IOWA CITY, Iowa – With at least 13 starters returning from a 12-win team, including dynamic quarterback C.J. Beathard, there is plenty to like about the 2016 Iowa football team.
There is so much to like that Iowa is the popular choice to repeat as the Big Ten West Division champion, slightly ahead of Wisconsin.
Iowa is far being elite, though, as its 45-16 loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl so painfully demonstrated.
A number of key players have to be replaced from last season, players such as all-Big Ten center Austin Blythe, all-Big Ten guard Jordan Walsh, dependable tight end Henry Krieger Coble, running back Jordan Canzeri, linebacker Cole Fisher, defensive back Jordan Lomax and the top two fullbacks.
All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott also won’t be available this season should the NCAA deny his medical hardship appeal for a fifth year.
So even with all the returning talent, Iowa has its share of concerns heading into spring practice, which started on Wednesday. Here are my eight biggest concerns in order:
1. Keeping C.J. Beathard healthy – His ability to stay upright last season was a testimony to his courage, pain tolerance and desire to win.
Iowa’s all-Big Ten quarterback has to stay healthy in order for the 2016 team to reach its potential. Beathard has shown a knack for making the right decisions at the right times and his teammates feed off his energy and confidence.
Iowa was fortunate that Beathard’s injuries weren’t serious enough last season that he couldn’t play. He is nearly fully recovered after having sports hernia surgery in January and good to go according to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
The challenge now is to keep Beathard that way.
"He should be able to practice full speed out there," Ferentz said Tuesday. "We’ll be careful about what we do with him because he’s still a little bit delicate at this point, but he’s doing really well with his rehab.
"Typically, after those guys get the repairs on the sports hernias it’s a matter of climbing the ladder.
2. The kicking game – Iowa has to replace its starting kicker and punter from last season. That always is cause for concern.
Sophomore walk-on Miguel Recinos is the leading candidate to replace Marshall Koehn as the starting kicker, a job that Koehn held for the past two seasons. Recinos made his only two point-after kicks last season, but has not attempted a field goal.
Sophomore Mick Ellis, who is on scholarship, will compete for the kicking job. Ellis made all seven of his point-after kicks in 2014, but missed his only field-goal attempt last season.
Redshirt freshman walk-on Colton Rastetter is listed as the No. 1 punter heading into spring practice, ahead of Ben Canby, who is also a redshirt freshman walk-on. They’re competing to replace Dillon Kidd, who averaged 40.2 yards per attempt last season while earning honorable mention all-Big Ten.
Central Michigan transfer Ron Coluzzi also will compete for the punting job and could figure in the kicking competition as well.
Both of the new kicking specialists could prove to be stars or they could be major disappointments or just average. Nobody knows how they’ll respond on the big stage. And that’s a concern.
3. Development of the offensive line – The good news is that five players return on the offensive line with starting experience. The bad news is that Blythe and Walsh aren’t part of the group. They exhausted their eligibility in the Rose Bowl after combining for 86 starts.
The performance of the Iowa offensive line was one of the pleasant surprises last season. But much of it had to do with Walsh and Blythe performing at an extremely high level in the interior.
Junior Sean Welsh seems poised to be Iowa’s next great offensive lineman despite being undersized at 6-foot-3 and 288 pounds, He has started 23 games, mostly at guard, but will play center during spring practice with James Daniels out with an injury.
Ferentz compared Welsh to former Hawkeye lineman and current NFL star Marshal Yanda because of Welsh’s versatility and dependability.
But Iowa’s other returning offensive linemen are either still works in progress in the case of tackles Cole Croston and Ike Boettger and guard Boone Myers, or they’re inexperienced.
“One of the reasons we had a successful football team last year was that we did improve,” Ferentz said. “Our oldest guys played like our oldest guys, and whether you look at it that way or how they progressed from March until December, they improved there too. So that’s always kind of been the theme and it will remain that way."
4. Replacing Tevaun Smith at receiver – Senior Matt VandeBerg was Iowa’s most productive and dependable receiver last season, catching 65 passes for 703 yards and four touchdowns.
But Tevaun Smith was Iowa’s most explosive receiver and now he is gone, leaving a void that sophomore Jerminic Smith hopes to fill.
Smith showed the ability to get separation and make catches in traffic as a true freshman last season. The Garland, Texas native caught six passes for 141 yards, averaging a whopping 23.5 yards per reception.
"We lost a really good player in Tevaun, certainly," Ferentz said. "So that whole group, we’re going to need some guys to step up.
5. Defensive end without Drew Ott – One player hardly makes a defense. But one player would make a huge difference for Iowa at defensive end should Drew Ott win his medical-hardship appeal.
But without Ott, defensive turns into a question mark. Sophomore Parker Hesse showed potential as a playmaker while starting nine games last season when Ott was injured. Hesse recorded 44 tackles, two sacks, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and returned his only interception four yards for a touchdown against Nebraska.
Sophomore Matt Nelson is listed as the starter at left defensive end heading into spring practice. He brings a different kind of size to the position at 6-8 and 275 pounds. Redshirt freshman defensive end Anthony Nelson (no relation) also stands tall at 6-7.
But can they pressure the quarterback and contain the edge? There is no proof to answer that question.
"We have a couple potential rebounders for sure," Ferentz said of Nelson and Nelson.
6. Developing a new starting fullback – The rugged one-two punch of Macon Plewa and Adam Cox has moved on as both players were seniors last season. They brought toughness and dependability to an unheralded position that is crucial to Iowa’s running game.
Junior walk-on Drake Kulick fits the mold of an Iowa fullback at 6-1 and 236 pounds of muscle. Likewise for 6-1, 240-pound backup Brady Ross, who came to Iowa as a walk-on linebacker.
You don’t make it on the Iowa depth chart at fullback without being tough and fearless. Now we just have to wait and see if Ross and Kulick can uphold the standard set by Plewa and Cox.
7. Developing another pass-catching tight end – The loss of tight end Henry Krieger Coble to graduation is significant, considering he ranked second on the team last season with 35 catches for 405 yards.
His cousin, George Kittle, should help fill that hole after scoring six touchdowns on just 20 receptions last season. Sophomore Jameer Outsey was used primarily as a blocker last season, but his role should expand without Krieger Coble on the team.
8. The 2016 Big Ten schedule: Iowa drops Indiana and Maryland from the schedule and adds Penn State and Michigan this fall. That hardly seems like an even exchange.