Harty: Operation Sustain Success starts this week for the 2016 Iowa football team,
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Wednesday marks the beginning of Operation Sustain Success.
That’s not the official title of the challenge facing the Iowa football team heading into spring practice, but rather my name it for because that’s what the 2016 season ultimately comes down to.
Can head coach Kirk Ferentz and celebrated quarterback C.J. Beathard, along with a host of other returning starters, including possibly four on the defensive line should all-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott win his appeal for a medical hardship, do it again?
Can they win another Big Ten West Division or take it a step higher by winning the Big Ten Championship?
It might be asking too much for Beathard and his cohorts to finish the regular season undefeated as they did last season at 12-0.
But clearly, the challenge for Ferentz heading into his 18th season as head coach is to keep Iowa relevant.
Ferentz addressed that challenge during a press conference on Tuesday in preparation for the start of spring practice.
"We haven’t sustained so well at times,"Ferentz said. "So it really gets down to the same story every January. You start over again, and typically you have some good players coming back, and you’ve lost some good players. So it’s all about the opportunity for everybody, but it’s everybody at every level.
"The older guys like C.J. and (linebacker) Josey Jewell, if they play the way they did last year, it’s not going to be good enough. We’re going to need them to play better. And that’s true of all the guys that have played. And then the guys that haven’t played have to step in and able to play a role. And then we have to have the younger guys supporting those guys and moving along because you just never know when somebody is going to be called into the action."
The circumstances are night and day from a year ago when Ferentz was the source of jokes and ridicule in the wake of Iowa’s late-season meltdown in 2014.
He is now back in the good graces with fans, even with the 45-16 Rose Bowl debacle against Stanford still fresh in their minds.
But that would change quickly if Iowa struggles in 2016. Any record worse than 9-3 probably would qualify as a disappointment, especially if one of the three losses were against you know who over in Ames with a new head coach.
Iowa has the luxury of facing Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium this coming season, although, it’s not always a luxury, considering the Cyclones have won two of the last three games in Iowa City.
Should Iowa, which has 13 starters returning, struggle this fall, the fear would be that 2015 was a repeat of 2009 when Iowa finished 11-2 before slipping into a five-year stretch from 2010-14 in which the Hawkeyes were okay at times – finishing 8-5 in 2014 – but just 34-30 overall and 19-21 in the Big Ten.
Finding adequate replacements for all-Big Ten guard Jordan Walsh and all-Big Ten center Austin Blythe will be one of the top priorities this spring.
Fullback is another uncertainty, with the one-two punch of Macon Plewa and Adam Cox having used up their eligibility last season.
Both kicking specialists have to be replaced, so that by itself brings uncertainty for next season because an unreliable kicking game can turn a 10-2 regular season into a 7-5 disappointment in the time in takes to miss three field goals.
Desmond King’s decision to return for his senior season was significant in terms of performance and perception. Only one team has the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner – which goes to the top collegiate defensive back – returning and it’s Iowa.
King flirted with declaring early for the NFL draft before deciding that being a Hawkeye cornerback and return specialist for one more season was in his best interest.
There is much to like about Iowa’s 2016 team on both sides of the ball. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Jewell is a star-in-the-making as a junior middle linebacker, while senior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten.
There are two huge voids to fill on the offensive line with all-Big Ten guard Jordan Walsh and all-Big Ten center Austin Blythe having used up their eligibility last season. They combined for 86 starts and each performed at an extremely high level last season.
But there is also a wealth of experience returning on the offensive line, altogether five players who have started at least one game.
Three of Iowa’s top four running backs also return, including junior Akrum Wadley, who now weighs 190 pounds thanks to adding five pounds of muscle.
Senior receiver Matt VandeBerg is coming off a season in which he caught 65 passes for 703 yards and four touchdowns. He rarely drops a pass and has a knack for making catches to extend drives.
Sophomore Jerminic Smith showed the ability to create space and get open as a true freshmen last season. The Texan native will need to do more of that this fall as Iowa moves on without departed senior Tevaun Smith.
Ferentz was cautiously optimistic on Tuesday, which is typical for him. Whether the best of times or the worst of times, Ferentz’s mood or outlook hardly changes.
He stressed that each team is different and that the 2016 squad has no credit or debt at this point.
Spring practice won’t be any different despite coming off a historical season.
"You start with an even balance and get to move on to a new year with a new team and new opportunities," Ferentz said. "So that being said, the objectives for spring remain pretty much the same as they always are. First and foremost it’s a chance to install our system offensively and defensively and special-teams wise and see how the guys do learning."