“When your team has the worst total offense in college football, there is basically nowhere left to go but up.”
The Iowa offense, given two weeks to prepare for its game against Ohio State, managed to disprove this statement from one of my articles last week in spectacular fashion. The Hawkeye offense mustered only three points and 158 total yards in Saturday’s humiliating 54-10 defeat, with Iowa’s only touchdown of the game being scored by the defense. Iowa committed six turnovers (nine if you count their three turnovers on downs), surrendered five sacks and ten tackles for loss, and failed to produce a single offensive play of over 20 yards. Even after finally pulling the plug on quarterback Spencer Petras in favor of backup Alex Padilla, the offense continued to sputter, with Padilla fumbling his first snap of the game and throwing an interception on his third. Iowa’s defense, which held the Buckeyes to 3-13 on third down and a season-low 360 yards of total offense (compared to their pre-game average of 543.7) had no chance in a game in which their opponent’s starting field position was at its on 46-yard line.
What will it take to right the ship after two years of dreadful offensive performances? Even if the current offensive staff and their outdated playbook were removed from the equation, there would still be serious questions about whether Iowa has the horses to execute a better scheme at high levels of efficiency due to years of poor recruitment and player development on that side of the ball. While many of Iowa’s young offensive players will improve as they gain more experience, the Hawkeyes cannot afford to repeat the same mistake they made last season and assume that player development alone will improve an offense as deficient as theirs. Instead, the Hawkeyes must finally discover something the rest of the college football world is already well-acquainted with: the transfer portal. Iowa was the Big Ten’s least active team in the portal in 2022, but must look seriously at players outside its current roster if it hopes to improve its putrid offense next season.
The Hawkeyes are in no shape to thumb their nose at any talented offensive players interested in joining the team, but there are definitely positions that need to be more urgently addressed than others:
5. Tight End
Iowa will lose Sam LaPorta to the NFL next season, meaning they will have to replace their one reliable pass catcher. However, the Hawkeyes are in decent shape thanks to sophomore Luke Lachey, who is currently 2nd on the team with 163 receiving yards. Iowa also has Steven Stilianos (their sole addition through the transfer portal last season) on the roster, and freshmen Addison Ostrenga and Johnny Pascuzzi have generated some buzz during practice. Iowa can never have too many tight ends considering how much they rely on that position, but this should hardly be the top priority for Iowa’s offensive coaches as they scour the transfer portal during the offseason.
4. Running Back
The Hawkeye backs have been serviceable if not a bit underwhelming this year, though it’s hard to fairly evaluate them given the dysfunction of the offense in general and the line in particular. True freshman Kaleb Johnson has as much upside as any offensive player on the roster and has arguably been Iowa’s best back this season, and Leshon Williams has had his moments as well. Gavin Williams, who was expected to be the number one back, has been relegated to a third-down back and has not run with the same burst or strength he showed last season. Iowa’s desperate need for big play ability could put them in the market for a running back transfer who can provide that sort of spark, especially given that the team only has five tailbacks on scholarship and has gotten solid production from transfers at the position in recent years (James Butler and Mekhi Sargent come to mind). The Hawkeyes may have greater positions of need this offseason, but wouldn’t the offense look better if it had a true workhorse running back like Kenneth Walker, a player who Michigan State snagged in the poral last year?
3. Wide Receiver
Here’s where we reach the part of the list where one could legitimately make the case for any of the remaining position groups to be the top area of focus. Iowa’s wide receiver production has been ghastly this season. While many of the offense’s problems lie at the feet of the quarterback and offensive line, the passing game hasn’t been helped by the fact that Iowa’s receivers take forever to get open downfield. Keagan Johnson, who was supposed to be the engine of the passing attack, has played one half of football this season in which he snagged two catches for 11 yards. Diante Vines has barely played due to injury, Brody Brecht has yet to make much of an impact, and Arland Bruce IV looks more like a complimentary piece than a true WR1. Nico Ragaini will be gone unless he decides to use his extra COVID year and, while I’m not breaking any news here, let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised to see some attrition at this position during the offseason, especially given how productive Charlie Jones has been since escaping the Ferentz orbit.
