Kirk Ferentz is heading into uncharted territory as he enters his 21st season as head coach. Ferentz is surpassing the legendary Hayden Fry in longevity at Iowa, with Fry having coached the Hawkeyes for 20 seasons, from 1979-98.
Ferentz also surpassed Fry to become Iowa' all-time winningest football coach last season, and he enters this season with 152 career wins, becoming only the fifth Big Ten head coach to win 150 games. He shows no signs of slowing down, nor has he offered any hints about retiring.
Iowa is coming off a four-year stretch in which it combined to win 37 games, including nine victories last season capped off by a 27–22 win over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl.
Previewing Iowa's Offense for 2019
Senior quarterback Nate Stanley has thrown a combined 52 touchdown passes over the past two years, more than any quarterback in program history in back-to-back seasons. So that's the good news.
The bad news is that tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson combined to catch 27 of Stanley's 52 scoring strikes, but they are no longer on the team after both declared for the 2019 NFL Draft. Senior Nate Wieting is the only tight end on the current roster who has caught a pass in college, and he has only three career receptions.
Stanley is on course to rank as one of the most prolific passers in program history with over 5,000 passing yards already. But Iowa is also just 9–9 in conference games with him as the starter. The next hurdle for the 6-foot-4, 243-pound senior is to achieve team success, because that goes a long way in measuring a quarterback’s legacy.
Stanley will have two experienced receivers to throw to in juniors Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith. Smith-Marsette averaged a healthy 15.7 yards on his 23 receptions. Smith caught 28 passes for 361 yards. Redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy Jr. played well in the spring and should contribute.
The top three running backs from last season also return — although none averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry — as do starting tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs on what should be another stout Hawkeye offensive line.
Previewing Iowa's Defense for 2019
Iowa's strength on defense starts in the trenches, where junior A.J. Epenesa is arguably the Big Ten's top pass rusher. He and junior Chauncey Golston should form a dynamic duo at defensive end. The 6'5", 265-pound Golston was one of the most improved players on the team last season. He isn’t at the same level as Epenesa, but few are in the collegiate ranks.
There is plenty of experience returning at linebacker, but no proven stars. Senior Kristian Welch, junior Nick Niemann and sophomore Djimon Colbert were listed as the starters throughout spring practice, and all three played significant roles last season. Welch is considered the front-runner to replace the departed Jack Hockaday at middle linebacker.
Three of the four listed starters in the secondary — cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia and safety Geno Stone — all played key roles last season. The biggest concern is finding a replacement for Amani Hooker, who declared for the 2019 NFL Draft after having been named the Defensive Back of the Year in the Big Ten last season. Iowa took advantage of Hooker's versatility by using him as both a safety and linebacker. There were several players competing for that dual role in spring practice, including Ojemudia and redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson.
Previewing Iowa's Specialists for 2019
There are more questions than answers here, with hardly any experience at placekicker and with a punter who has struggled over the past two seasons. Juniors Caleb Shudak and Keith Duncan are competing to replace Miguel Recinos as the starting kicker, and the battle was too close to call in spring practice. Duncan's name might sound familiar because he made a field goal as time expired to beat Michigan in 2016. But then he lost the starting position to Recinos and didn't attempt any kicks over the past two seasons.
Senior Colten Rastetter has started at punter for the past two seasons, but his performance has left much to be desired, as he averaged under 40 yards per attempt in boåth seasons. Rastetter was listed ahead of sophomore Ryan Gersonde throughout spring practice, but the punter to watch out for is Michael Sleep-Dalton, a graduate transfer from Arizona State who was scheduled to enroll at Iowa in the summer.
Smith-Marsette gives Iowa one of the top kick returners in the Big Ten, and he was also competing in the spring to replace the departed Kyle Groeneweg as the punt returner.
Iowa lost plenty of star power from last season, including two of the top tight ends in the country. But with a proven quarterback, three experienced running backs, two emerging stars at offensive tackle and maybe the top pass rusher in college football, the cupboard hardly is bare. And that's good, because the schedule is brutal, with road games at Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Nebraska.
A 16th winning season under Ferentz seems well within reach, but the schedule might keep Iowa from winning the Big Ten West Division.