Departures, in Order of Importance
James Daniels, C: Offensive line depth is arguably the most important piece of any successful Iowa football team. The Hawkeyes were already losing their best all around offensive lineman in Sean Welsh to graduation. Now, they have to replace a two-year starter and leader on offense. Daniels missed a few contests due to injury but his talent was never in question, nor was his job security. His departure hits especially hard: His consistency was always a given, and there’s a lack of experience behind him to fill the void.
Akrum Wadley, RB: You were probably expecting Wadley to top the list, and that’s understandable. He was one of the most electric playmakers of the Kirk Ferentz era, and compiled 2,190 rushing yards, 20 rushing touchdowns, 668 receiving yards and 6 receiving touchdowns in his final two seasons. He gave us some unforgettable highlights and when Iowa actually managed to get him into space, he was one of the most exciting players in the country. Impressive, considering we thought we’d never see him again after those “fumbling issues” and "too skinny challenge."
Sean Welsh, RG: Iowa’s most versatile and experienced lineman is finally graduating. Welsh has been a starter since his freshman year in 2014. BTN.com named him to the first team freshman team. In 2015 he was honorable mention All Big-Ten. In 2016 he was third team All-Big Ten. This year, he moved up to first team all Big Ten per the media and second team for the coaches. Welsh was a jack of all trades on the line. He could play left or right guard and was even called into service at tackle. That’s the type of experience that Iowa will sorely miss next year.
Matt VandeBerg, WR: Be it the injury or the offensive play calling, VandeBerg didn’t make the impact that we expected him to in 2017 but he still provided a reliable face at wide receiver for the Hawkeyes. His graduation will only leave one upper classman from last year’s depth chart, and every one of those guys has questionable pass catching skills. VandeBerg didn’t. And we’ll miss him for that.
Boone Myers & Ike Boettger, T: Easy to forget about Boettger and Myers considering Iowa had gone so long without them, but they were Iowa’s most reliable options on the end of the line. I mean, if I told you that Iowa would lose both starting tackles and still go 8-5, would you believe me? First off, they lost right tackle Ike Boettger during the Iowa State game. Later, left tackle Boone Myers (who had been hobbled and/or absent for most of the season to that point) had ankle surgery following the Minnesota game. These events forced Jackson and Wirfs into action, which is good news for 2018. Alternatively, with so many close losses in 2017, it’s hard not to wonder what would’ve happened had they stayed healthy.
James Butler, RB: While we’re discussing the “what-ifs” here, what if James Butler had stayed healthy? Iowa lost three of the four games that Butler missed time due to his elbow/arm injury. Upon his return, they went 4-2, including a bowl win over Boston College. His most impressive performance was in Iowa’s most impressive game of the year, the 55-24 win over Ohio State, where he rushed 10 times for 74 yards.
- Drake Kulick, FB: The most underrated football player on any Kirk Ferentz football team is the fullback. They serve as the lead blocker on so many of Iowa’s running plays. They serve as a sometimes pass catcher on a play action play. They also serve as an emotional leader when they break their leg against Nebraska. Drake Kulick played all of those roles well. Fitting that his final carry would be the game winning touchdown in Iowa’s bowl game.
What’s Left, Also in Order of Importance
Nate Stanley, QB: The numbers don’t lie for Nate Stanley. 2,437 yards, 26 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. What’s more, look at those stats when you consider Iowa’s deficiencies at wide-receiver. Was he perfect? No. There were the misses on the deep balls and he needs to learn when to tuck and run. But for a first year starter against a grueling schedule, Stanley did more than a serviceable job. He’s the face of Iowa’s offense in 2018.
Noah Fant, TE: Eleven touchdowns. Eleven. As a sophomore. That was Noah Fant’s year. He also led the team in average yards per reception (16.5) and had the longest play from scrimmage by a player not named Akrum Wadley. Fant’s prowess as a patch catcher and his ability to get open over the top of linebackers make him one of Iowa’s most dangerous offensive weapons. Can he block? Well, no, not really. But that’s not why he’s out there. He’s out there to exploit coverage by a much slower linebacker and a smaller safety and catch touchdowns. He’ll do that every time.
