We’re heading into the weekend after less than a full week of the NCAA transfer portal being open for college football athletes and the frenzy has been in full force since day one. A season ago, the Hawkeyes were big participants in the madness. Coming off a disappointing season that left Iowa on the outside looking in for the Big Ten Championship Game, the Hawkeyes were able to target several key positions of need with a sales pitch centered around a West title and immediate playing time.
Fast forward to this cycle and Iowa is now coming off of a division title despite the worst offense in the nation. Seemingly, the needs on that side of the ball remain. But the pitch of immediate playing time? That may not be there.
In fact, Iowa may not even have room for transfers, let alone playing time to sell in the portal. As noted in our transfer portal entry tracker, the Hawkeyes entered last weekend three scholarship players over the limit for 2024, assuming no players potentially considering an early exit for the NFL opted to leave.
Since then, we’ve seen four Hawkeyes enter the transfer portal (be sure to check the portal tracker, which will be updated as others enter). That takes Iowa officially under the limit with 84 players currently slated to be on scholarship when the 20-member class of 2024 arrives next summer.
It’s worth noting that the scholarship limit only applies in season, so theoretically the Hawkeyes could go above 85 scholarship players for spring ball and have players opt to transfer after that window to get back under 85 for fall camp.
With that, let’s evaluate the likelihood of current players opting to return to Iowa City for another season in 2024 who could depart for the NFL or end their college playing careers. That includes a total of eight Hawkeyes from the 2023 group. Notably, almost all are on the defensive side of the ball.
Yahya Black is a name that wasn’t necessarily expected to show up here before the season started. But Black had a great season, finishing with 50 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He was a mainstay in the middle of the Iowa defense and began showing up on draft boards down the stretch. At 6’5” and 315 pounds, he has an NFL body and just needed to show it on the field this year. Mission accomplished.
So will Black leave early?
Nothing formal has been announced, but it sounds like Black has decided to come back for one more ride in Iowa City. That would be a huge piece added to the middle of the Iowa defense, especially considering Anterio Thompson chose to enter the portal. The Hawkeyes are lacking depth at defensive tackle.
Tight end Luke Lachey was a totally different story. Entering the year, Lachey seemed like he was clearly poised to be the next great Iowa tight end to extend the program’s legacy of NFL tight ends. But an injury before we even got to conference play totally derailed the play.
Lachey has the physical tools, but his on field production has been limited by injury so far. He’s a guy who certainly could recover in time for the combine (and possibly even play in the bowl game January 1st) and would no doubt be drafted. But he may also have the opportunity to climb draft boards in a big way if he came back for next season and produced.
The verdict? Limited rumblings out there on Lachey, but I would call this one close to 50/50.
Is this one even a question? Cooper DeJean is a unquestionably the highest potential draft pick of this year’s crop of Hawkeyes. The Nagurski and Thorpe Award finalist was an All-American in 2023 as the Big Ten’s top defensive back and return specialist. A month ago, he was a sure-fire 1st round pick and likely a top-15 pick as one of the top two corners off the board.
But then he was injured. And while that may have impacted the outcomes of Iowa’s final few games, it also may have impacted DeJean’s draft stock. His broken bone is typically a six week recovery and thus he should be fine for the combine and there should be no lingering impacts into 2024.
So no impact on his draft stock and no chance he turns down that paycheck, right? Right?!?
Not so fast my friends. There is still a very small chance that the recovery timetable from the injury means that DeJean risks not being in peak shape for the NFL combine and thus could be pushed to come back. Because while slipping a few spots seems like no big deal, the dropoff from a mid-first rounder to a second rounder in terms of guaranteed money is significant.
Beyond that, as a consensus All-American, there is also the potential of being one of only a handful of former Hawkeyes to earn those honors twice and have the DeJean name on the Kinnick pess box. Not only that, but (just go with me here) has become a name that could do the unthinkable. He finally saw some time on offense last year and was in fact injured while practicing on that side of the ball. Could we see him used there more regularly in 2024? If so, he might be the first primarily defensive player to actually make a run at -gasp- the Heisman if he were to return.
