IOWA CITY, Iowa – When we spoke with college football analyst Phil Steele on our All Hawkeyes/KCJJ podcast recently, he talked about Iowa being a team without star power. Luckily for the Hawkeyes, that’s usually not been a prerequisite for success.
Kirk Ferentz has shown during his 16 years leading the program that a high level of achievement can occur when the whole turns out to be bigger than the sum of its parts. The team left spring ball looking like one that needed to follow that blueprint.
Austin Blythe (Rimington, Outland), Drew Ott (Nagurski) and Jake Duzey (Mackey) have been named to major award watch lists this summer. Desmond King and Jordan Lomax have received preseason attention regionally and nationally.
C.J. Beathard earned recognition within the Big Ten showing flashes of excellence in his on-field capabilities and beyond the conference by overtaking two-year starting quarterback Jake Rudock, who transferred to Michigan. He received immediate eligibility by virtue of him graduating from Iowa.
Mostly, the Hawkeyes will open the season as a group comprised mostly of no-names outside the team’s fan base. Here’s my look at the importance of some of them as measured in my Top 25 player rankings:
25. Dillon Kidd: You could make a case for the senior punter to sit higher up this list. And he is important. I’m just not sure what we have here. I know what we need here – Consistency. Kidd flashed high-end ability at times last year but not often enough. He also was listed as the back-up to Connor Kornbrath (no longer on team) on the pre-Spring Depth Chart.
24. Maurice Fleming: The Chicago standout could overcome Greg Mabin to win the starting cornerback slot opposite Desmond King. In that case, Mabin would see significant minutes. And if Mabin holds down the No 1 spot, Fleming will contribute. Iowa needs three reliable corners, minimum.
23. Jacob Hillyer: Iowa needs a reliable red zone receiver (or tight end). Hillyer has flashed that ability in the past but not done it consistently enough. The Texan can run a route and get open. Improved handles would make him a dangerous man.
22. Henry Krieger Coble: The senior welcomes the chance for which he’s worked. Krieger Coble’s blocking stands out ahead of his route running and hands, but he’s not a stiff. He’s rebounded from some several injuries in his college career so he’ll need to hold up to help out.
21. Ben Niemann: A true sophomore starting at LEO, Niemann brings roughly the same experience that Bo Bower played with at the position a year ago. That didn’t go well. Niemann looks like a natural fit for the spot in the mold of Grant Steen and A.J. Edds. They were farther along in their careers than is Niemann when they enjoyed success. There’s a tall task here.
20. Josey Jewell: I know. This might be way too low on the line-up for the middle linebacker. That’s not a knock on Jewell. That’s more faith in Travis Perry and Cole Fisher as fifth-year seniors being able to plug holes that appear. I like Jewell’s upside a lot but there will be natural growing pains.
19. Adam Cox/Macon Plewa: Iowa missed Cox last year after he went down with a season-ender in August. Cox is the quintessential bowling ball fullback at Iowa who snipers linebackers and accumulates stick marks. Plewa is a slightly bigger version. These two remaining healthy can do nothing but help this offense.
18. LeShun Daniels: If there is a workhorse back on the roster, Vegas would set the odds on that guy being Daniels. At 6-foot, 225 pounds, the Ohio ball carrier brings agility and a nice skill set to a frame that can hold up to physical running. I think Daniels could be this team’s break-out performer in a successful season. He just needs to stay healthy and show it.
17. Ike Boettger: Right tackle is one of those positions you don’t notice unless something goes wrong. Protecting the quarterback’s front side is made more important by the overall lack of experience and known depth at that position. I also think Iowa’s best hole with which to run through in the early season is (from Center) Austin Blythe to Jordan Walsh (RG) to Boettger.
16. Boone Myers: Nobody is stepping into a bigger pair of shoes than is Myers. His predecessor at left tackle, Brandon Scherff, won the Outland Trophy last season. Myers is approaching this assignment with confidence and a moderate cult following. He will be good and he needs to be at least good enough protecting the blind side this season. It will be interesting to see if any of the guys older than Myers will push for the spot.
15. Jaleel Johnson: Big Carl Davis and LTP – Louis Trinca-Pasat – are off to the NFL after two years of anchoring the interior of the defensive line. There’s not a whole lot of experience returning. While that’s always a concern, at least the Hawkeyes bring back some upperclassmen that have been on the field. Johnson leads the way as a potential player to crash the average Hawkeye fan’s consciousness.
