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Iowa Football: A Way Too Early Look at the 2021 Hawkeyes

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Football is in the air in Iowa City!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Iowa at Illinois
The Hawkeyes are set to be back in the huddle for the first time since Missouri was forced to back out of the Music City Bowl.
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been just over a year since the sports world, and really the world in general, was flipped on its head. We lost the NCAA Wrestling Championships, NCAA Tournament and all of baseball season. We endured a delayed and truncated football season without fans in the stands and had to watch from afar as the greatest Iowa basketball player in program history played out his days without a crowd.

But now, more than a year since it all started, we’re starting to get some sense of normalcy back as the Iowa Hawkeyes officially kick off spring football practice today. With football officially back, it’s time to start taking a way too early look at how things are shaping up for the 2021 season.

2020 Season Recap

In case you’ve forgotten, which is entirely possible in this time-warp we’ve been stuck in for the last 12 months, Iowa finished the 2020 season with a 6-2 record. The Hawkeyes dropped their first two games of the year at Purdue and at home to Northwestern by a combined 5 points, but rallied back to win their final six games. Things were cut short when COVID-19 issues at Michigan forced the Wolverines to back out of the Championship Week matchup between the two programs. The Hawkeyes saw a similar fate in the Music City Bowl as Missouri was unable to participate.

Despite the disappointing end to the year, the Hawkeyes finished inside the Coaches Poll and CFP top-15 while ending the year 16th in the AP. That marks the third straight year the Hawkeyes have finished ranked inside the AP top-25 and the 7th time in the Kirk Ferentz era that Iowa finished the year inside the top-15 in one of the major polls.

Iowa enters the 2020 season with a program record of 666-562-49. Here’s a look at who the Hawkeyes will be without, who they return and who they add to the roster in 2021.

The Departed

From a sheer volume perspective, Iowa doesn’t lose a ton of guys in 2021. In total, there are 10 starters who have moved on, but Iowa has some major holes to fill both in terms of the quality of personnel that departed and how clustered they were positionally.

On offense, the Hawkeyes lose 5 starters from the 2020 group. More importantly, they lose three starting offensive lineman and both starting wide receivers.

On the line, left tackle Alaric Jackson and utility men Cole Banwart and Mark Kallenberger are no longer in the program. In total, Iowa loses 68 career starts with the departures, including 20 starts from a season ago.

At receiver, the Hawkeyes will need to replace their possession guy in Brandon Smith and their speedster in Ihmir Smith-Marsette. The two combined for 47 career starts, 198 career receptions 4,440 all-purpose yards and 29 total touchdowns in their time at Iowa. In 2020, ISM was Iowa’s leader in receiving yards and touchdowns despite missing a game due to suspension.

Over on the defensive side of the ball, the Hawkeyes lose four starters from last year’s group. That includes Nick Neimann and his team-leading 77 tackles at linebacker. But equally difficult to replace will be the three starting defensive linemen who are no longer with the program.

That includes defensive end Chauncey Golston and defensive tackles Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin. Worse yet, Iowa also loses the top backup defensive tackle in Austin Schulte. In total, the Hawkeyes said goodbye to 58 career starts along the defensive line and an All-American in Nixon. The hole here is big both figuratively and literally.

Beyond the offense and defense, it has to be mentioned that the Hawkeyes are losing all-world kicker Keith Duncan. After being robbed of the Groza award his junior year, Duncan struggled a bit more last year, but was still tremendous. He will be very difficult to replace.

Guess Who’s Back

While Iowa has a lot of departures for the 2021 season, they also return a substantial amount. That includes 6 starters on the offensive side of the ball, 7 starters on defense and 3 specialists.

The offense will once again be calling upon Spencer Petras as the presumed starter. Despite his struggles, particularly early in the year, Petras is expected to get the nod and looking to improve without two of his top receivers from a year ago. The Hawkeyes do get their top tight end and second-leading receiver Sam LaPorta back for this year.

Behind Petras, Iowa returns All-Big Ten RB Tyler Goodson and his personal protector in FB Monte Pottebaum. Look for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to lean heavily on Goodson, who averaged more than 114 yards from scrimmage per game last year and led the way with 7 touchdowns.

Up front, Iowa returns all-world center Tyler Linderbaum in the middle as well as Cody Ince. We learned with the early spring depth chart on Monday that Ince will be sliding outside this year, paving the way for Justin Britt to take on a more consistent starting role at guard. Britt will be the only starter up front according to the new depth chart who hasn’t started a game previously for the Hawkeyes as Jack Plumb (2 career starts) and Kyler Schott (8 career starts) round things out.

On defense, despite the massive hole up front and the loss of Neimann in the middle, Iowa returns 7 starters from another stout Phil Parker defense in 2020. That includes the entire secondary with safeties Kaevon Merriweather and Jack Koerner as well as corners Matt Hankins and Riley Moss.

