By Dylan Burn
IOWA CITY, Iowa – It is fair to say that the 2017 Iowa football team has some big question marks.
However, you can’t overlook the team’s obvious strengths, either.
We can start judging for ourselves on Saturday when Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes face Wyoming in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium. Here is everything you need to know about the matchup, and then some. I have you covered.
The Passing Attack
The Hawkeyes were about as underwhelming as it gets when it came to sustaining a passing attack last season. They averaged just 153 yards per game through the air, which is the worst since the 1981 season when Iowa put up just 129 yards per game.
You could point the finger in multiple directions if you're looking for someone to blame. Many turned to former offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ play-calling as a big reason for Iowa’s struggles.
Former Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who now plays for the San Francisco 49ers, also took a lot of the heat as well. But Beathard dealt with a depleted group of receivers last season. Iowa lost Matt Vandeberg to a foot injury after just four games and that was a huge blow. VandeBerg was the team’s leading receiver after the first four games, hauling in 19 catches for 284 yards and three touchdowns.
But last season is history.
Beathard is now being paid to play quarterback, while sophomore Nate Stanley takes over for him at Iowa, with Ferentz making the announcement on Monday. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Stanley won the position after a lengthy competition with junior Tyler Wiegers.
They were even throughout spring practice and until just recently. Stanley was told he would be the starter last Thursday, but he kept it a secret for four days at the request of the Iowa coaches.
Stanley was shaky during Iowa’s spring game back in April, but many felt he stood out over Wiegers during Iowa’s annual Kid’s Day scrimmage on Aug. 12 at Kinnick Stadium.
Stanley has the size and the arm strength that you want in a quarterback, but his lack of experience could hold the Hawkeyes back in 2017. He served as the backup to Beathard last season and played sparingly, completing five of his nine passes for 62 yards.
Stanley lost a key target in tight end George Kittle, who also now plays for the 49ers, along with slot receiver Riley McCarron, who led the team in receiving yards last season and is now trying to make the Houston Texans roster as an undrafted free agent.
The good news for Stanley is that VandeBerg is back and finally healthy again after breaking the same bone in the same foot twice since last fall. VandeBerg is the only receiver on the team who has caught a pass in an Iowa uniform.
Sophomore tight end Noah Fant will be a key receiver in Iowa’s offense this season. The Omaha, Neb., native caught nine passes for 70 yards and one touchdown as a true freshman last season.
Sophomore receiver Devonte Young should factor in the mix as well, along with junior college transfer Nick Easley, who is listed as a starter, graduate transfer Matt Quarells and true freshmen Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
The biggest question or concern is who steps up behind Vandeberg?
Iowa needs playmakers on the edges and should have them with Akrum Wadley and James Butler both playing running back. In addition to being 1,000-yard rushers last season, Wadley and Butler both also caught over 30 passes last season.
A vertical threat makes it easier for the running game to get going, but Iowa has struggled in that regard. Smith-Marsette has blazing speed, but no experience, so it’s uncertain how he will respond on the big stage.
Stanley also has to deal with the pesky Wyoming secondary led by safeties Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps. Wingard was a first-team All-Mountain West selection last season, and was a freshman All-American in 2015. That duo has combined for 447 tackles and eight interceptions during their careers.
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Defending Josh Allen
As if defending star quarterback Josh Allen wasn’t hard enough, news broke last week that Iowa’s top cornerback, Manny Rugamba, would be suspended for the opener for a violation of team policy. That now leaves Iowa without its top three cornerbacks from a season ago in Rugamba, Desmond King, and Greg Mabin.
Iowa is also without starting free safety Brandon Snyder, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in spring ball and probably won’t play this season. That leaves senior strong safety Miles Taylor as the only returning starter in the secondary. And even he lost his job to Anthony Gair late last season.
Sophomore Michael Ojemudia and junior Josh Jackson will start for Iowa at the two cornerback spots. That duo has combined for just one start at cornerback, although Jackson has seen action in 26 games over the past two seasons.
Ojemudia saw action at cornerback last season, but none of it came in conference play.
Junior walk-on Jake Gervase has replaced Snyder at free safety. Gervase intercepted three passes during Iowa’s open practice in April in West Des Moines.
Taylor brings 24 career starts to the table and is without a doubt the most experienced player in the secondary. His leadership will be crucial, especially early in the season as the new starters adjust.
One thing Iowa has on its side is that Allen lost his top three receivers from last season. The Cowboys also lost their career rushing leader, Brian Hill, and an all-conference offensive lineman in Chase Rouiller.
However, Allen makes the players around him better. He threw for 3,203 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions last season while leading the Cowboys to an 8-6 record.
He’s a big kid (6’5” 235 pounds) and he does a lot of things well. For starters, he has an excellent arm and is able fit the ball into tight spaces. He also excels at extending plays and has good pocket awareness, usually knowing when it’s collapsing around him.
That’ll make it more challenging for Iowa’s defensive backs because they’ll have to stay in coverage longer.
Redshirt freshman Cedric Boswell and true freshman Matt Hankins are listed as the backup cornerbacks for Saturday’s game.
Butler and Wadley Duo
James Butler came out of left field when he announced in early July he was transferring to Iowa to play his his final season as a graduate student.
