The abrupt end to Iowa's season with the cancellation of the 2020 Music City Bowl means it's time to close the book on the 2020 season and begin thinking about what comes next. For several Iowa players, that next step is going to be pursuing an NFL career. The NCAA's decision to grant all fall sports athletes an additional year of eligibility meant that even seniors this fall could technically return for one more year of competition next fall. As expected, though, many are choosing not to do that, but are moving on to fresh challenges and new opportunities. Already Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith announced plans to enter the NFL Draft, as did Keith Duncan. Several other Iowa players are joining them.
First up is a player who could have returned next year even without the NCAA's decision to grant an extra year of eligibility -- redshirt junior Daviyon Nixon.
To be continued..... pic.twitter.com/OteA52AiUw— DaviyonNixon (@DaviyonNixon) December 30, 2020
This news is, on a purely selfish level, disappointing -- Nixon had another year of eligibility remaining for next season even without the NCAA's eligibility decision for this fall. The thought of him terrorizing Big Ten defenses next fall is the kind of intensely happy thought that can keep you warm during these cold winter nights. But it became a wildly unlikely fantasy once it became clear (about three weeks into the season) just how much Nixon had leveled up this season and how unstoppable he had become. By the end of the season, when he was earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Awards and making appearances in the Top 10 of mock drafts, it was very clear that Nixon's time in Iowa City had come to a close. He had a rocky path to get to Iowa and wasn't an immediate contributor when he did get here, but he flashed his potential last year and then gave us a (shortened) season for the ages this year. It was an absolute blast to witness and we're excited to see what's next for Nixon in the professional ranks.
Chauncey Golston is also departing:
Entering 2020 we wondered how Iowa would cope with the departures of so many experienced players on the defensive line. A.J. Epenesa first and foremost, of course, but also Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff. The only experienced player returning on the line was Golston, who had spent a few years as the sidekick to star defensive ends in Epenesa and Anthony Nelson. Turns out Golston was every bit as capable of being a Batman as he was of being a Robin. Alongside Nixon, Golston formed new Dynamic Duo on Iowa's defensive line and that pairing created untold amounts of havoc for opposing offenses and keyed what was yet another outstanding Iowa defense. Golston led the Big Ten in sacks and was tied for seventh in tackles for loss and ended up earning All-Big Ten first team honors for his outstanding play. Golston and Nixon gave Iowa the best 1-2 punch on the defensive line of any team in the Big Ten and there's no question they'll both be missed next season.
Alaric Jackson will be joining them in the NFL Draft:
Honestly, we probably would have been writing this a season ago if things had gone to plan for Jackson. He entered 2019 as a two-year starter at left tackle after redshirting in 2016 and entering the starting lineup from the start of the 2017 season. Three years as a starting left tackle at Iowa would have been a heck of a resume to take to the NFL Draft. Alas, things didn't go as planned last year; Jackson suffered a knee injury in Iowa's first game of the year and while he returned to the lineup after missing three games, his play never seemed to fully hit the heights he (or outside observers) expected from him entering the season.
His slightly underwhelming 2019 was Iowa's big gain in 2020, though, as he returned to lock down the left tackle position for the fourth consecutive season. That level of experience is almost unheard of at the college level and there's no doubt that his experience and leadership was a tremendous asset to Iowa's offensive line this season. After two years as an All-Big Ten second team performer, Jackson ascended to All-Big Ten first team status this season. The tackle ranks at Iowa have featured some incredible talents over Kirk Ferentz's 20+ years in charge and while Jackson's tenure didn't quite hit the dizzying heights that past greats like Robert Gallery, Bryan Bulaga, Brandon Scherff, and Tristan Wirfs managed to hit, he was still an outstanding and reliable performer in his four years in the Iowa lineup. His vast reserves of experience, not to mention his considerable skill, will very much be missed next year, when for the first time in a very long time we'll be forced to contemplate what an Iowa offensive line looks like without Alaric Jackson as one of its bookends.
Nick Niemann is also moving on:
Feel like we deserved a better ending to this season...Thank you to everyone in that football building, especially my teammates over the last 5 years, for giving me so many great memories. The days in the black and gold will be missed https://t.co/6D0rxAfaBn— Nick Niemann (@Nniemann_5) December 27, 2020
Niemann was the lone experienced returner at another positional group where Iowa was breaking in a lot of new faces: linebacker. But Niemann, a multi-year starter at linebacker, filled in admirably in multiple roles and provided much-needed veteran leadership for his younger cohorts and was a rock solid presence in the middle band of Iowa's defense. He led Iowa in tackles and finished second in the Big Ten with 77 stops. Between Nick and his older brother Ben, Iowa has had a steady presence of Niemanns at linebacker for several seasons now. In fact, next year will be the first year since 2013 when we won't see a Niemann suiting up in black and gold and racking up tackles. That's going to be very weird. Kudos to Nick on a very solid Iowa career.