Iowa is in desperate need of speed, athleticism, and dependability at this position, which will be the case even if returns all its existing wideouts. Wide receiver also happens to be one of the positions where the team could find proven production from players outside the Power Five. College football is littered with high quality receivers who may be looking to jump up a level of competition; of the national leaders in receiving yards, 20 of the top 30 players are on non-Power Five teams. Yet the biggest issue Iowa may have in attracting legitimate wide receiver talent may be the program’s toxic brand surrounding the passing game. Will Iowa be able to appeal to the caliber of wide receivers it needs if these players think they will be catching passes from the Hawkeyes’ current crop of quarterbacks and in its current offensive scheme? Can Iowa weather negative recruiting from coaches who point to Charlie Jones as evidence that Iowa smothers wide receiver talent instead of nurturing it? Barring some significant changes on the offensive coaching staff, Iowa may need to go the JuCo route to address their deficiencies at this position.
2. Offensive Line
Arguably no position has played a bigger role in Iowa’s offensive struggles this year than the line. While the Hawkeyes have recruited well along the offensive line over the past few seasons, they have failed to develop their young talent fast enough to contribute at the level demanded of them in 2022. Iowa’s line should continue to improve next year, especially with the addition of all-world recruit Kaydn Proctor. Still, the Hawkeyes are in desperate need of proven, veteran production among their front five who can mentor and push their young talent while providing quality starts in the meantime. Iowa could use help at every spot along the offensive line; a transfer tackle would allow Iowa to kick Connor Colby inside and give Proctor more time to develop, while a guard or center could add much-needed stability to an interior line that has been routinely abused by opposing defenses this year.
Among Iowa’s greatest positions of need, this is the one where the Hawkeyes can arguably make the strongest pitch. Iowa has a well-earned reputation for developing quality linemen who find success at the next level which could appeal to Power Five, Group of Five, and FBS linemen who have been successful at their current program but are looking to bolster their NFL stock. The complexity of Iowa’s zone blocking scheme could be a deterrent to some transfers, but Coy Cronk learned it quickly enough to become a Week One starter after transferring from Indiana in 2020. Offensive line may not be the most glamorous of positions, but Iowa’s offenses tend to live or die on the strength of their front five. The transfer portal could be a great way to strengthen this position group for 2023.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Petras is gone after this season, and unless Padilla lights the world on fire during the remaining games, it isn’t difficult to imagine him taking his talents elsewhere in 2023 given how reluctant the coaches have been to give him a shot amidst Petras’ struggles. 3rd-stringer Joey Labas still hasn’t closed the gap between himself and the top two quarterbacks, which is concerning given that Iowa’s QBs have thrown only two touchdowns compared to six interceptions this year. That leaves either Carson May becoming the first freshman since 2000 to start multiple games under Kirk Ferentz, or incoming freshman Marco Lainez who won’t enroll in Iowa until summer 2023, making it unlikely that he will win the job in fall camp.
More than any position on the roster, Iowa needs to bring in proven talent at quarterback to compete with the existing players on the team. There has been no shortage of quarterbacks in the portal every season since its inception, and Iowa has to make landing a veteran signal-caller a top offseason priority. Whether this is a proven starter looking to take a step up in competition, a former starter who won games at his previous school and is looking for a change of scenery, or a blue-chipper stuck behind another highly productive underclassman, the Hawkeyes must recognize that their solution at QB may not be on the current roster.
College football is littered with transfer success stories this season, from Hendon Hooker at Tennessee, to Caleb Williams at USC, to Bo Nix at Oregon. Four of the top ten teams in the AP Poll are led by transfer quarterbacks, and four transfer QBs have won the Heisman Trophy since 2010. Even Brad Banks, Iowa’s most accomplished QB in nearly 30 years, transferred twice in his career: once from Central Florida and once from community college. The best way to attract additional skills players on offense is to have a quarterback in place that those athletes want to play with. Unless Iowa can find an answer at quarterback from either the transfer portal or JuCo level, there are reasons to be concerned about how much improvement they will see from that position, and the offense in general, next year.