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Around the Big Ten: The Iowa Hawkeyes

Is Spencer Petras ready to take control of the Iowa offense?
Is Spencer Petras ready to take control of the Iowa offense?

The Hawkeyes finished the 2019 season on a high note, winning their last four games, including a blowout victory over USC in the Holiday Bowl, which gave them ten wins on the season. What are the expectations for Iowa in 2020 and who are the key players returning? HawkeyeReport.com publisher Tom Kakert takes a look.

3 prominent storylines

What will Iowa’s defensive line look like?

After the 2018 season, Iowa lost all four starters on the defensive line. The Hawkeyes had a deep group, so there were some solid and experienced players who could step into the starting line-up, led by A.J. Epenesa. Now Epenesa and both starting tackles are gone. Iowa will have Chauncey Golston back and that will help at one of the defensive end positions and Daviyon Nixon showed plenty of promise, but beyond that Iowa is really green along the defensive line.

Can Iowa’s offense be more explosive in 2020?

There have been signs of the usually workmanlike Iowa offense being more explosive under the direction of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. But, there have also been some struggles along the way. The best example was in 2017, when Iowa dropped 55 points on Ohio State in a win and then gaining just 66 yards the next week against Wisconsin. The Hawkeye offense was humming at the end of the year, scoring 49 points in the Holiday Bowl against USC. Iowa returns plenty of offensive weapons led by Holiday Bowl offensive MVP Ihmir Smith-Marsette, running back Tyler Goodson, wide receiver Brandon Smith, and emerging tight end Sam LaPorta. Could this be the year the offense really gets humming all season long?

Is Spencer Petras ready for prime time?

Any time you have a senior quarterback graduate there’s usually a quarterback battle that takes place to select his replacement. Iowa will certainly give everyone an opportunity, but the heavy favorite to lead the Iowa offense in 2020 is Spencer Petras, a redshirt sophomore from California. The Iowa coaches have had plenty of positive things to say about Petras regarding his knowledge of the offense and maturity, but he hasn’t played much and has zero starts under his belt.

3 biggest departures

Tristan Wirfs – The All American tackle showed just how special he is as a player and athlete at the recent NFL Combine, where he posted eye popping numbers for an offensive lineman. Beyond that, Wirfs was a leader along the offensive line and a key protector on the right or left side. Iowa has some capable replacements in the wings, but it’s hard to replace the quality that Wirfs brought to the table.

A.J. Epenesa – Having an elite pass rusher is always critical to the success of any team and Epenesa provided that over the course of the last three seasons in an Iowa uniform. In the last two seasons, including one where he wasn’t even a starter, Epenesa reached double figures in sacks. He was the only defensive lineman on the Iowa roster that even got close to double figure sacks and without him, the Hawkeyes are going to have to find someone who will step up and create consistent pressure.

Nate Stanley – This might surprise a few folks, but any time you lose a three year starter under center it leaves a void. While Stanley had some flaws, he was steady and consistent in leading the Hawkeye program at the most important position on the field. More importantly, he was a winner, leading Iowa to 27 wins in the last three seasons. That experience and leadership will be missed by the Hawkeyes on the offensive side of the ball.

Imhir Smith-Marsette is an impact player on offense and special teams.
Imhir Smith-Marsette is an impact player on offense and special teams.

3 key returners

Alaric Jackson – At the start of last season there were many who believed there was a good chance that Iowa could lose both of their starting offensive tackles early to the NFL. Then Jackson got rolled up on in an early season game and missed some time. He admitted after the season that even when he came back in the middle of the year he was never 100% healthy. Jackson returning for his senior year is probably their biggest recruiting coup because he gives them an experienced player to handle the left tackle position in 2020.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette – The speedy wide receiver freely admitted that after two years in college he had to grow up a bit to reach his full potential. He showed maturity and leadership in his junior year and filled up the stat sheet all season long, culminating in his MVP performance in the Holiday Bowl, where he scored twice and had 205 yards of total offense. He seems to be poised for a big senior season in Iowa City.

Chauncey Golston – The senior from Michigan is the only returning starter along the defensive line and Iowa is going to lean heavily on him and defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon to bring along a younger and inexperienced group in 2020. Golston will need to ramp up his quarterback pressure and try to pick up some of the slack left without A.J. Epenesa as a pass rusher.

3 biggest additions

Logan Lee – When he arrived on campus last fall, Lee would have landed at a number of different positions on either side of the ball. During his redshirt year, Lee bounced between defensive tackle and end. The plan moving forward is for him to play defensive end and he’s probably third on the depth chart overall at the position, which means he’s going to play a lot. People close to the program think he has a chance to be very good.

Deuce Hogan – It’s expected that Spencer Petras will the starting quarterback, but who will end up being his backup? Right now Iowa only has one other competitor, Alex Padilla, who redshirted last year as true freshman. Hogan comes in with a pretty high profile and four stars attached to his name, so the expectations are pretty high and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him move up to the backup role.

Elijah Yelverton – Everyone knows Iowa’s reputation with tight ends and Sam LaPorta is certainly one of the leaders heading into 2020. But, we know the Hawkeyes like to use more than one tight end quite a bit and Yelverton has an opportunity to jump in quickly and help. He was already on campus working out with the team this winter and should have a head start to make an impact this fall.

Expectations for 2020

One thing we know about a Kirk Ferentz team is they are probably going to win at least seven games and likely play quite a few close games that are decided in the third and fourth quarter. That’s been the case for the bulk of his twenty plus years at the helm of the Iowa program. This could be kind of a different type of Iowa team that might rely more on their offense than their defense. Now, the defense could be pretty good if they can figure out the situation along the defensive line. But, the offense is as stocked with as much talent as any year under Ferentz. They have depth and skill at the wide receiver position, which isn’t the norm for Iowa, solid depth at running back, and most importantly, the offensive line has a chance to be pretty good. Throw in that the Hawkeyes return an All American at kicker in Keith Duncan and there’s talent to be good. The schedule will also present a challenge with a September trip to Minnesota for a Friday night game and back to back visits to Ohio State and Penn State in October.