Shaun Beyer is also departing:
Thank you Hawkeye Nation! pic.twitter.com/iHztMMHryR— Shaun Beyer (@Beyer10Shaun) December 30, 2020
Beyer spent much of his Iowa career overshadowed by superstars like Noah Fant or T.J. Hockenson, or limited by untimely injuries. Fortunately, he managed to go out with a year of good health in 2020 and saw ample playing time. He was never Iowa's top receiving tight end (Sam LaPorta filled that role after Fant and Hockenson departed), but Beyer made some big-time catches for Iowa this season and caught the first touchdown grab of his Iowa career in Iowa's victory over Illinois in the season's penultimate game. Not a bad way for him to wrap up his career in black and gold.
Mekhi Sargent is leaving too:
I have truly enjoyed coaching this young man. He showed up everyday, gave great effort and never complained! Team player and one of the toughest people I know. The future is bright for Mekhi Sargent #KeyWest finest #Hawkeyes pic.twitter.com/8BHg3622Vr— Coach Derrick Foster (@CoachD_Foster) December 30, 2020
Mekhi Sargent came to Iowa in 2018 from Key West, by way of a stint at Iowa Western. Sargent set fire to the JUCO ranks in 2017, racking up almost 1500 yards and 16 touchdowns in just 10 games. He arrived to a crowded Iowa running back room that also featured talented sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Sargent was expected to add quality competition and depth to that group, but he did a bit more than that. In 2018 he proceeded to lead the team in carries (159), yards (745), and touchdowns (9) in 2018. He emerged from a RB-by-committee situation to become Iowa's top back by the end of the season, gashing Illinois and Nebraska for 100+ yards in back-to-back games.
Sargent took a step back in terms of production in both 2019 and 2020, but not because of any shortcomings in his game. The emergence of Tyler Goodson as Iowa's lead back gobbled up carries from all of Iowa's other running backs, Sargent included. But Sargent remained an incredibly effective weapon in Iowa's offensive arsenal; he had 563 yards and four touchdowns on 119 carries last year (a 4.73 ypc average) and in just eight games this year he racked up 432 yards and seven touchdowns on 76 carries (a 5.68 ypc average). He became an extremely effective counter-punch next to Goodson in Iowa's backfield; while he didn't have quite the explosion or shiftiness that Goodson possesses, his more straightforward style was often just what the situation called for and his ability to consistently hit holes and churn forward for yards was a great asset to Iowa's offense. Goodson and Sargent made for a very effective RB duo and that was just as much because of what Sargent brought to the table as what Goodson did. Sargent's contributions to Iowa's offense will certainly be missed in 2021.
And, finally, Cole Banwart is also looking ahead to new opportunities:
Iowa guard Cole Banwart sends his goodbye letter on Instagram. He became one of those traditional senior stories who overcame adversity early in his career to become a second-team All-Big Ten pick. Hes definitely got an NFL shot. pic.twitter.com/P7VUooHS05— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) December 31, 2020
Banwart's story is one that we've become very familiar with over the last 20 years at Iowa. A lightly-recruited kid (his non-Iowa offers were UNI and... South Dakota State) from small-town Iowa (Algona, represent) comes to Iowa City, spends a year or two in the incubator, starts showing up in the two-deeps and seeing some situational action, and then before you know it he's a fixture in the starting lineup. Banwart redshirted in 2016, saw spot duty in 2017, and became a fixture in 2018, starting seven games at right guard and appearing several others. Injuries ravaged his 2019 season, but Banwart was healthy in 2020 -- and he was once again a fixture in Iowa's offensive line, this time at left guard. Banwart wasn't as flashy as some of his offensive line teammates like Tyler Linderbaum or Alaric Jackson, but his quiet consistency was a very welcome asset for one of Iowa's best offensive lines in several years. Banwart's story is a classic Iowa one, and one we hope to see play out many more times in the future. In the meantime, we're thankful for the years that Banwart gave Iowa and wish him well with whatever comes next.
A hearty thank you to all of these players; they gave incredible amounts of blood, sweat, and energy to Iowa over the last 4-5 years and we're exceptionally grateful for everything they've done in black and gold. So many of the good times we've enjoyed over these last few years (and particularly this season, when all of these men were starters and key contributors) have been as a result of their efforts. So again: thank you all for your Iowa careers and we wish you nothing but success in your efforts at the next level.