This is it. Your definitive* Iowa football preview that gets the BHGP stamp of approval. This week we start with the offense, and next we’ll have the defense. And then probably special teams some other time because that’s how these sort of things work. We’re not going to do a position-by-position breakdown because that’s been beaten to death by now, but rather a look at the units and how they mesh with the offense as a whole. Let’s get after it.
In 2015, Iowa averaged 30.9 points per game, the most it racked up since 2008, where it put around 30 on the board each outing. It rushed for a total of 2,544 yards and 35 touchdowns, also the most since 2008, and threw for 2,862 yards and 17 scores, which is actually pretty low even for Iowa, but man were the Hawkeyes efficient with C.J. Beathard posting a QB rating of just over 139.
Iowa converted 41 percent of its third downs last year, and scored 85 percent of the time it made it to the red zone. Solid numbers, but no where near top of the nation. Iowa was good enough to get by last year, but as the schedule tightens up in 2016 those numbers are going to have to climb slightly to keep the blood pressure at manageable levels.
And now to the bodies inside the helmets.
The Big Uglies
I’m not sure why Dave Revsine was surprised to see Kirk Ferentz spend so much time with the offensive line during BTN’s visit to Iowa City last week. It’s been known for the entirety of Kirk’s tenure that he is an O-line guru, and with a unit that some are calling into question it’s not surprising he wants to get in as much work as possible with the group that’s in charge of keeping C.J. upright.
Your projected opening-day starters are as follows:
LT: Cole Croston (SR)—10 starts in 2015
LG: Boone Myers (JR)—10 starts in 2015
C: Sean Welsh (JR)—14 starts in 2015, nine starts in ‘14
RG: James Daniels (SO)—Two starts in 2015
RT: Ike Boettger (JR)—Six starts in 2015, one start at TE in 2014.
So there you have it. That’s just 43 starts between five guys going into the season, which is a lot fewer than Ferentz and co. would like to see, let alone used to seeing. However, I’m not as worried as most when it comes to this line. Iowa will obviously miss Austin Blythe, but Welsh should fill in handsomely. Croston and Myers seem to have a rapport together over there on the blindside and shouldn’t be a cause of great concern.
The right side of the line, however, is where things look iffy on paper. James Daniels (brother of LeShun) will be getting his first real looks after two starts last year. There really isn’t anyone else on this roster who has any more experience than Daniels, and he was a four-star recruit with offers from the likes of Ohio State, Auburn, Wisconsin and Michigan State, so he’s no slouch.
To me, Boettger might be the largest question mark here. He’s another one of Iowa’s famous conversion projects, and it looks like he took Chris Doyle’s regimen to heart seeing as he’s now listed at 6-6, 307 lbs. Soooooooo yeah.
One could be concerned for when one of these guys goes down, however. The group listed behind these guys has a combined zero starts and largely only saw action on special teams last year.
All in all, I adhere to the belief Iowa can reload an offensive line the way it wants year in and year out and watch them assert dominance on the gridiron while a stable of runners rack up yards behind them.
The Sticky Fingers
This group, unlike the offensive line, has its work cut out. Iowa returns just three receivers who had a catch last year, and the bulk of that comes from Matt VandeBerg, who hauled in 65 balls for 703 yards and 4 scores. After that it’s the lonely duo of Jerminic Smith and Riley McCarron, who combine for 11 catches, 197 yards and one score.
Here’s the current two-deeps:
WR: Jerminic Smith (SO) OR Jay Scheel (SO)
WR: Matthew VandeBerg (SR), Jonathan Parker (JR)
WR: Riley McCarron (SR), Adrian Falconer (SO)
Scheel, by all accounts has been turning heads in practice and is looking like the four-star recruit that he was. Besides having an incredible last name we know very little of Adrian Falconer, who was recruited by just a handful of mid-majors. Then there’s Parker, who at 5-8 leaves a lot to be desired in the height department for a wideout.
Prediction: since we already know what McCarron brings to the table, I see Smith and Scheel getting the bulk of playing time opposite VandeBerg, while McCarron sees the field sporadically. Parker, still reeling from whatever you want to call it in the Tennessee game, sees the field sparingly just for end-arounds and tunnel screens, not unlike Damond Powell a few years ago.
What this group puts out is a bit tougher to predict, but I think the bones are there with VandeBerg. And with C.J. at the helm this group is all upside.