Actually, he came from Nevada where he rushed for over 3,000 yards in three seasons and now gives Iowa a dynamic duo at running back.
Iowa already returned one of the most dangerous running backs in the Big Ten in senior Akrum Wadley, who led team with 1,081 rushing yards last season. Combine Wadley with Butler and Iowa’s ground attack could be lethal.
The Hawkeyes lost LeShun Daniels, who rushed for over 1,000 yards as a senior last season, but added another running back in Butler who is capable of matching that.
So the big question is will Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz use both of them at the same time? Daniels was a power guy last season and his style worked beautifully with the quick and elusive Wadley.
Butler is similar to Wadley with regard to their skills sets and running styles. They are about as elusive as they come and both have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
The Hawkeyes usually don’t venture too far from their power run formations, which would lead you to believe that both guys may not be used at the same time, but rather to spell each other.
Wadley downplayed any talk of the “wildcat” being used on Tuesday when the media was allowed to speak with players. He’d like to do it, but it’s hard to see that being implemented as long as a Kirk Ferentz is at the helm.
Wadley is eager to joins forces with Butler, who is from Illinois and wanted to attend Iowa directly out of high school, but wasn't offered a scholarship.
“That’s my boy,” Wadley said. “We’ve grown to like each other. He’s a good guy… he’s explosive like I said and he can catch it out of the backfield. He’s just a good player.”
The duo may not see the field at the same time, but they will definitely complement each other and work off each other. It should be another strong year for Iowa at the running back position.
And you’ll almost certainly see the run used to set up play-action passing on Saturday.
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Defensive Tackle Depth
My questions about the depth at defensive tackle were answered on Monday when Iowa released the two-deeps for the Wyoming game. It features sophomore Cedrick Lattimore and senior Nathan Bazata as the starters. Junior Matt Nelson – who stands about 6-8 and who played defensive end last season – is the backup behind Bazata.
Junior defensive end Parker Hesse also could see action at defensive tackle, giving Reese Morgan more flexibility inside.
It seemed likely that one of the defensive ends would move inside to make room for heralded freshman A.J. Epenesa to play on the outside. Epenesa could play inside, too, but his explosiveness off the edge fits better at defensive end.
Sophomore Anthony Nelson also showed star potential at defensive end last season and is built more like a defensive end at 6-7 and 260 pounds.
Replacing all-Big Ten tackle Jaleel Johnson will not be easy, but some think Lattimore could be his heir apparent. Lattimore was one of 10 true freshman to play last season. He appeared briefly in six games and recorded one tackle, which was a sack against Illinois.
Iowa is thin and inexperienced at defensive tackle. Much will be expected from Bazata in terms of performance and leadership. The Nebraska native has 24 starts under his belt.
True Frosh Reps
Seven true freshmen are listed on the two-deeps for the season opener. They include Epenesa, receiver Brandon Smith, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, cornerback Matt Hankins and safety Geno Stone, along with punter Ryan Gersonde and kick returner Ivory Kelly-Martin.
The 6-5, 270-pound Epenesa arrived on campus as the highest ranked recruit since offensive lineman Dan Doering and tight end Tony Moeaki, both of whom signed with Iowa in 2005.
Epenesa has the size, speed, and explosiveness that you look for in top-flight defensive end. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he pushed for a starting spot later in the season.
Wirfs finds his way into the two-deeps as the backup at right tackle and don’t be surprised if the 6-5, 315-pound Mount Vernon native finds the field on Saturday.
Iowa has enough depth on the offensive line to where eight or nine players might be in the mix for playing time.
“We’ve always been open to playing more than five guys,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We’ve been rotating eight guys, nine guys around on the line and we’re probably at a point where we need to stabilize things a bit, make sure we’ve got chemistry going the way we want it, but it’s good to have versatility.”
Hankins could have a bigger role on Saturday than previously expected due to Rugamba’s suspension. Whatever action Hankins sees would be meaningful against a top-notch quarterback.
I’m surprised by Hankins’ quick rise up the depth chart, but he isn’t the first true freshman to do that. Desmond King and Rugamba both played well as true freshmen.
The big one for me is receiver Brandon Smith. Outside of Epenesa and Wirfs, Smith has been the most talked about recruit in the 2017 class. The Mississippi native is long, pinpoint’s the ball at its highest point and has hands that make a football look incredibly small.
Smith shredded the state of Mississippi as a prep star. In his final three varsity seasons at Lake Cormorant High School, he amassed 205 catches, 3,641 receiving yards, and 41 touchdowns. Those are eye-popping numbers that make you think Smith could push to start this season.
I’m not sure any of the true freshmen will significant action on Saturday besides Epenesa, but you’ll see them at some point. I believe the Hawkeye staff will make sure to give some of the true freshmen game experience in order for them to grow and mature.
I wouldn’t say expectations are high entering this matchup, but Iowa is clearly the favorite. We should see a heavy doses of Wadley and Butler early on as the Hawkeyes get back into the swing of things.
Look for Iowa to establish its running game in order to make life more comfortable for Stanley in the pocket. It’s easy to picture the Hawkeyes chewing up six and seven yards at a time by controlling the line of scrimmage.