The Hawkeyes have been on a real tear on the recruiting trail over the last month or so. Over the last five weeks, Iowa has landed 11 commitments in the class of 2020, taking the group to 21 total already. For perspective, the Hawkeyes don’t have 21 members in a fair number of the their recruiting classes when they are finished. We’re entering the second week in July.
While Kirk Ferentz has made a name for himself with a developmental program that takes underrated players and turns them into quality Big Ten caliber players over the course of a couple years (with the help of Chris Doyle, of course), recruiting will always remain the lifeblood of any college football program. Developing guys is great, but you still need those guys on campus. And if they show up closer to game ready, you have more bodies at your disposal and more opportunities to find those big time playmakers.
A fair amount of digital ink has been spilled covering each of this class’ current commits, as well as the class as a whole and what needs, if any, remain. But with the kickoff to the 2019 season less than 8 weeks away and that itch needing scratched, it’s time now to turn to what former recruits are likely to have the biggest impact this year.
As with most seasons, the biggest contributors are likely to be upperclassmen. That’s just how things work in a developmental program. But there are a few positions where younger guys are more likely to see the field earlier and that’s no different at Iowa this year.
Wide receiver, for example, is a position where a youngster can find opportunities if they’re willing to do some of the less exciting things for a receiver. Namely blocking. It’s not what WRs were born to do and most don’t like it, but if you are willing and able, the Hawkeyes have shown a willingness to get young guys on the field in limited roles at receiver if they aren’t going to be a liability in the run game.
It also happens to be a position where Iowa has long had a need for playmakers so young athletes can make an impact. This year, it’s a virtual certainty Iowa will get some big time input from a redshirt freshman or two at the position.
Most on the beat have redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini locked in as the starting slot receiver for the Hawkeyes, taking the role vacated by the graduation of Nick Easley. Ragaini, as you’ll recall, was a three-star prospect in the class of 2018 after originally being a member of the class of 2017.
With few scholarship offers after a senior season at Notre Dame (West Haven, Connecticut) where he finished with nearly a thousand receiving yards, Ragaini actually reclassified to a 2018 recruit and opted for a year of prep school at Avon Old Farms. So yes, the most likely “freshman” contributor for Iowa is in fact a redshirt freshman who took a prep school year after high school and enrolled early in Iowa City. So in a real sense, he’s a true junior who happens to have 4 years of eligibility left.
But he also brings a ton of talent with that experience. He finished high school as Connecticut’s all-time leader in receptions and second in receiving yards behind Aaron Hernandez. He’s got excellent hands and is a very good route runner. And yes, he can block.
He’s not the only redshirt frosh looking to contribute at receiver, though. Indianapolis native Tyrone Tracy is also looking to carve out a role with the group. And while he is a full year younger than Ragaini, he has plenty of dynamic playmaking ability to find his way onto the field in more than just mop up duty.
Tracy is a former high school running back who was recruited as an athlete. Despite being a RB primarily, he ended his senior year with nearly as many receiving yards (1,132) as rushing yards (1,412) and more touchdowns (16 receiving vs. 13 rushing).
Like Ragaini, Tracy has a frame and skill set that’s ideal in the slot. And while Ragaini is the front runner, Tracy may be more electric with the ball in his hands. Both figure to get plenty of reps. In a number of years past, the Hawkeyes might have seen both RS freshmen on the field together, but with Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette on outside, Iowa has the luxury of playing these two where they belong - running short and intermediate routes where they can use their sure hands and athleticism to make something happen.
While receiver is a position youngsters can find the field early on a regular basis, the offensive line is a spot Iowa rarely relies on youth. The Hawkeyes have been so great at developing linemen under Ferentz there’s rarely been an opportunity for a young player to see the field for significant minutes early in their career.
This year is the exception to the rule as the starting center role has the potential to be filled by a redshirt freshman. Cole Banwart was expected to take the job at one point, but now it’s plausible he slides to guard and converted defensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum takes the job.
Linderbaum impressed throughout the year last season and earned substantial snaps during bowl prep. He was a Reese Morgan special in the class of 2018 as a defensive tackle and showed up to Iowa City with a Big Ten ready body and a nasty streak. Those qualities will both serve him well now on the offensive line.
It’s a spot the Hawkeyes need some work. Despite a pair of potential first rounders at tackle, the running game struggled last season. That doesn’t fall exclusively on the running backs. Things begin and end up front. If Linderbaum can take that same nastiness that drew in Morgan and turn it into a road grader, the Hawkeyes will be in much better shape in the running game.
While there are questions on the potential for Iowa’s offense this season, the defense has very few. The unit as a whole may be one of the best we’ve yet seen under Kirk Ferentz. Only time will tell if 2019 belongs with the likes of 2004 or 2009 or any other of the great defenses of past, but it certainly seems poised to be.
A major reason for that is the defensive front, headlined by a pair of technical newcomers at defensvie end. Both A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston will be getting their first crack at a full time starting role in 2019, but both were major contributors last season. Epenesa is on every pre-season watch list imaginable and will likely be a top-10 pick next season, so if you want to go on the technicality, he’s likely to be the “newcomer” who will have the largest impact for the Hawkeyes this year.
But that seems like cheating, especially given there’s a perfectly good candidate who’s only entering his second year in the program. That candidate is former division 1 basketball prospect and Phil Parker special Kaevon Merriweather.
Merriweather will be looking to replace last year’s starter Jake Gervase on the back end of Parker’s defense. After being a late addition to Iowa’s class of 2018, Merriweather got some run last season. He was primarily used on special teams, but did see some action in the secondary in 2018 and was used enough to burn his redshirt.
In 2019, the sophomore Merriweather will play a major role along with standout Geno Stone, another under the radar, late cycle find by Phil Parker. And with a defense littered with potential stars, including the aforementioned Epenesa, Golston and Stone, Merriweather should be a position to make plays. If he can avoid being the weak link as the defense’s back line, he will make a serious impact.
At the end of the day, though, with a defense expected to be as good as this one is, the key to 2019 may be winning the field position game. The defense should do its part in containing opposing offenses, but the questions on offense remain. If there are struggles, scoring opportunities may hinge on where the Hawkeyes are able to take the field.
Enter graduate transfer punter Michael Sleep-Dalton. Sleep-Dalton, like Ron Coluzzi before him, is a charismatic grad transfer who is looking to start from day one. He averaged nearly 44 yards per punt at Arizona State last season, a number Hawkeye fans would love to see this year after needing rolling rugby punts to get in the same zip code a year ago.
If Sleep-Dalton can win the job and deliver similar results for Iowa in 2019, this may be one of those truly special years. The defense will be top notch. The offense has a third year starter at quarterback with talent at the skill positions and a pair of first rounders at tackle. If they can consistently win the special teams battle, the difficult schedule may not matter.
Happy Monday. Make an impact on your team this week. Less than 8 weeks until Hawkeye football returns.