Iowa’s basketball season may be over, but Hawkeye fans can take solace in the fact that football season is right around the corner. Kirk Ferentz began his 20th spring practice in Iowa City on March 27th, and while Iowa fans will be denied a spring football game due to field renovations, there is still plenty of red meat for fans to consume. Spring football is the time for eternal optimism, but there are quite a few questions that need to be answered going into the 2019 football season which the coaching staff will attempt to answer over the next few weeks. Here are five of the most interesting questions facing the Iowa program that I hope to see at least partially answered by the conclusion of spring football:
1. Does Iowa have depth along its defensive line?
Iowa boasted one of the best defenses in college football last season which was largely based on the strength of its front four. However, these “four” men were actually eight talented players with diverse skillsets that moved seamlessly in and out of the lineup, wearing down opposing offensive lines and allowing the unit to stay fresh late into games. Having lost players to graduation (Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson, and Sam Brincks), the NFL draft (Anthony Nelson) and transfers (Brandon Simon, Garret Jansen), Iowa’s vaunted depth along the defensive line appears to be in jeopardy heading into next season. Ferentz’s recent revelation that JUCO transfer Daviyon Nixon will be staying with the program came as a welcome relief since his departure would have left the program facing dangerous levels of attrition at arguably the most important position group on its defense.
The Hawkeyes know they have at least four skilled contributors returning next season in Epenesa, Chauncey Golston, Cedric Lattimore, and Brady Reiff, and while he is not on the depth chart entering spring football, Nixon will almost certainly be a major factor in the defensive line rotation come September. However, Iowa will need to play more than five men along the defensive line over the course of the season, which will force many young and unproven players into action. John Waggoner and Noah Shannon were intriguing prospects coming out of high school, but both are redshirt freshmen who remain largely unknown quantities. Levi Duwa is brand new to this side of the ball having previously played on the offensive line. Austin Schulte has been on campus for three years and has yet to see any game action. Nathan Nelson’s brother Anthony was certainly a productive player at Iowa, but the younger sibling was a walk-on who would not be expected to contribute this season under normal circumstances.
Iowa has a long history of developing talent along the defensive line, but the Hawkeyes will need to accelerate the growth of a number of players to prevent this unit from being a liability next year. Spring football will give the coaches the first opportunity to see which of their unproven players might be up for that challenge.
2. Can Iowa replace its star tight ends?
TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant are the most dynamic and productive tight end duo in Iowa history, and any fans expecting their replacements to match their impact on the field are delusional. Still, the tight end position has always been a critical component to Iowa’s offense due to its importance in both the running and passing game, and Iowa will need to find productive players at this position. Nate Wieting seems like a natural fit to handle blocking responsibilities, but his pass catching skills remain largely unproven. Sean Beyer and Drew Cook will both get a shot to lock down the starting nod, and Iowa has three incoming freshmen in Logan Lee, Sam LaPorta, and Josiah Miamen who have exceptional athletic ability, but may require a year of seasoning before being ready for the physicality of Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes don’t need to get Hockenson/Fant level play from one of their tight ends this season, but is it too much to ask for a Mike Flagg or a Jake Duzey to emerge from this crew?
3. Will any explosive playmakers emerge on offense?
This is the eternal question hovering over virtually every Hawkeye spring practice during the Ferentz era. The Hawkeyes rarely get the answer they were hoping for, and more often than not these “breakout stars” never materialize (remember Cameron Wilson?). Still, there are a number of potential candidates who could join Ihmir Smith-Marsette as a potential gamebreaker on offense. Incoming freshman running back Tyler Goodson has drawn comparisons to Akrum Wadley and will be challenging for a spot in Iowa’s crowded stable of running backs. Meanwhile, Ivory Kelly-Martin flashed explosive potential in his freshman season before being slowed by a number of injuries in 2018, and while he fell behind Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young on the depth chart by the end of the season, spring practices could provide him a chance to show the explosive abilities that helped establish him as Iowa’s top running back coming into last season.
