As wild as the truncated 2020 college football season was, perhaps nothing was as predictably wild as the way the Iowa Hawkeyes closed out the year. The Hawkeyes, after the Big Ten restarted with a truncated season, managed to get through the entire revised schedule without a single game lost due to COVID-19. But that’s where the fun stopped. Iowa’s “Championship Week” matchup with Michigan was cancelled due to COVID issues for the Wolverines. Then their Music City Bowl matchup with Missouri suffered the same fate for the same reasons. Season officially over.
Still, Hawkeye fans got to enjoy eight Iowa football games, albeit from afar. After a sluggish start, Iowa ran the table to finish 6-2, second in the Big Ten West and ranked inside the top-15 of the final College Football Playoff Rankings. It marked the second straight season where Iowa finished ranked inside the top-16 of the CFP rankings and the third time in six years.
Now the Hawkeyes look to make it three straight and four of the last seven years as they enter the 2021 season. As noted last week, Athlon has the Hawkeyes finishing this year right where they exited last year in the AP - 16th nationally.
What does Iowa need to do to keep the streak alive and perhaps build on the recent momentum? Here’s our way too early look.
The 2020 Hawkeyes were led by a dominant defense. Perhaps nobody was as dominant as 1st Team All-American Daviyon Nixon. He’s now a Carolina Panther after falling into the 5th round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Nixon watched as his teammate and fellow sack leader Chauncey Golston became the first Hawkeye off the board in the 3rd round to the Dallas Cowboys. The 2021 Hawkeye will need to replace not only those two along the defensive line, but also grad transfer and undrafted free agent Jack Heflin.
In the middle of the defense, Iowa loses leading tackler Nick Niemann. The younger Niemann is now with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Hawkeyes also need to replace rotational senior Barrington Wade.
On the offensive side of the ball, Iowa lost its top-two wide receivers from a season ago as Ihmir Smith-Marsette is now with the Minnesota Vikings and Brandon Smith is a Dallas Cowboy. The Hawkeyes also look to replace backup tight end Shaun Beyer, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Denver Broncos.
Along the offensive line, the Hawkeyes will be breaking in a pair of new tackles. Sort of. Former left tackle Alaric Jackson is now with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent while grad transfer right tackle Coy Cronk, who missed significant time last season after winning the starting job, is with the Green Bay Packers as an UDFA.
The Hawkeyes also lose option 1b at running back as Mekhi Sargent signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans.
In the kicking game, the Hawkeyes lose a national treasure as Keith Duncan opted not to take an extra year of eligibility to crush Scott Frost’s dreams.
Next Man Up
While Iowa loses quite a bit at a few key positions, they also return a significant amount of production in 2021. Starting QB Spencer Petras and both backups (Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan) are slated to be back. While that may not be music to everyone’s ears, Petras did improve as the season went on and if nothing else, the program will not be breaking in someone new this fall.
Petras (presumably) will be looking to replace a lot out wide, but returns some of his favorite targets. That includes Iowa’s leader in targets TE Sam LaPorta. He also gets back slot receiver Nico Ragaini and versatile weapon Tyrone Tracy, Jr. Those two combined for 345 yards on 32 receptions, or roughly a quarter of Petras’ completions a season ago.
Iowa also returns their 1st Team All-Big Ten running back in Tyler Goodson, as well as the majority of the interior of the offensive line that led the way a season ago. That includes All-American center Tyler Linderbaum and everyone’s favorite nickname in Kyler “Shooter” Schott. The Hawkeyes also get Justin Britt, who started a handful of games, back on the interior, as well as guys like Jack Plumb, Cody Ince and Nick DeJong who all earned starts a season ago thanks to injuries up front.
On defense, Phil Parker gets All-Big Ten defensive end Zach VanValkenburg back, as well as part-time starter/rotational player Noah Shannon in the middle. Logan Lee, Yahya Black and John Waggoner all earned time last season as well with major buzz all spring on the Minnesota native Black.
In the middle, Iowa returns Jack Campbell and Seth Benson, who both earned starts a season ago. They also get young, budding stars back in Jestin Jacobs and Jay Higgins.
But perhaps no position group returns as much as the secondary where Iowa returns both starting safeties (Kaevon Merriweather and Jack Koerner), both starting corners (Matt Hankins and Riley Moss) and starting Cash Dane Belton. That’s almost not fair when Phil Parker is coaching the group.
