Iowa football is cautiously optimistic

Bowl victory followed by preseason ranking places expectations on Hawkeyes

AP PHOTO - University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz speaks during the team’s football media day event Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Ferentz begins his 21st season as the head coach at Iowa.

IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes come off a 9-4 season and an Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State and in doing so have won 37 games in the last four-year stretch. Iowa was also ranked 19th in the Coaches Preseason Poll and picked to finish second in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division behind Nebraska.

While the team returns several key parts, each side of the ball still has a few ongoing position battles with both offense and defense each expressing one primary concern.

For the offense, it’s figuring out who will be the dependable targets for quarterback Nate Stanley to throw to, and for the defense it’s hoping that the adjustment of its new defensive scheme has been successful.

Offense:

Obviously leading the offense is the senior QB Stanley, a three-year starter. Last season, Stanley threw 26 touchdowns, 2,852 yards while being intercepted 10 times. Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes will have to replace a large portion of its receiving corps. For context, of the 235 catches made last season, the team returns only 92 of them.

“Nate knows who he is. Nate knows what he’s not,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “He’s a very good technician. He knows how to use his body. He knows how to use the fundamentals of route running and create space and get open. I think he is a much better player than he gets credit for, but then again I understand it. You sit in the shadows and wait in the winds for a while you have to go out and demonstrate that.”

The main variable lost in the passing game is the tight end position as T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were both taken in the first round of the NFL draft. The duo combined for 88 catches, 1,279 yards and 13 touchdowns. 

As of now, senior Nate Wieting has impressed his coaches early on with his leadership skills. Despite the early impressions made by Wieting, the coaching staff still has high expectations for junior Shaun Beyer and senior Drew Cook.

Overall, the biggest point of emphasis is to not force the type of tight end play from last season.

“We’re not going to ask anybody to be anybody else or fill anybody else’s role,” Brian said. “We’ll look different offensively than maybe we did a year ago at times and maybe we’ll look similar. It will depend on what we can handle there. The only thing they can worry about is getting better every day [and] trying to improve the best they can so that their skill set is getting better and pushing forward and getting to a point in helping our football team move the ball. They have done that.”

The Hawkeyes will return to a now-healthy and deep trio of running backs between juniors Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Sargent had a breakout season after Young and Kelly-Martin dealt with injuries and he led the team in rushing, as he ran for 745 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“I think that group right now, the group of those three guys that have been on the field, that’s a really healthy group of guys,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They’re good players. They care about each other. They complement each other well, and if we can go into the season with all three of them healthy, it would be our job to figure out how to use them really intelligently.”

As for the offensive line, redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum is set to be starting center with juniors Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson looking to be the starting tackles. So far there is an ongoing battle for guard which looks to be a showdown between senior twins Levi and Landan Paulsen and junior Cole Banwart.

Defense:

Last season the Hawkeyes finished statistically as a top-10 overall defense in the country, but the biggest concern for the team is being comfortable with the 4-2-5 alignment the team transitioned into mid-season. However, Kirk has felt that the team has accomplished it smoothly in the offseason.

“The personnel of the teams that we play and face, the world keeps going in the direction of three, four receivers on the field at one time I think that makes it more of a viable possibility, and then the other factor is how we do,” Kirk said. “There’s a lot of variables that go into it but it’s certainly going to be part of we are moving forward.”

At the helm of the defense was the defensive line led by junior end A.J. Epenesa who led the team with 10.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Heading into 2019, Epenesa could be considered one of the top pass rushers in the Big Ten, but Kirk has raised the bar for his defensive end.

“He has not started a game, and that’s only a byproduct of us having some really good players in front of him, but he’s a tremendous talent,” Kirk said. “He’s done a lot of good things already, but now the challenge is to play 60, 70 snaps in a ballgame and play them as well as he possibly can. So it’s another step for him. He works hard. He’s got a great attitude. There’s no reason to think he won’t be a better player this year.”

In the secondary, the biggest question mark is whether sophomore Kaevon Merriweather or junior Geno Stone will be able to replace Jake Gervase and play the role of signal-caller.

“I think we have position flexibility, it’s good for both of them to work there and be involved in that,” Kirk said. “But those guys clearly have risen at this point to be the top two guys, with Geno obviously being ahead, [and] more experienced. The more work Kaevon can get back there doing that, that’s going to be beneficial for him. I think the picture will be a little bit more clear after another 10, 12 days here.”

Iowa will open the season at home against Miami (Ohio) on Aug. 31 with kickoff set for 6:30 p.m.

2019 Iowa Football Schedule

Aug. 31, MIAMI (OH), 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

Sept. 7, RUTGERS, 11 a.m. (FS1)

Sept. 14, at Iowa St., 3 p.m. (FS1)

Sept. 28, MIDDLE TENNESSEE ST.

Oct. 5, at Michigan, 11 a.m.

Oct. 12, PENN ST.

Oct. 19, PURDUE, 11 a.m.

Oct. 26, at Northwestern, 11 a.m.

Nov. 9, at Wisconsin

Nov. 16, MINNESOTA

Nov. 23, ILLINOIS

Nov. 29, at Nebraska (BTN)