Death, taxes, and Kirk Ferentz running outside zone from a pro set. The latter’s held true for nearly 20 years. To put a little color onto the present situation in Iowa City, we reached out to our friend Ross, from GoIowaAwesome.com, the best Hawkeyes site around.
1. TJ Hockenson, Noah Fant, and Nick Easley are gone. Who is the offensive man to watch this coming season?
ROSS: Losing two tight ends who were both taken in the first round of the NFL Draft is definitely a big blow to the offense, especially when they were a huge part of the passing game. Iowa certainly isn’t going to have first round-caliber skill position talent on offense this year to replace Fant and Hockenson, so it’s going to be a total team effort to replace their efforts. I’ll give you a name to know at running back, receiver, and tight end.
Mekhi Sargent emerged as Iowa’s top running back last fall and it seems likely he’ll enter the 2019 season as the top back as well. He led the team with 745 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground last year and a 4.69 ypc average; he also caught 17 passes for 156 yards through the air. Iowa is looking to improve its efforts on the ground this year and if they do, Sargent will probably be the biggest beneficiary.
Brandon Smith is the guy that’s been getting buzzed about in the spring at receiver; he’s a junior but after a few quiet years on campus to start his career, the hope is that he’s ready to bust out in his third season. He had just 28 catches for 361 yards and 2 TDs last year, but he has good size (6’3”, 219), solid hands, and tremendous leaping ability, so the plan is for him to be a dangerous weapon for Iowa’s passing game on the outside and down field.
Shaun Beyer is the tight end who will likely benefit the most from the absences of Hockenson and Fant. He’s been injured or at other positions for most of his career (he started at Iowa as a linebacker), but he’s been at TE for a little while now, so hopefully he has a better grasp of the nuances of the position. He has the athleticism and skill set to put up solid numbers at tight end in Iowa’s offense.
2. You lost your top four tacklers, plus two Nelsons, and one awesome, over-the-shoulder pass catching DT named Brincks. Who is the defensive man to watch this coming season?
ROSS: This one’s easy: A.J. Epenesa. He led the Big Ten in sacks last year (10.5) and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors... and he did all that despite technically being a backup. Two years into his Iowa career, Epenesa hasn’t actually started a game yet for the Hawkeyes -- though that will change this fall. He’s going to start, he’s going to get as many snaps as he can handle, and he’s going to be counted on to be a dominant force for Iowa’s defense. From everything we’ve seen from him so far, he can absolutely do all of that. He’s a wrecking ball from defensive end, a fantastic athlete whose physical skills should now be matched by a strong football intelligence and understanding of the game and what role he needs to take on any given play. He’s widely-tipped to be an All-American next year and a potential first round NFL Draft pick, so he’s not going to sneak up on anyone -- but he’s definitely the defender that opposing offenses will want to try and gameplan around.
3. Is there anything to be aware of, or unusual happenings in Iowa City? Captain Kirk’s pretty consistent the last two decades, but figured I’d better ask just in case.
ROSS: Things are pretty steady as she goes in Iowa City. This will be Year 21 of the Kirk Ferentz Experience and I think everyone has a pretty good idea of what to expect from that, Iowa fans and opponents alike. The coaching staff hasn’t changed from last season and the schemes haven’t changed all that much in 20 years. You know what you’re going to get with Iowa, more or less, and I wouldn’t expect that to be too different this fall.
One thing of note is that Iowa does have a bit more high-end talent than they typically do, at least in terms of NFL Draft buzz. We already talked about Epenesa on defense, but Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson, Iowa’s massive bookends at offensive tackle, have both attracted some early NFL Draft hype, too. They’re juniors and they’ll need strong seasons this fall to make entering the NFL Draft early a serious consideration, but they’re trending in the right direction on that front. Iowa QB Nate Stanley is entering his third year as starter and he’s also garnered a bit of NFL Draft attention as well. He has the size (6’4”, 243 lbs) that NFL teams still covet, as well as plenty of experience and some promising physical tools (like a powerful arm). If he can improve his accuracy (just 59% last year), he could significantly help his NFL aspirations -- and if he does that, he’ll probably be able to level up Iowa’s passing offense, which could boost Iowa’s overall ceiling for next season, too.
A big thanks to our friend Ross, from GoIowaAwesome.com Let’s wrap this up.
Penn State Wins If: 1) it protects the football on offense and in the kicking game (last year’s punting disasters were not cool); and, 2) it uses it’s speed in space to pop a couple of explosive plays.
Iowa Wins If: the opposite of that happens. If PSU kills itself with mental errors and turnovers, Captain Conservative wins. If PSU buries it’s advantage in speed under man-ball schemes in a tough-man contest - ehh, not great Bob dot gif. If PSU’s front 7 on defense doesn’t hike up its big boy pants, and gets creased, that spells trouble in River (Iowa) City. Despite Iowa’s huge losses to the NFL draft, this remains a very dangerous squad.