Iowa's 2018 fall practices officially get underway tonight, which checks off another box on the list of things that mean the 2018 season is almost here. "Almost" is subjective, of course -- we're still 29 days out and there are still four more Saturdays to go before Kinnick is full of black and gold-clad folks -- but we're definitely getting closer. With that said, there are a lot of interesting battles and storylines to follow over the next few weeks. There are a few sure things for Iowa heading into 2018 -- Nate Stanley is locked in as the starting quarterback, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockerson give Iowa a dynamite combination at tight end, the defensive line should be excellent (especially at defensive end, with Anthony Nelson, A.J. Epenesa, and Parker Hesse rotating and creating havoc), and Miguel Recinos gives Iowa a settled option at kicker. But beyond that... we have some questions.
With apologies to the QB2 battle between Peyton Mansell and Spencer Petras (which is interesting, but probably won't have much of an impact on the outcome of this season), here are the six storylines we're most curious to watch over the next month.
1) Offensive line
The offensive line was already one of Iowa's most volatile positions heading into 2018, with replacements needed for multi-year starters James Daniels and Sean Welsh. Then Tristan Wirfs got himself a DUI (and a one-game suspension), which added another wrinkle to things. Wirfs should be back in the lineup and anchoring Iowa's line at right tackle by Week 2 against Iowa State, but there's going to be a question mark at left tackle in Week 1 (will Mark Kallenberger or Dalton Ferguson step in as his replacement or will Levi Paulsen slide over if healthy?). That uncertainty is added to the question marks on the interior of the line; it looks like Keegan Render will replace Daniels at center, but the identity of the guards who will flank him is up for grabs. Right now Ross Reynolds and Cole Banwart are listed as starters on the depth chart, but could we see one (or both?) Paulsens there by 9/1? Maybe. Expect a lot more experimentation this month as Iowa tries to find the right combination of blockers up front.
2) Wide receiver
This feels like an evergreen talking point for fall practice, or at least it has been since the days of DJK and Marvin McNutt leading the way for Iowa's receiver corps. But that's because wide receiver has been a source of struggle for Iowa's offense for several years now. Last year Iowa had a brand-new offensive coordinator, a brand-new wide receiver coach, a brand-new quarterback, and several brand-new wide receivers. The results were, well, mixed. The good news is that every single one of those pieces are back this year, so everyone's a year more experienced and a year more familiar with each other and what Ferentz wants to do on offense. Nick Easley should be a reliable option for the Iowa passing game, but the ceiling of Iowa's offense -- and, perhaps, its season overall -- may be determined by how good the likes of Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette can be. If Iowa gets the breakthrough at wide receiver we've been hoping to see for a while now, this season could become very interesting.
There isn't quite as much uncertainty at linebacker in terms of who will be starting -- Amani Jones seems to have anchored himself as Josey Jewell's replacement at MLB and Nick Niemann seems locked in to replace his older brother Ben at OLB. WLB is probably the least certain of the three LB spots; Kristian Welch is the listed starter there now, but fast-rising Djimon Colbert should push him throughout camp. Whoever the starters at linebacker wind up being, though, Iowa is a lock to enter 2018 with a very inexperienced crew in the middle of their defense. That's what happens when you graduate three multi-year starters from those positions. We aren't going to really know how well the new faces can replace Jewell, Niemann the elder, and Bo Bower until the games start in September, but we should probably expect some growing pains. How quickly they're able to get up to speed could determine how good Iowa's defense is this year.
Like linebacker, the starters here seem fairly set -- Matt Hankins emerged as Iowa's best option opposite Josh Jackson last year and is set to be the leader of Iowa's CB corps this year, while the path seems clear for Michael Ojemudia to start at the other CB spot with Manny Rugamba's decision to transfer. But, like linebacker, experience is a real question mark and one we aren't likely to find an answer for until the season starts and the passes start flying. One other interesting wrinkle here: Iowa's 2018 recruiting class contained several high-end defensive back talents and between Iowa's weak depth at CB and Phil Parker's willingness to play young defensive backs, there's a great chance of one or more of those true freshman corners earning significant playing time this season. The August camp should be our first opportunity to see which one of those young defenders is generating the most buzz.
5) Running Back
For the first time in several seasons, Iowa doesn't have a significant upperclassmen presence at running back. In 2014, burly senior Mark Weisman and junior Jordan
Cotton Canzeri carried the load. In 2015, a senior Cotton teamed with junior LeSean Daniels as the main cogs in Iowa's rushing attack. In 2016, a senior Daniels partnered with a junior Akrum Wadley as perhaps Iowa's most impressive running back tandem, with both scooting for over 1000 yards. And last year a senior Wadley tag teamed the RB position with James Butler, a JUCO transfer from Nevada and a fellow senior. This year the most experienced names in the Iowa running back rotation are Toren Young, a redshirt sophomore, and Mekhi Sargent, a JUCO transfer from Iowa Western with three years to play at Iowa. While Iowa lacks experience at the running back position heading into 2018, they have a number of interesting options, including Young, a potential workhorse back; Sargent, a talented and versatile all-around back; Ivory Kelly-Martin, a potential home run hitter and pass-catching weapon out of the backfield; as well as redshirt freshman Kyshaun Bryan and true freshmen Samson Evans and Henry Geil. The carry distribution may shift from game-to-game, but the fall practices will be our first chance to see who's winning the battle right now.
There's a fair amount of intrigue in the returner duties, but we don't typically hear too much about the returners during practice; we'll probably have to wait until the first few games to see who's won those jobs and how they're doing. Punting seems fairly similar -- there's a big difference between punting in a controlled practice environment and punting in an actual game -- but we're still very curious to see who emerges as the starter here heading into the season. Mainly that's because the punting was so... uh, let's go with underwhelming... last season. The best Iowa teams typically win the field position battle and succeed in the margins in areas like punting; for Iowa to have the season we want them to have, they need to be better at punting than they were last year. So we'll be watching the Rastetter-Gersonde duel less to see who wins and more to see if someone -- or, hell, even a combination of them -- can produce at a much better rate than they did a year ago.