In the middle, Seth Benson is back at linebacker and Dane Belton returns to man the CASH position. Jack Campbell steps into the third spot in the middle but doesn’t come in totally inexperienced. He and backup Jestin Jacobs each earned a start last season while Campbell tallied 29 tackles and came away with an interception.

Up front, Iowa does bring back starting defensive end Zach VanValkenburg and his 30 tackles plus 3.5 sacks. Noah Shannon steps into a starting role full time this year after earning one start a season ago. The rest of the defensive line is relatively unproven outside of John Wagonner, who slides to the opposite end after tallying three tackles as a backup a season ago.

New Kids on the Block

As things stand at the start of spring, the depth chart doesn’t feature any true newcomers for the 2021 season. That’s not to say the Hawkeyes won’t get some major contributions from players who weren’t on the roster last fall.

The secondary is one spot that could see an impact from a newcomer early and often. While Iowa returns all four starters in the back end, they also added UNI transfer Xavior Williams who was a freshman All-American in 2017 and a preseason All-American this year. He has flexibility to play either corner or safety and adds immediate depth with an ability to step in and compete at all four spots.

On the other side of the ball, Iowa looks to fill the void left by the departed Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Iowa inked a trio of receivers in the class of 2021 and already have two newcomers on campus.

While the big-framed Brody Brecht is still finishing his prep career, teammate Arland Bruce IV is already on campus and set to take the field this week. He’s a name to watch given his versatility. But perhaps a more likely year 1 contributor is Omaha native Keagan Johnson, who is also on campus already. Johnson is a dynamic playmaker who brings the closest thing you could expect of a freshman to ISM-esque speed and quickness in the open field. He’s a name to monitor as we get into the season as a potential breakout candidate.

There are sure to be additional names to pop up come fall camp as Iowa’s full class of 2021 prospects gets on campus. The Hawkeyes signed 19 commits in a group that ranks top-25 nationally. There is serious talent coming in on both sides of the line with major star power at OL. Those positions typically take longer to see the field, but we’ve seen examples in recent years of big bodies being ready to step in early. Should we see an injury on the line or depth issues on the defensive side, perhaps we catch an early glimpse of one or more of Iowa’s new toys up front.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

So, what does that all mean? Well, it’s hard to say. There are obviously some pretty serious question marks entering the 2021 season. Spencer Petras didn’t exactly set the world on fire a season ago and if he struggles again this fall, it’s difficult to imagine the Hawkeyes improving on their .750 winning percentage.

But if he does find some touch on his deep passes (and intermediate passes and short passes and...) and improve his composure, it’s not unreasonable to think this offense could take a step forward. The running game is sure to be solid with Goodson returning and a solid running game should open things up in the passing game.

The defense is rock solid in the back end, but will need to answer questions up front. Can they get to the passer? Can they hold up to physical rushing attacks in the middle? At first glance, those are big questions. But who wants to question Phil Parker again after how that’s worked every year for the last two decades?

In terms of a potential record, the Hawkeyes get few favors in the scheduling department. Iowa starts the year with a conference game against an Indiana team that also went 6-2 a season ago and returns a whole lot.

In week two, it’s a trip to Ames for what is being touted as the greatest Cyclone team to ever play and likely the best collection of football talent ever assembled, coached by the greatest coach to ever live (who has of course won many national championships and owns many leather bound books). All snark aside, Iowa State figures to be a very tough out with a lot of talent returning from the best team in program history (reinserting the snark to note that it was a very average team by Iowa standards, but that’s none of our business).

Image via HawkeyeSports.com

Iowa rounds out their non-conference schedule (something they didn’t get in 2020) in weeks three and four with what should be manageable home matchups against Kent State and Colorado State before hitting the meat of the Big Ten schedule the rest of the way.

In the conference, Iowa again avoids Ohio State and Michigan as they get home matchups against Indiana (week 1) and Penn State (week 6) and a trip to Maryland (week 5) for their crossover games. That’s where the luck runs out however, as the Hawkeyes will be traveling to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska in 2021.

At the end of the day, this looks like another classic Iowa season in the making. There are sure to be bumps in the road, including the likely loss where we all scratch our head. That’s sure to be offset by an upset and balanced out with largely a chalk finish. Vegas doesn’t yet have a season win total set for Iowa, but when they do it’s sure to be in that 7 to 8 wins range where you could certainly see them going either way. Vegas does currently have Iowa at 150/1 to win the College Football Playoff.

That may not be the wisest wager to place, but that doesn’t mean this can’t be a great season. There are pieces to the puzzle and stars in the making. There are also loads of question marks and improvements that need to be made. But at the end of the day, there’s football to be played and as things stand today, there are likely to be fans back in Kinnick. After the year we’ve all endured, not much could top that.