Tyrone Tracy is also an intriguing prospect. He saw the field sparsely during his redshirt season but has the physical tools to be a dynamic player either on the outside or in the slot. Finally, Samson Evans has the speed and athleticism to eventually grow into a playmaker, and although he may require more time to complete his transition from high school quarterback to offensive skill player, creative play-calling could find a way to get him involved next year.
One of these players, or potentially someone else on the roster, is bound to emerge as the breakout star of spring practice. While it remains to be seen whether that star can translate a strong spring into a productive 2019, one can hardly blame fans for dreaming that this year’s spring superstar might be more of a Marvin McNutt and less of a Cameron Wilson.
4. Who will replace Amani Hooker as the Star/Cash in Iowa’s defense?
Amani Hooker was a revelation for the Iowa defense last season not simply for his excellent play, but for the transformative position on the field in which he occupied. Phil Parker’s newly-created safety/linebacker hybrid, referred to as both the “Star” and the “Cash” position, allowed Hooker to float in and out of the defensive backfield, making impact plays in both run and pass defense. While Hooker was certainly a unique athlete whose skill set perfectly fit the mold for this hybrid position, all indications are that Parker is planning on redeploying it in 2019.
The question of which player will replace Hooker as the Star/Cash is interesting not only because of the position’s novelty in Iowa’s defensive scheme, but also because of the implications the answer to this question has on a number of other positions. Linebacker Djimon Colbert, cornerbacks DJ Johnson and Michael Ojemudia, and safety Kaevon Merriweather have all been mentioned as potential replacements for Hooker, and whether any of them wins this job could have a significant impact on the amount of playing time they receive next year.
There is also the question of prioritization. Imagine Ojemudia establishes himself as one of Iowa’s best two cornerbacks this spring, but also stands out as the best candidate to slide into Hooker’s old role. Does Parker prioritize bolstering Iowa’s perimeter defense or its ability to cover opposing receivers in the slot? Just how important will the Star/Cash position be for Iowa in 2019? Can Iowa consistently find someone to credibly fill this role, or was Hooker a unique player whose skillset will make him impossible to replace? The answer to these questions will likely be heavily influenced by how the linebacker, cornerback, and safety position battles shake out, which makes the future of the Star/Cash position in 2019 a particularly interesting subplot for spring football this season.
5. Can Tyler Linderbaum take over at center?
It may seem odd for one of Iowa’s most pressing questions this spring to be about the future of a redshirt freshman center who is not even first on the preseason depth chart, but Linderbaum is actually one of the most intriguing players on Iowa’s roster. The freshman from Solon was a promising enough prospect at defensive tackle to see the field in the first game of his redshirt season, so many fans were surprised to hear that he had moved to the center position prior to the Outback Bowl. Even more surprising was that Linderbaum’s move to offense stuck despite the significant attrition along the defensive line this offseason.
Kirk Ferentz has a phenomenal track record of identifying offensive line talent and developing it for the next level, even if that talent needed to be converted from another position after arriving on campus (see Gallery: Robert). The fact that Ferentz shifted Linderbaum to center from defensive tackle, ostensibly a position of need next year, shows that he is thoroughly convinced of the freshman’s talent and potential at this position. At this point, Ferentz has likely earned the benefit of the doubt when making these calls.
Still, it remains to be seen how quickly Linderbaum can emerge at center. Junior Cole Banwart currently occupies the top spot at this position on the spring depth chart, and unlike Linderbaum he actually has experience playing on the offensive line at the college level. If Linderbaum can emerge as “the guy” at center, it could allow Banwart to either challenge one of the Paulsen brothers for a starting guard spot or serve as an incredibly valuable utility player rotating in and out of positions on the interior of the offensive line.
Additionally, Ferentz’s decision to keep Linderbaum at center might mean he has reason to be confident in Iowa’s depth on the defensive line, which could be a welcome answer to one of the questions posed earlier in this piece. Regardless of what role he ultimately plays in 2019, the question of Tyler Linderbum’s place on the offensive line is one that is definitely worth monitoring through the duration of spring practice.
Iowa football has more questions than answers at this point, but hopefully spring practice will help provide some clarity on some of the more pressing unknowns heading into next season.