And in the kicking game, the Hawkeyes look to replace the departed Duncan with returner Caleb Shudak, who has handled kickoffs and longer field goals in recent years. They also get back Freshman All-American punter Tory Taylor, who is a very big deal.
New Kids on the Block
As the Hawkeye look to replace a plethora of NFL players from last year’s 15th ranked team, they will turn largely to returning players with some new faces sprinkled in. The Hawkeyes signed the 24th ranked class in the country in 2021 and a few of those highly rated recruits are expected to make an instant impact.
The obvious area of need is at wide receiver and Iowa has a trio of high profile recruits coming on campus at the position. Two of those recruits were early enrollees and have already been turning heads.
Keagan Johnson is a 4-star receiver from the Omaha area who boasts ISM level speed and a knack for the big play. He’s been called out in spring practice media availability by coaches and players alike as someone who could step in right away to take reps this fall.
Arland Bruce IV is another highly regarded WR recruit, but more in the mold of returning receiver Tyrone Tracy. Like Tracy, Bruce prepped as a RB and was dominant in that role. He has a similar frame and ability to break tackles while still possessing breakaway speed.
On the defensive side of the ball, the biggest addition comes in the form of UNI transfer defensive back Xavior Williams. The Burlington native was a Freshman All-American and two-time 1st Team All-Missouri Valley Conference selection for the Panthers. With his pedigree and versatility as a guy who can play both corner and safety, he’ll be hard to keep off the field despite the notable depth Parker already has in the secondary.
With all the moving parts this offseason, it still feels like the upcoming season will come down to a few key areas.
Phil Parker is a certified genius on the football field and we have all learned at this point not to doubt him. A season ago, there were major question marks about the defensive line. He answered those with a pair of 1st Team All-Big Ten selections, a 1st Team All-American and one of the most dominant lines in the country.
But again we turn over a new leaf and see question marks up front. With Nixon, Golston and Heflin off to the NFL, where with the pass rush come from? Iowa generated 22 sacks in eight games a season ago, good for 2.75 per game. Over the course of a normal season, that equates to 33 sacks on the year - north of that magic number of 30 a season.
How do the Hawkeyes get to 30 sacks this season? They’re going to need some younger guys to step up in a big way. They may also benefit from more coverage sacks than normal given the depth of what should be a very stingy secondary. And we can always count on Parker to be the one coordinator willing to get creative to get the job done.
Passing Game Improvement
As great as Iowa’s defense was a season ago, the thing really holding them back was offensive output. When you’re talking about offensive woes on a team that had an All-American center and the 1st Team All-Big Ten running back, it’s pretty clear where the issues resided.
Put simply, Spencer Petras needs to be better in 2021. He showed signs of life down the stretch, but he has to be consistent. At ~57% completion percentage, Iowa ranked 12th in the Big Ten a season ago while coming in at only 10th in the conference at just north of 6.3 yards per attempt.
There were issues connecting on deep passes, which often showed little touch and lacked air to allow Iowa’s unusually speedy receivers a chance to run under passes. There were also issues on short and intermediate passes, which appears to be thrown with the same velocity as a pass deep down the field and often with the same amount of accuracy.
Petras has the mechanics to make all the throws. We saw them on tape as a high school superstar who garnered a 4-star ranking and shattered records held by a former #1 NFL Draft pick. Now in his fourth season on campus, Petras needs to live up to that hype if Iowa is going to have a successful year.
Offensive Line Cohesion
One way to lighten the load on a struggling QB is to ground and pound opponents into oblivion. With the aforementioned Linderbaum and Goodson, Iowa has the building blocks to do just that.
But Linderbaum isn’t an entire offensive line. He’ll need those around him to elevate their games. The Hawkeyes have some great pieces. The interior starters on the spring depth chart, Justin Britt and Kyler Schott, have shown a lot of promise, particularly in the run game. That needs to show up consistently with big running lanes with the Hawkeyes go between the tackles and in obvious running situations.
Beyond that, Iowa has to find a way to keep Spencer Petras clean. He’s had a tendency to get happy feet, despite Iowa giving up the third fewest sacks in the conference a season ago. Those jitters should continue to ease as Petras steps under center for just the 9th time in his career this fall, but a consistently clean pocket would certainly help to give him confidence and the time needed to move through progressions in Iowa’s offense.
This group returns loads of talent and a slew of guys who have starting experience. The depth is loaded with young stars in the making. But can they put it all together early in the season when the Hawkeyes face off with a pair of top-25 opponents in the first two weeks?
If the Hawkeyes want to finish the year in the top-16 yet again, they’ll need to do just that, and more.