14. Greg Mabin: A surprise starter on last year’s defense, Mabin emerged last spring and then ascended to the top spot a summer ago. He began the season strong and helped preserve a win at Pittsburgh with some key plays in crunch time. Teams picked on him as the year advanced with some success so he’s going to have to fight off Maurice Fleming for his starting spot.
13. Nate Meier: The Western Iowa product has defied the odds throughout his career. A second-year starter off the edge, Meier overcomes natural physical deficiencies normally associated with the position. The former eight-man footballer can chase the quarterback. His ability to hang in against the run might play a big role in the success of this defense.
12. Miles Taylor: One of the most inexperienced members of the starting defense, Taylor plays an important position. He replaces two-year starter Johnny Lowdermilk at strong safety. Brandon Snyder, another player only in his second season on campus, underwent off-season surgery on his foot and may miss some, if not all of August camp, making Taylor an even more important player.
11. Matt Vandeberg: Kevonte Martin-Manley’s exit opens up the possession receiver responsibilities for Vandeberg. He’s capable and sneaky getting underneath a defense. The South Dakota native catches most everything thrown his way. His improvement as a blocker should not be overlooked if this offense gains necessary consistency.
10. Jordan Canzeri: It seems a forgone conclusion for some folks that an injury will take out Canzeri early and render him helpless for the rest of the year. I think he gets first crack at the top tailback spot and if he can hold up will see the most work. A fifth-year senior, the New York native should be at optimum strength on his shorter frame. He’s no smaller than Fred Russell.
9. Jake Duzey: The senior would be higher on the list if he were healthy. And the sooner he returns, the better for the Hawkeyes. The Ohio native delivers big plays at tight end and can take advantage of defenses leaving open the intermediate routes between the seams.
8. Bo Bower: Iowa’s most experienced linebacker carries a year of starts under his belt. And he’s lining up in a different location. All of the linebackers feed off each other. Iowa received its most inconsistent output from the WILL in ’15. You have to think Bower can bring some stability and athleticism to the other side.
7. Marshal Koehn: Iowa plays a lot of close games, regardless of the competition level. That usually makes the field goal kicker important. After early-season struggles as a first-year starter in ’15, the walk-on from Solon settled in as a reliable kicker. He also did well on kickoffs, where he led the Big Ten and ranked eighth nationally in touchback percentage (63.2%). In conference, he ranked second in touchbacks (43) and seventh in field goal percentage (75%) .
6. Jordan Lomax: Iowa boasts experience in the back-end relative to other units on the squad, but it benefits from having a smart, experienced free safety. Lomax fits that description well. The D. C. defender experienced hiccups in his first season as a starter in ’15 but improved as the campaign progressed. If he can cover consistently well, he’ll enjoy a breakout senior season.
5. Tevaun Smith: The Canadian Comet embarks on his final college season with a chance to greatly impact this team. We head into Year 4 of Greg Davis waiting for these big plays of which he’s spoke to surface after four years. We’ve caught glimpses of them against poor defenses, but no where near enough of them. Smith offers the tools of a playmaker. The opening play to him at the Taxslayer Bowl might have been the highlight of the game.
4. Austin Blythe: Every good O-Line requires an anchor. With Branding Scherff off to Washington, that responsibility shifts inside to Blythe. The Williamsburg (IA) High quietly goes about his business as one of the premier blockers in the Big Ten. There’s a good chance that the holes on this front will be on the interior.
3. Desmond King: A consistent pass rush and a lock-down cornerback (or two) rank highly on the wish list of defensive coordinators. King continues to build his legacy of an under-the-radar prospect turned premier cover man in the Big Ten. The Detroit product adds being a reliable tackler to his broad skill set.
2. Drew Ott: Iowa’s most important piece on defense is poised for a head-turning senior year. More of a situational defensive end as a true sophomore starter, the Nebraska native showed he can be an every-down defender last fall. It’s a loaded field of defensive linemen in the Big Ten this season and Ott belongs in that group.
1. C.J. Beathard: I’m not sure this one needs a long explanation. He’s simply the most important player on the roster. If he gets hurt, the season is in serious (serious) jeopardy. Adding to the intrigue is his desire (and ability) to run the ball. He’s good at it and it’s part of his game. The ceiling here could be special. Quite a few folks are banking on it being that.