The 2020 Iowa football season is now firmly in the rearview mirror. Hawkeye basketball has taken our full fan attention for the last several weeks, save for some moments of respite for national signing day or a big time commitment. But it’s never too early to start thinking about next year. With Iowa’s early enrollees now on campus and the final scholarship in the class of 2021 set to be filled in the coming weeks, now is the perfect time to take a pause and look ahead to the upcoming season.
While the 2020 season got off to a rough start with a pair of frustrating losses, the Iowa Hawkeyes finished the year riding a 6-game winning streak and finished the year inside the top-15 nationally. Looking to the future, however, Iowa is losing some major pieces from this year’s team.
Daviyon Nixon, DT
Jack Heflin, DT
Austin Schulte, DT
Chauncey Golston, DE
Nick Niemann, LB
Barrington Wade, LB
The list of defensive contributors Iowa needs to replace in 2021 isn’t terribly long. The issue, however, is the number of replacements that will be needed in the front four. Defensive tackle in particular is going to need a major band-aid this year as the Hawkeyes lose both starters and a top backup. That is exacerbated by the need to replace long time starting defensive end Chauncey Golston.
At linebacker, Iowa was forced to replace Djimon Colbert ahead of last season making his decision to hang up the cleats less of a sting for 2021. The Hawkeyes found some excellent contributors in his stead this year, but will still need to replace starter Nick Niemann and part time starter Barrington Wade.
In the back end, everyone is slated to be back after senior Matt Hankins announced his intention to return to Iowa City for another year.
Alaric Jackson, OT
Cole Banwart, OG
Coy Cronk, OT
Shaun Beyer, TE
Brandon Smith, WR
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR
Mekhi Sargent, RB
As with the defense, the total number of offensive contributors Iowa will need to replace isn’t terribly daunting. However, the concentration of those departures within a couple position groups offer up some headwinds.
Most notably, Iowa is looking to replace two major pieces on the outside with both Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith graduating. The other departures are much easier to replace based purely on volume of returnees. Along the line, for example, there are three departures, but only one was a full time starter all season.
Keith Duncan. K
Everyone’s favorite kicker Keith Duncan is officially done in Iowa City. Replacing him will be a difficult task, even if he wasn’t his Groza Award caliber self in 2020. In addition, not listed above is All-Big Ten return man ISM, who will also be gone as noted.
Projected 2021 Depth Chart
QB: Spencer Petras (JR) , Alex Padilla (SO)
RB: Tyler Goodson (JR), Gavin Williams (FR)/LeShon Williams (FR)*
FB: Monte Pottebaum (JR), Turner Pallissard (JR)
TE: Sam LaPorta (JR), Luke Lachey (FR) Elijah Yelverton (FR)
WR: Tyrone Tracy (JR), Desmond Hutson (SO)
WR: Keagan Johnson (FR), Quavon Matthews (FR)
OT: Mark Kallenberger (SR), Mason Richman (FR)
OG: Cody Ince (JR), Tyler Elsbury (SO)
C: Tyler Linderbaum (JR), Justin Britt (SO)
OG: Kyler Schott (SR), Justin Britt (SO)
OT: Jack Plumb (JR), Nick DeJong (SO)
*Note that SR Ivory Kelly-Martin is not listed on the above depth chart given he is likely to still be recovering from a torn ACL when the initial 2021 depth chart is released. However, he is expected to contribute next season and will likely make an appearance on the depth chart at some point.
As mentioned in the departures above, there’s not a lot Iowa needs to replace on offense heading into 2021. In the backfield, the Hawkeyes get All-Big Ten starting RB Tyler Goodson back as well as his personal battering ram Monte Pottebaum at FB. Starting QB Spencer Petras is back for year two and he gets his safety valve back in TE Sam LaPorta.
Along the line, things look good, albeit a bit different. With Alaric Jackson off to the NFL, Petras will have his blind side protected by a new face. Senior Mark Kallenberger is expected to win that job. On the other side, it’s likely to be junior Jack Plumb, who spent a fair amount of time in the starting group with Coy Cronk’s injuries in 2020.
In the middle, All American center Tyler Linderbaum is back and Iowa gets a bunch of guards with starting experience around him. Sophomore Justin Britt started as a true freshman at guard and likely ends up there when a spot opens up, but he also was listed as Iowa’s backup center in 2020 and it seems logical he is again next season. The Hawkeyes have a very full cupboard in the offensive line room.
Where things get really interesting is on the outside. With ISM and Brandon Smith gone, Iowa is going to be forced to rely on some youth in 2021. Tyrone Tracy has started games for Iowa in both outside WR positions when Smith and ISM missed time. Expect him to step into Brandon Smith’s role as we saw for an extended period in 2019.
