Dealing with major changes in the trenches will be the biggest challenge for Iowa this spring
The Iowa Hawkeyes finished the 2020 college football season right where they normally do: in contention for a division title and full of NFL prospects.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff will look to improve on the team's 6-2 record from the COVID-shortened season. Doing so involves dealing with some major changes in both the trenches and the coaching staff.
Ferentz will have a seasoned quarterback in Spencer Petras under center heading into the spring, which always makes things a little easier. That said, few coaches plug-and-play new players at key positions each year as well as Ferentz. His ability to do that once again will be critical as spring practice gets rolling this week in Iowa City.
5 Storylines to Watch During Iowa's Spring Practices
1. Changes on the offensive line
The Hawkeyes aren't just looking to replace the loss of likely NFL draft pick Alaric Jackson at offensive tackle, they are working with a new offensive line coach. This program is a model of consistency when it comes to the offensive line. But there will be a new man in change with George Barnett, most recently at Tulane, replacing Tim Polasek, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Wyoming. Barnett's job will be to maintain Iowa's successful track record of churning out elite offensive lines every season. It's a tall order, but there's a system already in place. What, if anything, will Barnett change?
2. Replacing three elite defensive linemen
The Hawkeyes had an embarrassment of riches along the defensive front in 2020. Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Gholston, and Jack Heflin are all expected to be drafted this year with Nixon a potential first-round pick according to some analysts. According to the depth chart that was released prior to the start of spring practice, those three will be replaced by John Waggoner, Noah Shannon and Yahya Black. Expectations are high for Waggoner, who will probably be asked to fill Nixon's big shoes. Iowa needs this unit to mesh and mature quickly this spring.
3. Finding running back depth
Iowa has a solid starter in Tyler Goodson. The most experienced player behind him on the depth chart is Ivory Kelly-Martin, who recorded 13 rushing attempts in 2020. The coaching staff needs to dole out reps to as many players as possible this spring. Heading into a football season essentially one-deep at the running back position is less than ideal, and you could argue it's the bigger issue than what's taking place in the trenches.
4. Overall offensive progression
As far as the offensive starters go — especially at the skill positions — this is one of the best groups Ferentz has had on paper during his tenure, which now covers two entire decades. The spring practices need to be used by offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and the rest of the assistants on that side of the ball to continue to develop these players. The Hawkeyes have the potential to be one of the most efficient and productive offenses in the Big Ten, but this unit is far from a finished product. Signs of progress and growth in the coming weeks would go a long way towards legitimizing Iowa as a Big Ten West contender this fall.
5. The Doyle factor
We've now gone an entire cycle of Iowa football without Chris Doyle — widely considered the top strength and conditioning coach in the sport. You'd like to think that this aspect of the program hasn't changed just because the longtime face of it is gone, but there's no guarantee of that being the case. Hawkeye fans and media members will be watching things like explosiveness off the line of scrimmage and the ability to shed blockers a little more closely this spring and once again when fall camp commences. There's a standard at Iowa in the strength and conditioning department, and any deviation from that standard will be apparent to those who follow this team closely.
— 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.