IOWA CITY, Iowa – Few seasons have gone by in the Kirk Ferentz Era where an unknown player or two hasn’t emerged as a significant contributor.
Tommy Gaul came off the radar to help the offensive line a year ago. Likewise, John Kenny stepped in and contributed in a meaningful way when injuries hit at fullback.
Those guys are gone. It’s time for more no-names to emerge.
Who knows? We could find the next Ramon "Razor" Ochoa or Bradley Fletcher as seniors stepping forward. Perhaps a first- or second-year player arrives.
Here are 10 candidates capable of hopping into the consciousness of the casual Hawkeye fans’ minds:
10. Jon Wisnieski: There’s not much to go on there outside of potential and pedigree, The question revolves around opportunity. Wisnieski could be a year away in that regard. If the chance presents itself, however, this is a kid that looks like he could surpass expectations. The future is bright.
9. Matt Nelson: The redshirt freshman from Cedar Rapids comes with a pedigree after choosing Iowa ahead of Notre Dame and Stanford. That’s an uncommon bio entry for players on the Iowa roster. Nelson exited spring as the likely No. 3 defensive end behind starters Drew Ott and Nate Meier. His ability to consistently and effectively spell those guys would be a key in maintaining a consistent pass rush.
8. Maurice Fleming: The Chicago arrived at Iowa with plenty of buzz generated on the recruiting trail. Injuries have slowed his development and he’s become somewhat of a forgotten man. But the skills that made him an intriguing prospect surfaced towards the end of last season and the realizing of potential continued through the spring. He’s still behind projected starters Desmond King and Greg Mabin at cornerback but Fleming is the next man in and will see reps in nickel and dime packages at the very least.
7. Nathan Bazata: Another diamond in rough, in this case rural Nebraska, located by assistant Reese Morgan, who coaches the defensive line, Bazata worked his way up the depth chart last fall as a redshirt freshman. He saw the field, albeit on a limited basis, but he shouldn’t be overwhelmed in front of the crowd when he trots on the turf as a projected starter. Bazata is a smaller lineman who understands leverage.
6. Derrick Mitchell Jr.: The St. Louis product moved from receiver to running back after catching the eyes of coaches as a scout team ball carrier mimicking Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. There’s been talk of Mitchell filing the third-down role previously occupied by Damon Bullock but injury or ineffectiveness could increase his opportunities.
5. Jay Scheel: His emergence as an offensive threat would be a great story and benefit this team a great deal. Scheel has been slowed by injuries dating back to high school but offers the skill set at receiver Iowa has been missing on with out-of-state recruits. Scheel played quarterback in high school but transferring the elusiveness and big-play ability he used as a signal caller to receiver could follow the paths of Marvin McNutt and Darrell Johnson-Koulianos.
4. Travis Perry: The former Urbandale (IA) High standout provides the position with a veteran influence that could prove invaluable with three sophomores projected to start. Perry is a good athlete and can play all three linebacker positions. If there’s an injury or ineffective play, Perry should be the man who gets the call from the coaches. He’s also a key cog on special teams.
3. George Kittle: A high school wide receiver, Kittle has bulked up and sharpened his skills to settle in as a tight end. Kittle has a handle on the receiving part of the position. If he can prove to be a reliable blocker, you’ve got all-Big Ten potential here. He also has to overcome two seniors at his spot in Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger Coble. The former is expected to miss some of the early season opening the door for Kittle to show his stuff.
2. Jordan Walsh: The talent is there, for sure. And perhaps the edge came out late in the year when the soft-spoken Chicago product lashed out at an opponent for what he felt was a cheap shot. Perhaps it was just an isolated incident but we can hope Walsh develops the mean streak to impose his will on defenders. He needs to be a consistent, productive force on an O-Line that lacks experience. Walsh stands out as a guy who could realize his potential this season.
1. Jaleel Johnson: The former four-star recruit waited for his time and it has arrived. Johnson looked very good in the spring, kind of like a bull in a China Shop. He likely would have contributed more last year if not for the experience of Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat at defensive tackle. Johnson is Iowa’s best bet to go from non-starter to all-Big Ten this year, although it’s a deep group on the D-Line in conference.