Opposite him, Iowa has options. Max Cooper and Charlie Jones are both back, but don’t seem like likely candidates to fill the void left by Smith-Marsette. Instead, expect Jones to split time in the slot with Nico Ragaini (Iowa doesn’t list the slot receiver as a position on the depth chart, but it’s obviously a critical one given Ragaini’s ranks among Iowa receiving targets the last two seasons).
The early surprise candidate to replace ISM may well be incoming freshman Keagan Johnson. Johnson was electric as a prep and has Smith-Marsette caliber speed. He’s already on campus and will hopefully have some semblance of spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp to build a bond with Iowa’s starting QB. Behind him, look for Florida native Quavon Matthews to perhaps emerge. He’s another speedster who could take the top off opposing defenses if given an opportunity.
DE: John Waggoner (JR), Joe Evans (JR)
DT: Noah Shannon (JR), Isaiah Bruce (FR)
DT: Jake Karchinski (SO), Yahya Black (FR)
DE: Zach VanVanlkenberg (SR), Logan Lee (SO)
LB: Seth Benson (JR), Logan Klemp (JR)
LB: Jack Campbell (JR), Jay Higgins (FR)
LB/Cash: Jestin Jacobs (SO)/Dane Belton (JR)
CB: Matt Hankins (SR), Jermari Harris (SO)
S: Jack Koerner (SR), Quinn Schulte (SO)
S: Xavior Williams (SR), Kaevon Merriweather (JR)
CB: Riley Moss (SR), Terry Roberts (JR)
On the defensive side of the ball, there’s going to be two completely diverging story lines in the front and back end. In the secondary, Iowa has everyone back. As in, the starting and backup corners are a virtual lock to be the same as we saw to send the 2020 season.
But Iowa added UNI transfer Xavior Williams this offseason and he’ll push for playing time somewhere. It’s possible that’s at corner, but seems more likely he steps in at safety given the up and down career so far for the likes of Kaevon Merriweather. Regardless of who ultimately starts where in the back end, Iowa has loads of talent and experience and the addition of Williams gives Phil Parker a ton of flexibility. Watch out.
At linebacker, we saw Seth Benson and Jack Campbell both have very good years in 2020 and it’s a virtual lock both will be starting come 2021. The other open spot, which Iowa lists as an OR with the Cash position (which will again be manned by Dane Belton), seems like it’s Jestin Jacobs’ to lose. Iowa has some depth behind those starters as well.
The front four, however, is a totally different story. In the middle, Iowa lost both starters as well as top backup Austin Schulte. That leaves a gaping hole to be filled by someone. The only returnee to spend much time in the role is Noah Shannon. Look for him to start. The other tackle spot is most likely going to be filled by a transfer given the need for depth (Iowa fans will be unsurprised to hear Northern Illinois has a defensive tackle in the portal that would be of interest).
Beyond Shannon, there are question marks and flexibility. Logan Lee came to Iowa City as a tight end but quickly developed into a defensive end. Both he and John Waggoner could battle for a starting spot on the edge, but also have the flexibility to potentially slide inside to tackle as needed. Redshirt freshman Yahya Black is in a similar boat in that he could end up at either spot and potentially contribute.
As of now, however, sophomorer Jake Karchinski has the most experience in the system and that gets him the nod in the way too early projectsions. Behind him, however, we should see some youth getting early reps this year. Look for Isaiah Bruce and Logan Jones to push for playing time.
K: Caleb Shudak (SR)
P: Tory Taylor (SO)
KR: Xavior Williams (SR), Charlie Jones (SR)
PR: Charlie Jones (SR), Max Cooper (SR)
Perhaps the most exciting position for Iowa in 2021 is punter. The Hawkeyes get their all-world punter Tory Taylor back for his sophomore season and punting gurus everywhere are anxiously awaiting a full season of his work.
The other piece of the kicking game is likely to fall to senior Caleb Shudak. Shudak has handled kickoffs the last couple seasons while Keith Duncan was drilling field goals. This is likely to be the year Shudak gets to handle the full load.
And in the return game, look for senior Charlie Jones to retain his job as punt returner while also helping to replace All-Big Ten returner Ihmir Smith-Marsette on kickoffs. He’s likely to be joined in that role by UNI transfer Xavior Williams who has shown the ability to make big plays at the college level in that role. Incoming freshman Keagan Johnson is another name to watch as potentially earning a role in the return game due to his sheer speed.
There will of course not be any deviations from this way too early projection come week 1 of next season. This is the definitive projection and is not open for debate. But if you feel so inclined, differing views are welcome in the comments.