For the 42nd consecutive year, Hawkeye football fans heard familiar names called during the NFL Draft. Tristan Wirfs (13th overall to Tampa Bay), AJ Epenesa (54th overall to Buffalo), Michael Ojemudia (77th overall to Denver), Geno Stone (218th overall to Baltimore), and Nate Stanley (244th overall to Minnesota) will all be suiting up for NFL squads this fall, leaving significant holes for their former program to fill in their absence.
Iowa is a developmental program which finds success not by signing platoons of four and five-star recruits annually, but by nurturing untapped talent in prospects that fly under the radar. The Hawkeyes therefore aren’t able to replace NFL talent as quickly as most of college football’s blue blood programs, and are more heavily impacted by losing players to the professional ranks, especially those such as Wirfs, Epenesa, and Stone who forgo their final season of eligibility. Case in point: the last time Iowa had 5+ players selected in an NFL draft was 2012, after which the Hawkeyes posted a 4-8 record and suffered one of the worst seasons of the Ferentz era.
For Iowa football to find success in 2020, it will need to fill the voids left by the talent lost to the NFL, starting with it’s former All-American right tackle Tristan Wirfs. The Hawkeyes received manna from heaven this spring in the announcement that Coy Cronk, a four-year starter at left tackle for Indiana, was transferring to Iowa in the wake of his medical redshirt season in 2019. With Alaric Jackson returning at left tackle, Cronk is an intuitive fit to occupy Wirfs’ former position on the right side of the line. Ferentz has stoked optimism about Cronk’s recovery and his potential availability for this fall, but junior Mark Kallenberger also has experience playing tackle and could slide into that role should Cronk struggle to quickly pick up the offense after missing out on spring football. Neither Cronk nor Kallenberger should be expected to fully replace the reigning Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, but the two of them should help bring stability to the position.
AJ Epenesa’s successor at right defensive end is far less certain. Three returning players (John Waggoner, Zach VanValkenburg, and Joe Evans) should have the first crack and locking down the starting slot opposite senior Chauncey Golston. Waggoner was a high school standout at Dowling Catholic, but is unproven after recording only three tackles and a sack during his redshirt freshman season. VanValkenburg has more game reps after playing two seasons at Division II Hillsdale and being named 2018’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, but it remains to be seen how this production translates to the Big Ten after he played sparingly as a junior. Joe Evans flashed potential as a pass rusher as he recorded four sacks as a redshirt freshman, but he is only a few years removed from being a high school quarterback, and missing spring practice denied him more opportunity to round out his game and continue his transition from a situational pass rusher to an every down player.
One wildcard to watch out for at defensive end is incoming freshman Deonte Craig. Craig likely isn’t ready to be a starting defensive end until spending more time with Chris Doyle and his staff (he weighed in at 230 lbs as a high school prospect), but he’s a fantastic athlete who turned down offers from Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame to come to Iowa City, and his pass rushing skills could help him see the field sooner than later. Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker will probably rely on a committee-based approach to replace Epenesa’s production from last season, and Craig should have an opportunity to crack the rotation if he can quickly adjust to the college game.
Speaking of committees, Parker should have no shortage of options to choose from in the battle to replace Michael Ojemudia at right cornerback. Junior Riley Moss and sophomores D.J. Johnson and Julius Brents have all started games at cornerback, and each of them is likely to see the field at some point next season across from starting left cornerback Matt Hankins. Each of them has proven capable of making big plays,
as well as big-time miscues.
All three players have immense talent and potential, and the winner of the starting job will likely be whoever can show the most consistency in practice. Given Parker’s track record of developing top-notch defensive backs, the smart money is on the eventual winner of this position battle blossoming into a major contributor for the Hawkeyes.
Ojemudia’s replacement could also impact the race to replace another Hawkeye lost to the draft. If D.J. Johnson fails to lock down a starting spot at cornerback, his physicality and willingness to drop the hammer in the running game could potentially put him in the running to replace Geno Stone at strong safety. The competition at this safety spot should be fierce, however, as Dane Belton, last year’s breakout freshman at the Ca$h position, and sophomore Kaevon Merriweather, the player who began last season as the starting free safety, can both make the case of being Stone’s natural successor. Sophomore Dallas Craddeith and freshman Sebastian Castro could also be in the mix in what should be one of the most up-in-the-air position battles throughout fall camp.
Fortunately for Iowa, the quarterback position does not appear to be up for grabs. Nate Stanley left some big shoes to fill after winning 27 games as a starter, but all indications are that sophomore Spencer Petras has what it takes to establish himself as Iowa’s next star quarterback. Barring a virtuoso performance from true freshman gunslinger Deuce Hogan in fall camp, Petras likely has this slot locked down.
While Iowa fans won’t have to wade through the drama of a fall camp QB controversy, it remains unclear how quickly Petras will be ready to win games with his arm as opposed to simply managing them. Petras has plenty of arm talent, and Ferentz went out of his way to praise his young quarterback’s performance during bowl prep. However, Petras and his teammates were denied spring football due to the coronavirus, meaning the offense will have significantly fewer reps to get everyone on the same page. How quickly Petras and his established group of receivers can develop chemistry with one another could have a major impact on how Iowa’s offense performs next season.
The lack of spring football means that questions about who will replace Iowa’s NFL-bound talent will remain unanswered through most of the summer. Whenever Iowa football finally returns, look for stories about the battles to fill these open starting slots, as well as other voids caused by graduation at positions like linebacker, defensive tackle, and punter, to dominate preseason camp and help determine whether Iowa is able to replicate last season’s success.