The 2015 season was certainly a memorable one for Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished 12-2, claimed the Big Ten’s West Division title and came within a goal-line stand of reaching the College Football Playoff. Considering Iowa had not won more than eight games since 2010 and coach Kirk Ferentz was starting to feel a little heat, last year’s record was a huge surprise. While the Hawkeyes may have trouble repeating last season’s success, this team is the favorite to win the West Division once again. Quarterback C.J. Beathard anchors a solid offense, while the defense returns standout cornerback Desmond King. With a favorable schedule in place, Iowa could once again challenge for 10 (or more) wins.
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Previewing Iowa’s Offense
Entering his senior season, C.J Beathard is the focus of two questions that will go a long way in determining Iowa’s success. The first: What can Beathard do for an encore after what he accomplished last season? The second: Can he stay healthy?
Beathard has set the bar high for himself and for the team after leading Iowa to 12–2 record and the Big Ten West Division title. The season ended on a down note as Iowa lost to Michigan State 16–13 in the Big Ten Championship Game before being humiliated by Stanford 45–16 in the Rose Bowl. But it still doesn’t erase or diminish what Beathard and his cohorts accomplished. Sophomore Tyler Wiegers is expected to be Beathard’s backup for the second consecutive season.
Iowa averaged 181.7 rushing yards per game and returns many of the key players who made that happen, including three starters on the offensive line and three of the top four running backs. Senior LeShun Daniels and junior Akrum Wadley combined for more than 1,100 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
Senior Matt VandeBerg also returns at receiver after leading Iowa in catches (65) and receiving yards (703). Iowa likes to use its tight ends as receivers, and senior George Kittle has shown big-play capability. Six of his 20 catches last season resulted in touchdowns.
Previewing Iowa’s Defense
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The 2016 defense would look a lot better on paper with All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott returning for a fifth season, but his appeal to the NCAA for a medical redshirt was denied. Still, the unit looks formidable without him as eight starters return, including three in a secondary highlighted by Desmond King. The 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner is not only a lock-down cornerback (he tied Iowa’s single-season record with eight interceptions last season) but also one of the Big Ten’s best return specialists.
Three players return on the defensive line with starting experience, including both tackles. Senior Jaleel Johnson and junior Nathan Bazata both started every game inside last season and more than held their own. Johnson showed star potential at times, finishing with 5.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
Two of the three linebacker positions have returning starters, led by junior middle linebacker Josey Jewell. He led Iowa with 126 tackles last season, earning second-team All-Big Ten accolades.
Joining King as returning starters in the secondary are senior cornerback Greg Mabin and junior strong safety Miles Taylor. Mabin has started 26 games opposite King the past two seasons. The one hole in the secondary is at free safety, where Jordan Lomax started the past two seasons.
Previewing Iowa’s Specialists
This is arguably the biggest concern on the team, considering both the starting kicker and punter from last season have to be replaced. Sophomore Mick Ellis has the most experience among the placekickers, but he was listed as the backup behind walk-on Miguel Recinos throughout spring practice. Recinos made his only two PATs last season but has not attempted a field goal. Ellis made all seven of his extra-point attempts as a true freshman in 2014 but missed his only field goal attempt. Most of the return duties will be handled by King.
It might be asking too much of Beathard and King to lead their supporting cast to another undefeated regular season. But the pieces are in place on both offense and defense for Iowa to be a force again. Keeping Beathard healthy will be paramount to Iowa’s success. The running game also will be crucial, as it was last season. Few teams rely on their running game as much as Iowa, even with Beathard working his magic behind center.