Kirk Ferentz returns as the dean of Big Ten coaches heading in to 2018, and that means the well-oiled machine that is the Iowa Hawkeyes program won’t be changing it m.o. much.
But, coming off a second mediocre season after a Big Ten title game appearance, what will 2018 bring for the Hawkeyes? Will it be a rise to the top of the West division or will they struggle against rising rivals like Minnesota and Wisconsin again?
We begin to dive in to the Hawkeyes with a look at the 2018 offense
Biggest Question Mark:
Where’s the star power?
Iowa may never be accused of being a sexy program, especially on offense, but that doesn’t mean the Hawkeyes haven’t had their fair share of stars in the past.
Maybe that person is Noah Fant? The Hawkeyes tight end did lead his position group in touchdown receptions with 11 on the season. But, he won’t sneak up on anyone in 2018 and he had 30 receptions for 494 yards to go with those 11 touchdowns. But, how sexy is the tight end position if you aren’t winning divisions and conference titles?
Maybe the answer is Nate Stanley? He did have 26 touchdown passes in 2017. On the flip side, the first-year starter also barely completed over 55 percent of his passes.
Maybe the answer is Ivory Kelly-Martin, who led the team in rushing average at 9.2 yards per carry? Then again, that was his freshman season and most of his 20 carries came in complete garbage time.
I think you get the point here. Where is the star that will take Iowa back to a division title and a trip to Indianapolis? Finding an answer or two to the star-power question will go a long way towards making that division title possible. I just don’t know who that person really is going to be.
Reason to Be Optimistic:
Nate Stanley has the tools to be great
Whenever you transition from a long-time starter to someone new, things can be difficult for an offense. The good news in 2017 was that first-time starter Nate Stanley didn’t show any signs of being overwhelmed by being the starting quarterback for the first time.
He did enough to nearly help his team upset Penn State and was the reason for Iowa dominating Ohio State in the biggest upset in the Big Ten in 2017. Stanley ended the year completing just 55.8 percent of his passes for 2,437 yards — which won’t jump off the page at you — but he had a healthy 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
That last part of the stat line is the good news. So is the fact that he completed 63.5 percent of his passes for an average of 256 yards per game and 12 touchdowns against zero interceptions versus Iowa State, Penn State and Ohio State.
Sure, there were inconsistencies too (see that horrible Wisconsin game). But, how much of that was on him and how much of that was on a group of receivers and tight ends that most diehard fans around the Big Ten couldn’t name? In the end, Stanley showed that he was up to the task of filling C.J. Beathard’s big shoes.
Take the lessons learned from 2017 and build on it in 2018 and Stanley has the potential to be the best quarterback in the West division. That should be a good place for the Hawkeyes of 2018 start.
Reason to be Pessimistic:
Akrum Wadley isn’t around anymore
Iowa, much like its counterparts at Nebraska and Wisconsin, is always at its best when it has a dynamic running back and a dominating offensive line. One could say the offensive line wasn’t up to par in 2017, but they did have that dynamic running back in Akrum Wadley.
He finished last season with 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns. That accounted for 61.2 percent of Iowa’s rushing total and 10 of the 17 rushing touchdowns this team had in 2017.
That’s a lot of production to lose, and then you add in the graduation of the second-leading rusher, James Butler, and you are left with a lot of question marks at a vital position group. Toren Young could be a good option, but as a redshirt freshman Young managed just 193 yards on 45 carries in seven games of action. There is fellow youngster Ivory Kelly-Martin to look at too, as he had 184 yards on just 20 carries.
I’m not saying there isn’t potential here, but there’s a big difference between beating up on the backups of non-conference opponents and the pounding of a Big Ten season. Can Young and Kelly-Martin parlay good experience in backup roles in to consistent production when they are the only ones that can be counted on?
Projected Starting Lineup:
QB: Nate Stanley, Jr.
RB: Toren Young, So.
FB: Brady Ross, Jr.
WR: Nick Easley, Sr.
WR: Brandon Smith, So.
TE: Noah Fant, Jr.
LT: Alaric Jackson, So.
LG: Keegan Render, Sr.
C: James Daniels, Sr.
RG: Levin Paulson, Jr.
RT: Tristan Wirfs, So.
The 2018 offense is hard to read for the Hawkeyes. On the one hand it has some really nice parts to it, on the other hand are those parts better than what the competition in the West division has? It’s hard to say that is the case in any meaningful way.
A lot of what happens for the Hawkeyes offense in 2018 is likely to hinge on the continued improvement of the offensive line. There is some hope there with names like James Daniels, Alaric Jackson and especially young tackle Tristan Wirfs. If this group makes the necessary steps in the offseason, Iowa’s offense may just be able to compete.
There are a lot of ifs and maybes associated with the Hawkeyes offense, and this offseason is going to be key to deciding the near and long-term direction of this side of the ball. Let’s see if young players can make the jumps needed to make this offense more competitive in a quickly changing West division.