Keegan Render, LG: The graduation of Welsh and the departure of Daniels leaves Render as the most experienced offensive lineman and sole upperclassman on the depth chart. Render struggled early in his career, but has become one of Iowa’s most reliable options on the line and, at this point, IS Iowa’s most reliable option on the offensive line. He could either stick around at left guard or take Daniels’s place at center.
Nick Easley, WR: Easley led the Hawkeyes in receptions, yardage and was second to Fant in receiving touchdowns with three. His size and route running is what you’re looking for in a slot wide-receiver, even if Iowa was using him as a #1. Easley never seems to have a problem getting open, but he did have some issues hanging onto the ball. Regardless, you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to Iowa’s wide receivers, and he’s probably the best option the Hawkeyes have in 2018.
Toren Young & Ivory Kelly-Martin, RB: We’ll split the baby here as Toren and Ivory looked equally impressive this season. Young is your prototypical Ferentz bruising back. He showed decisiveness and strength in limited snaps this year, racking up 193 yards on 45 carries and 2 touchdowns. Kelly-Martin was the change of pace back, absolutely blasting through the offensive line and making his way into the second level in the blink of an eye. Who will be the starter in 2018? Does it matter?
Alaric Jackson & Tristan Wirfs, T: Both freshman phenoms. Both tackles. Both starters. Let’s just say that for all the accolades and hype, Jackson and Wirfs looked like first year starters in Big Ten play. There were growing pains and lapses on both sides, plus Jackson was suspended for the bowl game. The good news: neither one did so poorly that they lost their job. Both players survived their freshman seasons and should be locks at tackle in 2018. Let’s hope we’ll see some classic Kirk Ferentz progression for both players.
T.J. Hockenson, TE: Hockenson didn’t boast the ridiculous stats that Fant did this season but you should also remember he was only a redshirt freshman. He was fifth on the team in receptions with 24, totaling 320 yards and three touchdowns. I’d argue that he was also a bit more surehanded than Fant. With Iowa’s deficiencies at wide-receiver, they’ll need all the help they can get from their pass catching tight ends. Fant and Hockenson may be one of the best duos in the conference.
Miguel Recinos, K: The junior from Mason City made a respectable 11 of 13 field goal attempts, good for 85% on the season. He was also perfect on PATs, going 44/44. His only misses were against Penn State (it was blocked on an uncalled leaping penalty) and Northwestern (it was in the first quarter so it’s not like that’s why Iowa lost). He was also perfect from beyond 40 yards, making all five attempts. It’s fair to say that Ferentz prefers to be more aggressive when on the shorter side of no-man’s land, but Recinos is a solid option when in field goal range.
- Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR: Iowa’s most explosive playmaker not named Akrum Wadley is also one of the most inconsistent players on the field. He fumbles. He drops passes. He does everything Kirk Ferentz doesn’t want to happen. He also is ridiculously fast, has moves in space and can get open unlike any other wide receiver on the roster. All negatives aside, just remember that he’s only a true freshman. If he can progress and shore up some of the mistakes, he can be a truly dangerous Big Ten wide receiver.
Three Signs of Hope
Akrum’s Successors Look the Part
I mean sure, we’re talking about the third and fourth string running backs here, but Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin look like legitimate Big Ten halfbacks. Young showed such decisiveness in Iowa’s running scheme that I was actually advocating for him to start when the Hawkeyes were struggling on offense. Ivory Kelly-Martin only saw significant time in blowouts but one of those games was against Nebraska, where he carried the ball 6 times for 90 yards and a touchdown, a ridiculous 15 yards-per-carry average. To say that there isn’t going to be a drop off from Akrum Wadley is foolhardy. We’re just fortunate to have some very talented replacements and the potential is there.
The Tight Ends Are Back
Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson combined for 814 of Iowa’s 2,473 passing/receiving yards and 14 of Iowa’s 27 passing touchdowns. With the wide-receivers being less than reliable, having two mismatches at tight end is wonderful for Nate Stanley. What’s better is that Fant is only a junior and Hockenson is only a sophomore. They can get even better.
The Tackles Got Their Feet Wet
For better or for worse, Iowa broke in Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs due to the injuries to Myers and Boettger. There were definitely some growing pains in their first years but remember that they’re both true freshman and Iowa’s Big Ten schedule was brutal. The playing time and starts they got this season will be invaluable in the future.
