At an age when many plan for retirement, Kirk Ferentz is planning for his 23rd season as the Iowa head coach. Ferentz will be 66 when the 2021 season starts, but he hasn't given even the slightest indication that he is considering retiring.
Ferentz, who is the longest-tenured coach in the country, made it through the global pandemic after testing positive for the coronavirus and showing some symptoms. His team also made it through the pandemic last season, winning its final six games after an 0–2 start and building momentum for this season.
Ferentz also has had to endure the shame and embarrassment that came when multiple former Iowa players last summer accused the program of racial discrimination. Long-time strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was relieved of his duties barely two weeks after the accusations were made public, and Ferentz admitted to having a blind spot where Doyle was concerned.
And yet, despite all of the off-the-field obstacles, Iowa still surged down the stretch last season, and that is helping fuel hope and optimism that Ferentz will ultimately overcome this adversity.
Iowa was hit hard by graduation and by early departures from NFL hopefuls, leaving huge voids on the offensive and defensive lines and at receiver and linebacker.
But a number of key players also return, including All-America center Tyler Linderbaum and All-Big Ten running back Tyler Goodson.
Previewing Iowa's Offense for 2021
Spencer Petras returns as the starting quarterback after a sophomore season in which his wins outshone his rather ordinary stats. Petras struggled with accuracy at times last season, but he showed good command of the huddle and has the confidence of his head coach. "This guy just operates like you want a quarterback to," Ferentz says of the 6'5", 230-pound Petras.
Some key pieces on the offensive line have to be replaced, namely four-year starting left tackle Alaric Jackson. But with Linderbaum, Iowa has the player many think is the best center in the country. Senior guard Kyler Schott also has started off and on over the past two seasons, but the rest of the offensive linemen are mostly inexperienced.
Goodson is a force at running back, and nobody appreciates a good running game more than Ferentz does.
Receiver was hit hard by graduation, with multi-year starters Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith both having moved on. Juniors Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Nico Ragaini both have played extensively over the past two seasons and should have bigger roles this season.
Junior Sam LaPorta returns as the starting tight end and has shown signs of being Iowa's next great player at that position.
Previewing Iowa's Defense for 2021
Three starters on the defensive line, including 2020 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Daviyon Nixon, have to be replaced, and that's a major challenge.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been in this kind of position before, however, and his defenses almost always rise to the occasion. Parker seems to reload more than rebuild, but replacing Nixon and All-Big Ten defensive end Chauncey Golston won't be easy.
It's probably unrealistic to think that any of the returning defensive linemen can perform at the levels that Nixon and Golston reached last season. But the new starters have to at least hold their own, or Iowa could be in trouble.
Zach VanValkenburg's decision to return for a fifth season was very good news. He improved steadily throughout last season, earning second-team All-Big Ten recognition. He gives Iowa much-needed experience at defensive end.
Jack Campbell and Seth Benson also showed promise at linebacker, while senior Matt Hankins is one of the most experienced cornerbacks in the Big Ten. Safety Jack Koerner also returns after starting the past two seasons.
Previewing Iowa's Specialists for 2021
Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods traveled all the way to Melbourne, Australia, to recruit punter Tory Taylor, and it was well worth the trip. Taylor performed at an All-Big Ten level throughout last season and is now one of the top punters in the conference. Under Ferentz, Iowa has a history of playing in close games in which field position is key, so having a reliable punter is a huge weapon.
Senior Caleb Shudak finally gets his chance to be the full-time starting placekicker after just handling kickoffs last season as the backup to 2019 All-American Keith Duncan.
Iowa usually looks like a seven-to-nine-win team on paper, and this team fits that description. Some key players return, but many key departures also have to be replaced. The schedule looks tough in some ways, but Iowa also avoids playing Ohio State, which is never a bad thing. Petras' development at quarterback will be key because it's hard to envision Iowa competing for the Big Ten title if he performs erratically. He struggled with accuracy and touch at times last season, but he had good command of the huddle, and he won games. Iowa should make a bowl game barring a rash of injuries. But there are too many uncertainties to expect much more.
National Ranking: 17
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(Tyler Goodson photo by Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)