By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Could I write something positive about the Iowa football team under the current circumstances?
That question was asked to me this weekend, and it shows just how much damage already has been caused by the multiple allegations of racial disparities that has gripped the Iowa program.
I mean we’re talking about a football program that has won 47 games over the past five seasons, which is the most in school history for a five-year stretch, and three bowl games in a row, but it’s easy to overlook, or ignore, those accomplishments given the disturbing circumstances.
To acknowledge, or to recognize something good about Iowa football isn’t dismissing or minimizing the allegations of racial disparities and bullying that have been made by numerous former black Iowa players, and that ultimately cost Chris Doyle his job as the Iowa strength and conditioning coach.
It’s disheartening, disappointing and discouraging to see so many former black players leave the Iowa football program feeling resentful, angry and sad.
Iowa did the right thing by quickly reaching a separation agreement with Doyle, and now we wait for the results of an independent review that is currently being conducted by a law firm from Kansas City, Mo.
And while the allegations are a major concern, and must be dealt with, there still is a lot to like about Hawkeye football, including the potential of the 2020 team.
There is a growing belief that the current controversy has made the team more unified and the players more trusting of each other now that their grievances have been expressed during team meetings that were described as being raw, powerful, emotional, and heated at times.
The controversy has helped to spread awareness and has given a stronger voice to the black players on the team.
Many of them have expressed their feelings on Twitter now that the Iowa players have permission to do so, and with that has come support from their white teammates.
“I’ve been here for four years. This isn’t a one-sided thing,” said senior All-America kicker Keith Duncan said just days after the team meetings. “We voiced our opinions on Monday and so did the coaches. It was a really great experience. I said Iowa football got better today and I truly believe that. I would say we need to speak up more.
“We see everything. It’s us as leaders as captains on what can happen and what can improve.”
Playing winning football takes more than being unified, however, and there is reason for optimism in that regard.
It’s easy to focus on the controversy, and on all the key personnel losses from last season, including three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley, 2019 Big Ten offensive Lineman of the Year Tristan Wirfs, All-Big Ten defensive end A.J. Epenesa, both starting defensive tackles and starting punter Michael Sleep-Dalton.
But there is also a lot to like about the 2020 Iowa team on paper, beginning with an offensive line that includes six players with starting experience, and that will add graduate transfer Coy Cronk, who started 40 games at left tackle for Indiana.
Senior Alaric Jackson is on course to be the first four-year starter at left tackle in 22 seasons under Kirk Ferentz, while sophomore Tyler Linderbaum already is ranked among the top centers in the Big Ten.
Jackson and Cronk have combined to start nearly 80 games at the Big Ten level, so you’d be hard-pressed to find another team in the country that can match that much experience at offensive tackle.
That has to bring a smile to the face of sophomore running back Tyler Goodson, who last season moved past three experienced juniors on the depth chart to ultimately become the starter as a true freshman.
Goodson is explosive and versatile, a threat between the tackles, and a threat as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Combine Goodson with an experienced offensive line, with arguably the best group of receivers under Kirk Ferentz, and an emerging force at tight end in sophomore Sam LaPorta, and you have a recipe for success.
The biggest question or concern, depending on your level of optimism, is, of course, at quarterback where sophomore Spencer Petras is considered the front-runner to replace Stanley, who had a 27-12 record as the starter over the previous three seasons.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Petras is similar to Stanley in terms of size and playing style based on what little we have seen of Petras. Both have strong arms and are cut from the pro-style mold.
Petras also has history on his side, considering Iowa’s success with first-year starting quarterbacks under Kirk Ferentz.
From Brad Banks to Nathan Chandler to Drew Tate to Ricky Stanzi to James Vandenberg, to Jake Rudock to C. J. Beathard to Stanley, first-year starting quarterbacks have excelled under Ferentz.
Iowa also has arguably the best kicker in college football in Keith Duncan. And with Iowa’s history of playing in close games, Duncan’s impact should be significant and could be the difference in winning two or three games.
As for Phil Parker’s defense, there is always reason for optimism because more times than not Parker finds a way to build a formidable unit.
The personnel losses are extensive, though, with the 2020 NFL Draft and graduation both responsible for it.
Epenesa and defensive back Geno Stone both declared for the draft as juniors, while defensive tackles Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore both used up their eligibility last season.
The status of junior starting safety Jack Koerner is also uncertain after he was injured in a boating accident earlier this month at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.
That’s nearly half of the starting defense from last season that either has to be replaced, including one of the best pass rushers in program history in Epenesa, or that might have to be replaced.
Senior Chauncey Golston showed flashes of stardom at defensive end last season, and now has a chance to really blossom as a team leader.
Junior defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon also should have an expanded role this season after being a key reserve last season. Nixon moves very well for somebody who weighs over 300 pounds.
Senior Nick Niemann and junior Djimon Colbert give Iowa two proven starters at linebacker, while sophomore Jack Campbell made a significant contribution as a true freshman.
The secondary could be without both starting safeties from last season, but the cupboard hardly is bare.
Senior Matt Hankins has started at cornerback in each of the past two seasons when healthy and has flashed at times.
Sophomore Kaevon Merriweather was good enough to have earned the starting position at free safety for the 2019 season opener against Miami (Ohio), and he played well in that game.
But then he was injured on the following Friday in practice and missed several weeks.
Koerner took advantage of the situation by solidifying himself as the starter during Merriweather’s absence.
Junior Riley Moss also has starting experience at cornerback, while sophomore Julius Brents could see his role expand in the secondary.
There is uncertainty at punter with Sleep-Dalton having moved on, and with fellow Australian punter Tory Taylor still waiting for permission to travel to the United States during the global pandemic.
The schedule is also challenging with road games at Minnesota in the Big Ten opener on Friday Sept. 18, and at Ohio State and Penn State in back-to-back weekends in October.
Iowa State also comes to Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 12, assuming the games will be played as scheduled, which is a huge assumption at this point with the Coronavirus still spreading in multiple states.
The chance of playing games in stadiums packed with fans seems almost beyond reach at this point.
That could work for and against Iowa, given the game-day environment at Kinnick Stadium, and the environments at places like Ohio State and Penn State.
But from a personnel standpoint, the 2020 Iowa football team has talented and proven players at multiple positions.
The players are also now part of a movement that they say has caused them to unify, and that is starting to change the culture.
Winning won’t cure all that ails the Iowa football program right now, but it would be a nice diversion.
Now let’s just hope the season happens.