Place a wager on the over/under for Iowa football win totals this season at your own peril. When things kick off this fall, the Hawkeyes will be facing one of the most difficult schedules in recent memory. It includes trips to Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska as well as home dates with Purdue and Penn State.
But this is also one of the more talented Iowa rosters in recent memory. We all know by now that A.J. Epenesa is poised to have a special season. We’re all hoping that QB Nate Stanley can put together a senior season that leaves him as Iowa’s all-time leader in touchdown passes. And we all expect him to be well protected by a pair of potential first round draft choices at offensive tackle.
Yesterday, we learned that this team also boasts four (count ‘em - 4!) pre-season All-Americans according to Athlon Sports.
Here’s a look at the UI’s release on the news:
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Four University of Iowa football student-athletes -- junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa, junior wide receiver and return specialist Ihmir Smith-Marsette, junior offensive lineman Alaric Jackson, and junior offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs -- were named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-America Team.
Epenesa and Smith-Marsette, as a return specialist, were named to the first team. Jackson was a second-team selection, while Wirfs was a fourth-team selection.
Epenesa (6-foot-6, 280 pounds) was previously named a preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection by Athlon Sports and to the 2019 Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List. Last season, he led the Big Ten Conference and ranked 12th nationally with 10.5 sacks to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. As a sophomore, he totaled 37 stacks with 16.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, four pass break-ups, and one fumble recovery.
Epenesa, a native of Glen Carbon, Illinois, was one of five finalists for Polynesian Player of the Year in 2018. He was named co-Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten for his play in wins over Illinois and Iowa State.
Smith-Marsette (6-1, 177), a native of Newark, New Jersey, was previously named an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection as a return specialist. He was named the Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year in the Big Ten last season. He led the Big Ten and ranked second in the nation in kickoff return average (29.5). He was 12th in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards and set an Outback Bowl record with 150 yards in kickoff returns in Iowa’s 27-22 win over No. 18 Mississippi State. He also recorded 23 receptions for 361 yards and three touchdowns in 2018.
Jackson (6-7, 320) is a native of Detroit and earned preseason first team All-Big Ten honors by Athlon Sports. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors a year ago. He has started 12 straight games at left tackle, helping the Hawkeye offense average 31.2 points per game last season. He has started 24 games in two seasons.
Wirfs (6-5, 320) was previously named to the Athlon Sports preseason All-Big Ten second team. He started 12 straight games at right tackle a year ago and has 20 starts in his two seasons. The native of Mount Vernon, Iowa, earned honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition last season.
The accolades are starting to mount for Epenesa and we’ve known for a while Jackson and Wirfs could be an incredible tandem at tackle, but the appearance of Smith-Marsette on the first team may come as a surprise. Fans often think of him as the speedy receiver who helped to beat Iowa State in OT in Ames his freshman year, but has struggled with consistency.
This honor should be a reminder of his incredible talent as a return man. He brings a dynamic some of the best Iowa teams under Kirk Ferentz have been able to harness and that’s the ability to flip the field in special teams. That, coupled with the addition of grad transfer punter Michael Sleep-Dalton could be a real benefit to this Iowa team which should possess one of the best defenses Ferentz has had and an offense with a third-year starter at QB and a pair of first round talents at tackle.
The question now is whether that talent can rise to the occasion and overcome a very difficult schedule to win the West.