Evans.
And more help is on the way: Barring any more injury setbacks, former U.S. Army All-American Logan Jones, a redshirt freshman this year will add another talented piece in Phil Parker's defense.
"These guys have come in and worked every day since fall camp," VanValkenburg said. "I've seen the growth and so many guys just stepping up. Such a bright future in the defensive line room and I'm glad I came back to help facilitate that a little bit."
And in the secondary, Harris' career day indicates that he's more than ready to take on a leadership position at cornerback. He credited senior Matt Hankins postgame for his quick development over the past few months and is excited to take on that role next year for younger players.
"I see a lot of growth," Harris said. "We have a lot of guys who will have to step up in that room. We still have Kaevon (Merriweather), not sure about Dane (Belton) but I feel like we have a lot of guys who have been through a lot of football and have played a lot of football. And now that I'm an older guy, it's my turn to instill that in them."
Iowa's offseason didn't start as planned and there'll be tough questions to answer and potentially tough adjustments to make. There will be holes to fill left by departing players. But Saturday gave a glimpse into the future that creates some excitement about what's to come.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.