Kirk Ferentz will be 65 years old by the start of the 2020 season, but much like his team, he shows no signs of slowing down. Iowa just finished a five-year stretch with 47 victories, including a 10–3 record last season. It was the sixth double-digit win season under Ferentz, and many of the key players from that team return, including sophomore running back Tyler Goodson, senior All-Big Ten left tackle Alaric Jackson, senior defensive end Chauncey Golston, senior receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith and senior All-America kicker Keith Duncan.
The losses are significant, too, with three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley having graduated, and with offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, defensive end A.J. Epenesa and defensive back Geno Stone all having declared for the 2020 NFL Draft as juniors.
But Ferentz is getting used to replacing early departures, and the last five seasons have shown that his program reloads more than it rebuilds at this stage.
Previewing Iowa’s Offense for 2020
California native Spencer Petras is the leading candidate to replace Stanley at quarterback. Petras didn’t get much playing time last season, but he has a strong arm, good size at 6'5" and 230 pounds and the advantage of some experience. Redshirt freshman Alex Padilla and incoming freshman Deuce Hogan would like to challenge, and they will be given that opportunity this fall, although losing the chance to compete in spring practice didn’t help Padilla’s cause. Hogan comes highly acclaimed, so Petras clearly has some work to do.
Whoever wins the QB competition will have the luxury of throwing to a deep and talented group of receivers, led by Smith-Marsette, and will have a four-year starter at left tackle protecting his blindside in Alaric Jackson.
Smith-Marsette led the team with 722 receiving yards last season and also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, while Brandon Smith finished with 439 receiving yards and five TD catches despite missing four games.
Sam LaPorta also showed signs of being Iowa’s next great tight end as a true freshman last season, finishing with 15 catches for 188 yards in limited playing time.
Goodson became the first true freshman to lead Iowa in rushing, with 638 yards last season. The Georgia native also had 24 receptions for 166 yards.
The offensive line suffered a huge blow with Wirfs declaring for the NFL Draft, but regulars return at the other four positions. In fact, Jackson is poised to be the first four-year starter at left tackle in program history.
Coy Cronk, a graduate transfer from Indiana where he started 40 games at tackle, could replace Wirfs at right tackle, and that would give Iowa two of the most experienced tackles in the country.
Previewing Iowa’s Defense for 2020
Three starters have to be replaced on the defensive line, one at linebacker and two in the secondary.
Epenesa’s ability to pressure the quarterback as a defensive end will be sorely missed, because he made it easier for the linebackers and defensive backs to defend the pass. Golston showed signs of stardom last season as the other starter at defensive end, but now he has to take his game to a higher level without Epenesa.
Junior Daviyon Nixon also showed flashes as a backup defensive tackle last season, and his role should increase this fall as a starter. The late spring addition of Northern Illinois graduate transfer Jack Heflin adds needed depth and talent to the interior of the line.
There is plenty of experience at linebacker, where junior Djimon Colbert and senior Nick Niemann both played extensively last season.
Iowa often uses five defensive backs, but that might not be as easy to do this season with Stone having declared for the NFL Draft, and with All-Big Ten cornerback Michael Ojemudia having graduated. Senior cornerback Matt Hankins and junior safety Jack Koerner both return after starting 10 and 11 games, respectively, last season. Koerner, a former walk-on, finished second on the team with 81 tackles.
Redshirt sophomore Kaevon Merriweather also returns after starting the 2019 season-opener at safety. He suffered a foot injury in practice the day before the second game, lost the starting job to Koerner and was shut down for the year.
Previewing Iowa’s Specialists for 2020
The good news is that Iowa has one of the best kickers in the country in Duncan, who made 29-of-34 field-goal attempts last season, including the game-winner against Nebraska.
The bad news is that Iowa has to find a new punter to replace Michael Sleep-Dalton, who performed well last season as a graduate transfer. Sleep-Dalton is from Australia, and his replacement might also come from Down Under if incoming recruit Tory Taylor, who is from Melbourne, can win the job.
A lot will depend on what happens at quarterback, because you knew what to expect with the departed Stanley, who finished 3–0 in bowl games and 9–0 against Iowa State, Minnesota and Nebraska.
This is arguably the best group of receivers Ferentz has had in 21 seasons at Iowa, and Goodson has big-play capability as a running back. There are concerns on defense due to losing so many key players, but defensive coordinator Phil Parker has a knack for adjusting to his personnel and for sustaining a level of consistency. With a little luck, Iowa could challenge for what appears to be a wide-open Big Ten West Division.
National Ranking: 25
(Top photo by Max Allen/Hawkeyesports.com)