Oh, and he has hinted at it himself off the record.
Senior cash Sebastian Castro is a guy who really fits on both lists. Long one of my favorite guys to watch because every time you see him on the field he looks like he is absolutely shot out of a cannon, Castro made a name for himself nationally this year as other people found out just that.
He finished the year with 61 tackles and three interceptions, including a pick-six against Iowa State, and now finds himself as a potential draftee. But he does have a COVID year he could use and is right at the top of the list of guys Phil Parker and the Swarm collective would like to hold on to.
Rumor now is that he is leaning toward coming back.
While Castro really gained notoriety this season, Harris was a bit of a different story. After sitting the first two games of the year, the senior found himself picked on a bit as he was opposite Cooper DeJean until his injury. But he rose to the occasion and ended the year as Iowa best healthy corner.
He finished the season with 39 tackles and a team-high 8 pass breakups to go with a lone interception. Harris proved himself enough to earn a shot at the next level. But he could also be the anchor of the Iowa secondary in 2024 and in today’s NIL world that too comes with a modest payday.
Like Castro, Harris is now rumored to be leaning toward coming back.
Less heralded than either Castro or Harris, safety Quinn Schulte was noted as the quarterback of the Iowa defense in 2023. He was an integral part of one of the best defenses in the nation, finishing with 60 tackles, 4 passes broken up and an interception. Now he’s facing a choice.
Schulte figures to be a late round selection or undrafted free agent who gets a shot in training camp. There are few guarantees there and a shot to run it back in Iowa City sounds like it may appeal to Schulte.
Have you spotted a trend here yet?
Senior linebacker Jay Higgins is the one who perhaps most aligns with Sebastian Castro. After sitting behind stars such as Jack Campbell, Higgins paid his dues and got his shot in 2023. He did not disappoint, leading the Big Ten in tackles and earning 1st Team All-America honors from PFF. Higgins was incredible in his senior season with 155 total tackles, a sack and one interception.
But despite the absurd stats, Higgins lacks ideal size for the next level. There’s not much he could do physically to improve his draft stock and statistically, it’s hard to envision doing much better than leading the Big Ten in tackles. But the flip side is size is size and the NFL is a brutal business. Even with his remarkable talent, his draft position is capped.
It’s one reason Higgins is said to be 50/50 on taking another year in Iowa City and perhaps on the staying side of 50. Several people have said if fellow linebacker Nick Jackson were to be back, Higgins would be back no question.
That takes us to our last player with a decision to make. And before we get into that, let’s start with how Nick Jackson has a decision. The grad transfer has exhausted his eligibility. Except he transferred to Iowa from Virginia, which did not complete their 2022 season after the death of multiple teammates. Now Jackson and other former Cavaliers have the opportunity to petition for an extra year.
Like Higgins, Jackson is not the ideal size for the NFL despite his elite production profile and high level talent. That isn’t going to change between now and next year. And because of that, it sounds like Jackson is very seriously considering making that petition. Like Higgins, the rumor is if he were to have a chance to run it back with his linebacking running mate, Jackson would sign up for it.
For those keeping track, of the eight players with a choice to make on the NFL or graduation, only Cooper DeJean sounds like he is well below 50% to come back. If Iowa were to return seven or even six of these guys, it would be a remarkable haul that would likely exceed the portal additions they brought in a year ago. Even if just a few of these players return, the prospects for Iowa in 2024 go way up.
But with that potential comes the scholarship problem. The 84 number outlined above does not include any of the five potential super seniors. If any were to return, the Hawkeyes would likely need departures after spring ball to make room for any transfer portal additions.
In short, things are looking up for the Hawkeyes in 2024, but their ability to be active in the transfer portal is severely limited by the potential returns of several key pieces from 2023.