We’ll talk about tight ends here too since I don’t know where else to put them.
I think George Kittle emerges as C.J.’s favorite target down the stretch. At 6-4 240 he’s got the body and finesse to be elusive in the middle of the field, and we’re well aware of his catching ability. He has the most career catches on this team behind VandeBerg, and we all know how much Iowa loves to work tight ends into the passing game. I look forward to Kittle becoming a security blanket for C.J. on third down, almost as much as I look forward to him asserting dominance over unsuspecting linebackers and defensive backs on zone reads.
After Kittle it’s uhhhhh *checks two-deeps* … iffy:
TE: George Kittle (SR), Peter Pekar (JR) or Jon Wisnieski (JR)
It’s possible Wisnieski would have made a name for himself sometime last year or earlier seeing as how he was such a highly touted recruit at the position in 2013, but he was set back for all of 2014 with an injury sustained in spring practice. He’s now 6-5 and 250 lbs and looks the part. Whoever sees the field the most between Pekar and Wisnieski will likely just be used as a blocker, and pose a minimal threat in the passing game.
You can forget everything I just said with Pekar in the picture, however. He’s a walk-on from Wisconsin, so expect him to take the starting job from Kittle by the time conference play begins.
If there’s one thing Iowa has an ample amount of, it’s running backs. There’s five guys on this roster who have carried the ball before, and there’s no reason to expect a decline in production on the ground from a group that loses Jordan Canzeri but gains a year of experience between LeShun Daniels, Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell.
Right now Daniels and Wadley are first and second string, respectively, but some of us at The Pants think Wadley has a slighlty higher upside with his speed and elusiveness. Needless to say, no one ever thought a little thunder and lightning was a bad thing, and if there’s one thing Iowa knows how to do, it’s operate a committee of running backs.
Look for Daniels to get around 65-70 percent of the carries among runners this year, but don’t be surprised if Wadley proves that he should get the ball in his hands as often as possible.
The Smaller Uglies
If you’re reading this, you probably know how important the fullback is to Iowa’s offensive identity despite the position being cast away at most other schools (and NFL teams for that matter). Iowa lost two excellent fullbacks last year in Macon Plewa and Adam Cox, and since then it’s been up to Doyle to turn a linebacker who might not see much playing time into a world-beating fullback.
So far, it looks like Drake Kulick is getting that honor. Kulick is a junior from Muscatine who earned a scholarship this season after walking-on. Sooooooo his story is nothing new. Expect him to be blowing up linebackers for the next two seasons.
Since Iowa chose to go to fullback-by-committee last season, I suppose they could this year as well with two unproven commodities. Behind Kulick there’s redshirt freshman Brady Ross, who we know little about beyond his having a badass last name. Ross is also a walk-on who has also been converted into a fullback after being listed as a linebacker. Kulick and Ross are both listed as 6-1 and around 240 lbs, so neither has a huge size advantage over the other.
And Then There Was One
I feel as though I don’t really need to elaborate here. Iowa’s season rests on the broad shoulders and barreled-chest and gloriously-flowed dome of C.J. Beathard. When it comes to his backups and his proneness to injury, one can be reminded of the 2009 season when James Vandenberg had to fill in for an injured Ricky Stanzi. Vandenberg probably played better than you could ever expect out of a backup QB, but one can’t help but think of an alternate universe where Stanzi put Northwestern to bed and beat Ohio State to turn 2009 from a special season to a magical one.
Behind C.J., there’s sophomore Tyler Wiegers and true freshman Nate Stanley. Stanley has apparently looked impressive during his brief time in Iowa City, but I think we can all agree that as an 18 year-old in Greg Davis’ system, he can only be marginally better than Wiegers at this time.
And that’s all there is to say about the quarterbacking situation. This is C.J.’s team, and its ceiling will be determined by how effectively he can lead this offense to success.
MVP: C.J. Beathard (yeah taking a real stretch here)
Most Improved: Akrum Wadley
Rookie** of the Year: James Daniels
Change we Would Like to See But Won’t: Personally, I would love to see Desmond King line up in the slot for a handful of plays each game, if for nothing else but decoy purposes. I think his presence there would be better used than on punt and kick returns, but Kirk won’t do it, and that’s that.
*This is in no way definitive
**He’s not a rookie but you know what I mean shut up