The Iowa Hawkeyes entered the 2016 season with sky-high expectations, coming off the historic ‘15 campaign in which they went 12-2, won the Big Ten West Division, and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. With more returning firepower than any Iowa team in recent memory, and a schedule that included the most difficult games in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium, there appeared to be nothing in the way of a return to the national title discussion.
But somewhere along I-80 fate intervened and the Hawkeyes’ fortunes were redirected, taking a sharp turn south as the powerful, high-octane, and often fortunate offense of 2015 sputtered to a crawl. The team eventually finished just 8-5 with a season-ending blowout loss to the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl.
Entering spring practice, much has changed in Iowa City. Gone are the core players from those 2015 and '16 teams. But with a stable full of stellar incoming recruits, combined with a crop of fresh young faces on the sidelines in new coaching roles, there is some sense among observers that the Hawkeyes’ tumble from grace may have finally found its low point.
Without the presence of the newest recruiting class, the spring game may provide a limited glimpse into just what this team can accomplish. But it's still the best indicator to date for how the Hawkeyes get back on the road to another Big Ten title and when.
5 Storylines to Watch During Iowa’s Spring Practice
1. Which QB emerges from the field?
Heading into spring drills, it's technically a two-horse race for the starting QB slot between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers. But it's probably Stanley's job to lose after the sophomore served as a reliable backup to C.J. Beathard, seeing action in seven games. But don't be surprised to see the coaching staff test Wiegers’ arm strength and agility as well. A junior, Wiegers’ played limited snaps in 2015 but didn’t get in a game last season. With quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe back after a five-year run with the Miami Dolphins, a renewed focus will be put on developing future NFL prospects at the position as well.
2. Where's the beef?
The O-line is the Hawkeyes’ bread and butter year in and year out. With four starters returning from a unit which won the prestigious Joe Moore Award for best offensive line in college football in 2016, that won't be changing this year either. With an average weight of 303.4 pounds, Iowa’s front will be just as big and physical as ever. The biggest question in this unit is depth and how the five or six other candidates for backup roles distinguish themselves in the weight room between now and August.
3. Who emerges as the No. 2 running back?
Akrum Wadley, who finished seventh in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,081 yards last season is back, but someone will need to fill LeShun Daniels Jr.’s shoes behind him. Daniels ended the season just behind Wadley in yards (1,058) and tied him for the team lead with 10 touchdowns. With Iowa relying so heavily on the run, there will be plenty of carries for whoever gets the backup role. The most likely candidate for that job appears to be true freshman Kyshaun Bryan, but he hasn’t arrived on campus yet. That leaves an opportunity for sophomore Tokis Akinribade to make a strong impression during the spring as the staff limits the direct hits on Wadley while he works on bulking up for the regular season.
4. What does this offensive overhaul mean for the TE position?
With the Hawkeyes looking at developing this team for the long haul, look for Noah Fant to get the bulk of the reps at tight end this spring. The sophomore will be joined by senior Peter Pekar on the depth chart at the position. But the Hawkeyes also may be ready to return to the Hayden Fry-era philosophy once also espoused by head coach Kirk Ferentz that favors a more robust usage of the tight end. This may mean more multiple-tight end sets. If that happens, look for redshirt freshman Shaun Beyer to become a factor too.
5. Who are all those dudes in the white shirts along the Hawkeye sideline?
Tim Polasek will take up where Brian Ferentz left off on the O-line before his promotion to offensive coordinator. Kelton Copeland will assume the coaching of the wide receivers. And most shockingly, O'Keefe has returned to Iowa City as quarterbacks coach. This mix of old and new faces has one thing in common – they all have first-hand knowledge of how the Hawkeyes play, and win, football games. But head coach Kirk Ferentz didn't make these changes to maintain the status quo. He’s looking to shake up the offense. So expect the unexpected this spring, including a renewed emphasis on the passing game to return to a balance that eluded the Hawkeyes in 2016. Which is why the newfound depth at wide receiver and tight end, and the progress these position groups make this spring, is critical in translating recruiting success to success on the field this fall.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Iowa in the Big Ten
If it's true that what you don't know can't hurt you, then Iowa fans ought to feel pretty good right about now. Because the only thing anyone really knows about this team at this point, is what they don't know. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has been very open about the likelihood that the offense will include an army of fresh young recruits. The good news for fans is that this particular recruiting class appears on paper to be far better than their average ranking of 38th. But anyone who expects that to translate to immediate success may be disappointed yet again. It's highly likely that this edition of the Hawkeyes will win early and often, but once again sputter down the stretch with some difficult games on the road in which their youth and inexperience are tested under the brightest of lights.
With the wholesale changes to the offensive coaching staff, and the renewal of confidence that comes with them, there's no reason to believe that the Hawkeyes will not at least match last season’s 8-5 record and go to another bowl game. But if the team or coaching chemistry doesn't gel quickly, it could be another frustrating year of “what if” for the Hawkeye faithful.
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, an independent writer and member of the Athlon Contributor Network since July 2015. Currently based in Southern California, Boleyn attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.