Go Mailbag Awesome: September 1

By RossWB on September 1, 2022 at 12:00 pm
welp
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK
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Welcome to Go Mailbag Awesome, where we answer your questions about Iowa sports. Technically these are tweets, not letters or emails or other mail-related items, but "tweetbag" is an unpleasant word. Just say it out loud... gross. So we're going with mailbag instead. We'll try to do this on a weekly basis. And if the bird app frightens or disturbs you, you can always email questions to ross-at-goiowaawesome-dot-com.

Let's get started with a softball... 

mean girls!

But, OK, let's talk about wide receivers. 

Pretty concerned! In hindsight, it's pretty wild (and dumb!) that Iowa lost Tyrone Tracy and Charlie Jones to the transfer portal and basically... didn't replace them? Iowa brought in one true freshman receiver (Jacob Bostick), but he doesn't exactly scream "plug-and-play." And the news has only gotten grimmer since Tracy and Jones departed, with Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God returning as Angry Iowa Wide Receiver Hating God and hitting Nico Ragaini, Keagan Johnson, and Diante Vines with injuries. Right now you might be on the Iowa two-deeps at receiver. Yes, you. 

The only slight silver lining is that the injuries don't seem serious or long-term -- yet. Johnson might be able to play this weekend and Ragaini is only expected to miss a couple games to start the season. Vines is the longest term absentee; he could be out until mid-season. But Iowa could ill afford any absences at wide receiver after Jones and Tracy left -- if Johnson isn't able to play this week, Iowa's top three receivers are Arland Bruce IV and a pair of walk-ons. I sincerely hope either Alec Wick or Jack Johnson (or both of them!) are the second coming of Ed Hinkel, but that's putting a lot of eggs in the walk-on basket. Maybe Brody Brecht can make his football debut and help out a little. 

But whoever is at wide receiver has to be able to do something to make defenses pay attention to them. Otherwise opponents are just going to double-team LaPorta and crowd the line of scrimmage and make it even more impossible for the Iowa running game to get going. Let's hope for speedy recoveries for all of Iowa's ailing wide receivers -- and for Bruce, Wick, and Johnson to surprise and delight us on Saturday. 

I would argue that Iowa has had some decent receivers -- Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV are very promising talents and, going back a few years, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette were very legitimate Big Ten wide receivers. But Iowa also doesn't make very good use of wide receivers. Look at the playcalling. Look at the play design. Look at the offensive schemes and the overall offensive approach. I don't see much there that would look too appealing to a high-end wide receiver prospect, especially when there are countless schools where they can go and play in high-tempo spread offenses that offer ample opportunities for wide receivers to flash their skills. 

If the Williams and Williams one-two punch at RB stays healthy, I think it's conceivable that Iowa redshirts a freshman running back. Especially since that freshman could still get a taste of action in four games and retain that redshirt. Outside of injuries to the top two backs, it doesn't seem very likely that both freshmen running backs play in five or more games this fall. As for which one redshirts... jeez, that's a tough one. But Kaleb Johnson seems slightly ahead of Jaziun Patterson at this point, so Patterson may be the more likely redshirt candidate. 

I expect LaPorta to be on the field for basically every Iowa offensive snap, unless the game is a total blowout. How many of those will he be lined up as a wide receiver? If you set the over-under at 7.5, I think I'd take the under. He'll be out wide a few times, but probably not that often overall. 

How do we measure improvement for this offense? 

Does it count as "growth" if Iowa can get back to its previous level -- even if that level wasn't particularly high? Last year's offense was, obviously, a fucking disaster. Iowa averaged 304 yards per game (13th in the Big Ten) and 4.67 yards per play (11th). Those are dreadful numbers. Prior to that, Iowa averaged 369 yards per game in 2020 (8th), 367 yards per game in 2019 (10th), 375 yards per game in 2018 (10th), and 330 yards per game in 2017 (10th). They were at 5.4 yards per play in 2020 (8th), 5.5 yards per play in 2019 (8th), 5.4 yards per play in 2018 (11th), and 5.1 yards per play in 2017 (10th). 

I don't think those 2018-2020 offensive numbers should be particularly aspirational, especially as an overall goal. Iowa needs to try and develop an offensive attack that's not regularly finishing in the bottom-third of the Big Ten. Given their style of play, they're probably never going to have an offense that ranks in the top three or four in the league. But Iowa should still aspire to have an offense that can be in the top half of the Big Ten -- that doesn't seem unreasonable as an overall goal. 

But for this year in particular... maybe those 2018-2020 numbers would be a decent benchmark of success? I don't particularly want to celebrate low expectations, but this team has a very young offensive line. It has a slew of pretty young and inexperienced running backs. The wide receiver depth chart is basically a 404 error (FILE NOT FOUND) at this point. And unless Spencer Petras really has taken a quantum leap forward this year, well, we've seen what we can offer over the last two seasons. That's a lot of question marks and areas of concern. Hitting 370 yards per game, over 5 yards per play, and, say, 24 points per game (not including defensive/special teams touchdowns) would not be setting the highest bar, for sure. And overall we need to see more than that from Iowa's offense going forward. But for this year with this group of players and with this set of limitations... well, at least hitting those numbers would be a bit of progress from last year's tire fire.

I'm tempted to say "after the Illinois game," since that will enable us to see how Iowa's OL handles multiple Power 5 defensive fronts, including a Michigan unit that will no doubt be loaded with talent. But that's also halfway through the season, which feels like a copout. If Iowa's offensive line looks good against Iowa State, I think that could be a very promising sign. Iowa hasn't been able to gain much traction in the running game against ISU's defensive front in their most recent matchups (67 yards and 1.7 ypc last year, 112 yards and 3.0 ypc in 2019, 105 yards and 2.9 ypc in 2018). But ISU also seems to have Iowa figured out pretty well defensively, so I wouldn't panic too much if Iowa again struggles in that game. But if Iowa's offensive line can't get protection and can't open decent holes consistently against Rutgers and (especially) Nevada in the two weeks after the ISU game, then I would be very concerned that it's probably going to be another very long and painful year on offense.

WE'RE GOIN' STREAKIN... 

Well, I don't like this question one bit, sir. Not at all. Losing to Minnesota? Iowa State? Nebraska? The mind reels. But, seriously, this is an interesting exercise because, yes, at some point Iowa's winning streaks over those teams will end, sadly. I think the Minnesota streak is the one to be on high alert for this season. Outside of the COVID year beatdown in 2020, Iowa's wins over Fleck's Gophers of late have been very tight and, honestly, a bit fortunate. If Iowa keeps getting outgained by 100+ yards in those matchups, sooner or later they're going to get got. This year's game is in Minneapolis and Minnesota has the offensive coordinator back who actually made Tanner Morgan into a functioning Big Ten quarterback for a few seasons. If their line play is solid, that could be a very difficult matchup for Iowa in November. 

After Minnesota... is it crazy to be most worried about the Illinois game of those options? The Illini gave Iowa all they could handle in Year One under Bert and only some defensive and special teams magic ensured the winning streak didn't end last year. The Illini have had another year to grasp Bert's teachings and the game is in Champaign this year. I'm also concerned about the positioning on the calendar -- it's the sixth of six straight games for Iowa and right before the bye week, so Iowa could be a bit worn down or banged up by that point. It's also right after the Michigan home game, which is going to have a lot of emotion and attention -- how much juice will Iowa have left? We saw how spent Iowa was last year in the Purdue game right after the huge Penn State win. That Illinois game could have a LOT of trap game energy. 

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