The Iowa Hawkeyes capped off the 2018 college football season with a 27-22 win over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl to finish with a 9-4 record and ranked 25th in the final AP Top 25. As the 2019 season approaches, things in Iowa City remain pretty much the same. The Hawkeyes are dealing with the loss of some key players, but return a solid core of veterans that should able to keep the team in the conversation for a Big Ten West title.
The system and culture have long been installed. On-field leaders are in place in key positions. There are, however, some items to keep an eye on as spring practice gets rolling for Kirk Ferentz's squad.
5 Storylines to Watch During Iowa's Spring Practice
1. Changes on the defensive line
The Hawkeyes said goodbye to two solid defensive ends in Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse. Fortunately, they return one of the nation's elite players at the position in A.J. Epenesa. Chauncey Golston — who saw considerable playing time last season — likely starts on the opposite side of the line from Epenesa, giving Iowa a wealth of talent and experience coming off the edges. Golston's progress and ability to adapt to a potential newfound role will be something to keep an eye on. If he's not ready, redshirt freshman John Waggoner could snatch the starting role.
2. Nate Stanley's growth
The Iowa quarterback will be the most seasoned in the Big Ten West and it's not really close. But despite having two full seasons as a starter under his belt, there are still times when he looks lost and doesn't appear to have full confidence in his own abilities. Look for head coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, and the coaching staff to put more on Stanley's plate this spring to help him develop into the leader they need him to be if Iowa is going to compete for a Big Ten championship in 2019.
3. Replacing the tight ends
You can't find an NFL mock draft anywhere that doesn't have Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson or both somewhere in the first round. Anytime you lose two elite talents at the same position, there is going to be a drop-off. Iowa needs to minimize the impact of these losses, and Shaun Beyer appears to be a big part of that plan. Since arriving on campus as a 6-foot-5, 200-pound receiver two years ago, Beyer has packed on 40 pounds and is ready to burst onto the scene as the next great Iowa tight end. It all starts in the Spring, where he'll be tested with a ton of targets from a variety of offensive sets.
4. Youth at center
The Iowa offensive line is a dominant unit year in, year out. Part of that domination is due to Kirk Ferentz's ability to develop offensive lineman over time and field a group full of savvy upperclassmen. In 2019, it'll be a freshman leading the line, snapping the ball to Stanley. Redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum will man the pivot. He'll use his elite athleticism at the position to make up for what he lacks in experience. Keep an eye on his progress and communication with his fellow linemen this spring.
5. Can the receivers finally be a strength?
Iowa has a recent history of fielding a dependable-but-not-explosive receiving corps. Athletically, the receiving depth chart looks to be the best Iowa City has seen in a decade. Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Calvin Lockett have physical traits you can't coach, but they'll need to develop their collective football IQs if they want to set themselves apart in the Big Ten West. Additionally, keep an eye on Nico Ragiani's targets this spring. He has the ability to find openings in the middle of the field and could be a beneficiary of the departures of Fant and Hockenson in that regard.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.