Much of the talk about Iowa's potential for success in 2014 has focused on the returning talent -- the multi-year starters in the trenches on both sides of the ball, a pair of QBs with game experience, considerable returning starts at WR and TE, the most depth we've seen at RB in almost a decade -- and that's logical. We know what those guys can do because we've seen them perform when the lights are on and the games matter. There's no question that Iowa will need strong performances from Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis, Austin Blythe, Drew Ott, Jake Rudock, Mark Weisman, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Ray Hamilton, etc. if they're going to maximize their potential this season.
But Iowa's success this year could (and likely will) turn heavily on the performances of some newcomers (or relative newcomers) to the field this season. They're going to be asked to step up and produce for Iowa because there aren't returning starters and proven commodities across the board for the Hawkeyes. Here are five guys to keep an eye on this year. (NOTE: I'm omitting true freshmen from this list for two reasons. One, there's another post coming shortly talking about true freshmen playing time. Two, I don't think anyone in this year's true freshman class will be a huge difference-maker in 2014, although I could be very wrong about that.)
Greg Mabin, CB, SO
Desmond King has one CB spot locked down in the Iowa secondary, but the other top CB spot has been up for grabs through spring and summer practices. Conventional wisdom has favored Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper because of their relative experience advantages. Draper, a junior, saw action in 11 games in 2012 as a true freshman and in 9 games as a sophomore last year. To date, he's logged nine solo tackles, two assists, and two pass break-ups. Fleming redshirted in 2012 but played in 8 games last season, notching three tackles and a forced fumble (against Western Michigan). They've both had their ups and downs when we've seen them in limited action over the past two seasons.
Mabin, on the other hand, is more of an unknown quantity at cornerback. He arrived at Iowa as a wide receiver, then flipped to cornerback after Kirk Ferentz suggested a position switch after the 2012 season. He spent last year in Phil Parker's Defensive Back Incubator, learning how to play the position and switch his instincts from offense to defense. It would make sense that Fleming and Draper would be ahead of Mabin -- they've been playing the position longer than him and they've played against actual college competition. And yet I can't shake the feeling that Mabin will end up the starting CB for Iowa this year. Or at least that the coaches really want him to end up as the other CB opposite King. Ferentz has singled him out for praise in a few pressers already and Phil Parker was practically effusive when discussing him for BTN during their visit to Iowa's practice the other day. Whether the coaches are so high on Mabin because they're not entirely sold on Draper or Fleming or because they really like Mabin's upside (or perhaps both), I really think he'll play quite a bit this year. He may not end up starting against UNI in a little over a week, but it won't shock me if he's moved into the starting lineup by mid-October.
Josey Jewell, LB, RS FR
Jewell redshirted a year ago, but he's been turning heads at spring and fall practice and drawing raves from the coaches. When you hear Phil Parker saying something like this:
"Jewell has really showed up out there, just as a football player," Parker said. "He was an inside backer behind Q [Quinton Alston] and Reggie [Spearman], really as a backup Will [linebacker]. And we look at it and say, ‘Who is the guy going out and making plays?'
"You just watch the film and you just watch the guys running around on tape and you see him tracking guys down. Somewhere, he's going to have to fit in our system, OK, because when you give that much effort and you attack the football the way he does and make plays the way he's done, he's going to probably show up. Does he know everything right now? Not yet, but he still has a long way to go."
...it seems like a pretty safe bet that they want to get him on the field. And I don't think he's just talking about putting him on special teams coverage units (although he seems like a good bet to see time there as well). Barring any injuries or other developments in the next week, Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman, and Travis Perry seem pretty locked in as Iowa's LB starters. But it feels like the coaches are going to figure out ways to get Josey on the field. Iowa also had tremendous good fortune when it came to linebackers last year and while I certainly hope it continues this year, they play a really physical position and it would hardly be a surprise if one of Alston, Spearman, or Perry had to miss some time this fall. Jewell seems well-positioned to be the next man in if that does happen.
George Kittle, TE, SO
Unlike the other guys on this list, Kittle isn't a completely unknown quantity in terms of game action -- he caught five passes for 108 yards last season, highlighted by a 47-yard reception on a wheel route against Missouri State. His most productive day might have been against Purdue, when he hauled in three passes for 37 yards. Kittle was also a star at Iowa's open practice a week ago and while results there should always be taken with a grain of salt, Kittle's another guy who's been earning praise from the coaching staff. He also fits nicely into what Iowa likes to do on offense. Iowa has a nice set of weapons at tight end and Kittle might be nominally listed behind Jake Duzey on the depth chart, but Kittle's speed, hands, and ability to stretch the field should ensure that he sees more than a handful of snaps on offense this year. Iowa also ran three tight end sets on a few occasions last year; it would hardly be a surprise to see that formation return this year, with Ray Hamitlon, Duzey, and Kittle giving defenses plenty to worry about.
Akrum Wadley or Jonathan Parker, RB, RS FR
This is a little bit more of a hunch than a prediction I feel strongly about, but hey. Wadley (and fellow redshirt freshman Jonathan Parker) have seen a fair number of carries in the running game this summer, which probably has more to do with the coaches choosing to rest Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock, and Jordan Canzeri at times (no need for them to take unnecessary damage before the season begins) than it does their likelihood of seeing snaps at running back this fall, barring the triumphant return of AIRBHG. (no whammies no whammies no whammies) But Wadley and Parker have worked at kick returner this summer as well and Canzeri's emergence in the running game could lead to the coaches dialing back his role as a kick returner. When/if that happens, Wadley and/or Parker seem well-positioned to pick up the slack there. Kickoff returner isn't a position with multiple opportunities to impact a game, but it is a spot where one guy can make a very big impact in those limited opportunities. If Wadley (or Parker) has the speed and the wiggle to break a return -- or even just consistently set Iowa up with solid field position -- that could be a boon for a team that can use all the breaks it can get on offense.
Derrick Willies, WR, RS FR
We've talked a lot about Willies already -- including in Assume the Position this very week -- and we'll likely talk about him plenty more. He was that promising in Iowa's two open practices last spring and he's earned glowing write-ups all summer. Part of that is a fanbase hungry for another breakout wide receiver; the past decade or so of Hawkeye football has seen the likes of Mo Brown, Ed Hinkel, DJK, and Marvin McNutt and all due respect to Kevonte Martin-Manley, who's been a model of consistency for Iowa over the past few seasons... but consistency doesn't often set hearts aflutter. Willies may not do that this year, either -- maybe he'll just be a "spring game sensation" rather than The Next Big Thing, or maybe he just won't see enough opportunities when he's (seemingly) behind KMM, Jacob Hillyer, and Tevaun Smith in an offense that doesn't produce a ton of opportunities for wide receivers -- but hope springs eternal. And I think Willies will do enough to warrant least some of the hype this year -- or maybe just enough to get the hype train really rolling for next year.
So there's five newcomers who could make a big difference for Iowa this fall. Which newcomers do you think could be key for Iowa this season? Hit up the comments.