Three Reasons for Panic
Iowa’s Interior Line is Nearly Gone
Iowa lost their two best offensive linemen in Daniels and Welsh and, unlike at tackle, the Hawkeyes don’t have some super-recruits to fill their voids. Keegan Render is solid at guard or even center, but he fills only one out of three spots on the inside. If you look at Iowa’s final depth chart, here is who is left to backup in the interior line: Ross Reynolds, Cole Banwart, and Levi Paulsen. The coaches and players were high on Reynolds entering the season but we have barely seen him. Banwart is a mystery. Paulsen has been a steady backup for a while now and started a game back in 2016. That's not a complete disaster, but it's also enough to keep you up at night. In all, there are too many questions to feel optimistic about our interior in 2018.
There Are No Reliable Wide-Receivers
Ihmir Smith-Marsette struggles to catch the ball. So does Nick Easley. So does Brandon Smith. Iowa doesn’t even really have a true big body wide-receiver that can threaten a defense. Brandon Smith will presumably fill that role in the future but his ball control issues will continue to limit his snaps. Until these guys can learn to catch and hang onto the football, Iowa’s passing offense will be limited, even with the weapons at tight end.
Brian Ferentz Isn’t Much Different
Based upon his first year of play-calling, I’m comfortable saying that Brian Ferentz isn’t really that different from his predecessors. Iowa continues to use the same rushing schemes, passing schemes and formula on offense: run, pass, pass, and punt. It was a rare exception that he deviated from the schedule. When in the I-formation, Iowa is going to run. And they did. When in the shotgun, Iowa is going to pass. And they did. The sparse play-actions and draws usually worked to great effect, unless of course Nate Stanley was running said draw. Maybe it was the first year jitters. Maybe Brian is just another Ken/Greg. Maybe the coordinator doesn't matter at Iowa. Regardless, Iowa’s offense was not pretty in year one of the Brian Ferentz era.
Three Things That Could Change Everything
Nate Stanley Could Start Hitting Those Deep Balls
I mean, can you imagine? Do you know many big plays Iowa would’ve had if Stanley hit even half of his deep throws? In fairness to Stanley, he was only a sophomore with minimal game experience heading into this season. He still threw for 26 touchdowns. With some progression, he could become a reliable deep passer, even if he is limited by his options at wide receiver.
Kirk Ferentz Could Work His Lineman Magic
Iowa went 8-5 this season after losing both starting tackles. If there’s one thing we should never question Kirk Ferentz on, it’s his ability to figure out an offensive line. We have a bunch of questions about who is going to replace Daniels and Welsh. Kirk Ferentz usually has answers.
A Single Wide Receiver Could Step Up
I mean, all it would really take is one. If any of Iowa’s options at wide receiver was reliable, that would take a ton of pressure off of Stanley and the tight ends to move the football. Smith-Marsette has blinding speed and routes. What if he could catch? Have you seen the size of Brandon Smith? He looks like he could run over Kam Chancellor. All it would take is one guy to change the dynamic of Iowa’s passing offense.
Listen, you should be concerned. Iowa loses 5 starters on offense including their running back, wide receiver, center and guard. And honestly, ignore the loss of any skill player when it comes to the Hawkeyes. It feels like they’re interchangeable when Iowa’s offensive line is working. Unfortunately, there are serious questions about whether or not their offensive line is going to be working in 2018. We can be optimistic about Young and Kelly-Martin looking like Big Ten running backs but that doesn’t matter if there aren’t holes for them to run through. We’re also assuming that Wirfs and Jackson progress. That isn’t always a gimme.
Even if the tackles do hold up, can the passing game survive solely on tight ends? Is anyone going to step up on the outside?
And what about Brian Ferentz? Is he going to be more adventurous in year two? Maybe open up the playbook a little bit? Take some chances?
Survey says: no. The Kirk Ferentz Iowa offense will always be the Kirk Ferentz Iowa offense. It is as only as good as the players executing it allow it to be. Combine predictable play calling with inexperienced players at some key positions and you’ve got a recipe for pain. There’s a chance that everything could click and Iowa could field a better offense in 2018. Unfortunately, we don’t see that happening.