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Iowa Football Returning Production: Offense

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RUN AKRUM, AND BUTLER, AND SOMEONE ELSE, RUN

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows Iowa is a developmental program, but does returning production mean a better team? We’ll tackle each aspect of football over the next few weeks in an attempt to see how last year’s stats might impact this year’s team. Next up: Offense.

All stats were gathered using sports-reference.com/cfb unless otherwise noted

Previously: Special Teams

Rushing

When you stare at the depth chart for this year’s running backs, it makes sense why the staff felt like they needed to add someone to the mix in James Butler. With the addition, it’s easy to forget the star Iowa returns with Akrum Wadley. The 1,081 yards he ran for last year are the most Iowa has returned since 2006, when Albert Young ran for 1,334 yards in 2005. It’s almost like there’s some deity who hates Iowa running backs and is angry.

In addition to Wadley’s yardage, other Hawkeyes return 61 additional yards, though nearly half of it occurred on a Matt VandeBerg reverse. Overall, this was 51% of last year’s rushing total and places it 11th in terms of Kirk Ferentz-led seasons, excluding the first:

Prior Year Rushing Returning

Year Rushing Yards Returning % Returning PPG Wins
Year Rushing Yards Returning % Returning PPG Wins
2000 1012 94% 16.9 3
2001 1256 99% 32.6 7
2002 661 31% 37.2 11
2003 2250 79% 28.7 10
2004 539 24% 24.3 10
2005 660 66% 30 7
2006 1981 93% 23.8 6
2007 1447 77% 18.5 6
2008 39 3% 30.3 9
2009 92 4% 23.2 11
2010 968 60% 28.9 8
2011 748 38% 27.5 7
2012 89 5% 19.3 4
2013 1345 90% 26.3 8
2014 2348 99% 28.2 7
2015 1071 50% 30.9 12
2016 1573 61% 24.9 8

As we saw with the return yardage, last year’s rushing numbers have little bearing on the actual success of a Hawkeye team:

Rushing Yardage

  • 0 - 33%: 9.0 wins, 26.9 points
  • 33 - 67%: 8.4 wins, 28.4 points
  • 67 - 100%: 6.7 wins, 25.0 points

It’s pretty remarkable to see three of Iowa’s five 10+ win seasons occur in where limited production returned. That is balanced by the 4-win 2012 season after Marcus Coker’s departure from the program amid AIRBHG’s legendary run (5 running backs in 18 months!). Since then, Iowa has returned over 1,000 yards in each season, as the staff has done a good job of building depth across classes at the position.

With James Butler’s addition, I’m expecting Iowa to go all in on the running game. The Free-for-All Friday guys went deep on what he brings, but his ability out of the backfield will be the perfect 1B to Wadley’s 1A. 2015 weighs heavily on my mind, as it seemed like every week another running back emerged, and even starred. In that vein, I still expect a third option to emerge between Toks Akinrabe and Toren Young.

With the issues seen in pass protection the last two years as well as the aptitude many of the linemen have displayed as run blockers, the cards further hint at a run-dominant offense. A look at Tim Polasek’s addition shows an even more drastic expectation of lots of running:

Percentage of Plays as Runs

Year NDSU Iowa
Year NDSU Iowa
2014 65% 52%
2015 65% 57%
2016 65% 58%

Though these numbers may be skewed as NDSU regularly rolls their opponents and runs to milk clock, the mix was even higher in their 2016 win against Iowa at 68%. While the Bison offense has relied on QB runs, I still expect a shift. If we see NDSU’s percentages carry over, we would be looking at 42.8/23.1 runs/passes versus 36.7/29.2 out of Iowa’s 65.9 plays/game since 2014. Even if Wadley and Butler are healthy throughout all of 2017, there will still be rushes up for grabs and provide Iowa some returning production for 2018.

Receiving

We’re entering uncharted territory. 2017 will see the first time ever the top returning receiver from the prior year was a running back. There have been instances where a TE was the #1 (shouts to Scott Chandler in 2006 and Dallas Clark in 2002) but never this. If anything points to Iowa’s reliance on the run game, it’s the 681 yards they return which was somehow 34% of last year’s production. Both are the lowest in the Ferentz era. Wow:

Prior Year Receiving Returning

Year Receiving Yards Returning % Returning PPG Wins
Year Receiving Yards Returning % Returning PPG Wins
2000 1476 65% 16.9 3
2001 1011 39% 32.6 7
2002 1078 41% 37.2 11
2003 1366 50% 28.7 10
2004 786 38% 24.3 10
2005 2227 77% 30 7
2006 1612 52% 23.8 6
2007 1466 47% 18.5 6
2008 1524 67% 30.3 9
2009 1281 54% 23.2 11
2010 1974 68% 28.9 8
2011 1201 39% 27.5 7
2012 1357 44% 19.3 4
2013 1544 69% 26.3 8
2014 1965 77% 28.2 7
2015 1265 41% 30.9 12
2016 1456 51% 24.9 8

Receiving Yardage

  • 0 - 33%: No applicable seasons
  • 33 - 67%: 8.0 wins, 26.0 points
  • 67 - 100%: 7.5 wins, 28.4 points

There’s actually not much to glean from this, because 13 of Ferentz’s returning 17 seasons fall into the middle band. But let’s try.

The 2004 season is probably the season this one mirrors most, in terms of what is returning for receivers. That team saw Clinton Solomon and Ed Hinkel emerge as top quality Iowa receivers with 905 and 744 yards, respectively. The aforementioned Scott Chandler emerged for 324 yards as well. This limited receiving production occurred when they were a one-dimensional offense.

If Matt VandeBerg can see the field, he’ll be the top dog, so it’s just a matter of finding a second guy plus a tight end to step up. It very well could be Brandon Smith, and I look for Noah Fant to emerge as Iowa rediscovers throwing up the middle. Plus add what Wadley and Butler can do in the passing game and the pieces are there for an acceptable aerial attack.

Passing

Of all the uncertainty surrounding the offense, nothing is more unclear than the man under center. After all we have Wadley (and now Butler) to rush, Wadley, a hopefully healthy MVB, a plethora of TEs (and now Butler) to receive, but only 404 FILE NOT FOUND to pass. However, this isn’t a situation Iowa will be lost in, as like punting and kicking, it has been largely an all or nothing proposition in terms of returning production since 2003:

Prior Year Passing Returning

Year Passing Yards Returning % Returning PPG Wins
Year Passing Yards Returning % Returning PPG Wins
2000 1695 75% 16.9 3
2001 862 33% 32.6 7
2002 582 22% 37.2 11
2003 161 6% 28.7 10
2004 55 3% 24.3 10
2005 2786 94% 30 7
2006 3058 99% 23.8 6
2007 285 9% 18.5 6
2008 2269 99% 30.3 9
2009 1966 83% 23.2 11
2010 2887 100% 28.9 8
2011 45 1% 27.5 7
2012 3022 99% 19.3 4
2013 0 0% 26.3 8
2014 2562 100% 28.2 7
2015 645 21% 30.9 12
2016 2809 98% 24.9 8

Passing Yardage

  • 0 - 33%: 9.1 wins, 27.6 points
  • 33 - 67%: 7.0 wins, 32.6 points
  • 67 - 100%: 6.9 wins, 24.1 points

The above statistics mirror what Marc Morehouse brought it up earlier this summer: for some reason Iowa QBs typically do best in their first year starting. He mentions that it “reveals nothing,” but I wonder if, perhaps, it does reveal something. Only once since 2002 has a freshman/sophomore had a 10-win season as starter: 2004 with Drew Tate. In the other instances Iowa’s gone with a sophomore - 2007 with Jake Christensen, 2008 with Ricky Stanzi, and 2013 with Jake Rudock - Iowa topped out at 8 wins. In every other instance with a first year starter, it’s been with an upperclassman ingratiated in the Iowa Way (TM) with James Vandenberg as the outlier with 7 wins. Brad Banks, Nathan Chandler, and CJ Beathard all lead the Hawks to 10+ win seasons.

I mean, it still probably means nothing. If Tyler Wiegers were to follow in Beathard’s footsteps to a 10-win season, it’s not a particularly good sign he came from behind to tie presumptive starter Nathan Stanley on the depth chart. The same goes for Stanley, as his inability to distance himself puts him more in line with 2008 Stanzi than 2004 Tate.

My hope is for one man to clearly win the job before the first game and do nothing to lose it over the course of the season. I would consider it an unqualified success if that were to happen and would expect it was a fruitful season.

Or just let Akrum do it.

Overall

Looking at the overall picture, it’s fascinating to see how offense Kirk Ferentz does not necessarily mean wins:

The missing piece, of course, is defense. As we see seasons like 2004 and 2011 have similar inputs in terms of returning production. 2011 was even a field goal better offensively. Yet they won three fewer games.

Those seasons look most like 2017 in my spreadsheet-tinted glasses. Considering my pessimism for much of this offseason, I would gladly take either result.