2014 College Football Preview: Iowa Hawkeyes

With a favorable schedule and a talented roster, Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes have an opportunity to make some noise this season.

2014 College Football Preview: Iowa Hawkeyes
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes are coming off of a bounce-back 8-5 2013 season, where they finished second in the Big Ten Legends division. Led by a great core of linebackers and a productive ball control offense, Ferentz got the Iowa football program back on track last season after they struggled through 2012 with a 4-8 record.

Obviously, last season was great for the Hawkeyes when compared to 2012, but this team has their sights set on much loftier goals this season. With a favorable schedule and a ton of returning starters, the Hawkeyes could easily be considered the favorites in the newly aligned Big Ten West.

 

Offense

Jake Rudock returns for his Junior season at Iowa, after starting all 13 games as a Sophomore in 2013. Rudock is the epitome of an Iowa football player. He is a hard worker who rarely makes the wrong decision and is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Rudock struggled early in his first season as the starting quarterback, but he settled in as the season went along. He attempted 346 passes in 2013 with a 59% completion rate, 2383 yards and 18 touchdown passes to 13 interceptions. He also showed the ability to take off and run when necessary, as Rudock totaled 218 rushing yards to go with five scores on the ground. He is never going to be Johnny Manziel, but Rudock can make a play with his legs when his team needs it.

Back-up quarterback C.J. Beathard showed flashes of brilliance in limited time last season, but Rudock is likely to continue to be the guy. That said, Beathard is great insurance if he is needed.

Ferentz led Iowa teams are usually predicated on running the ball. Powerful converted fullback Mark Weisman is sure to get his share of carries once again this season, but the Hawkeyes have an impressive stable of capable backs. Damon Bullock returns for his Senior season as a great receiving option out of the backfield, and will certainly get a ton of work on passing downs.

Perhaps the most enticing running back in the stable is Jordan Canzeri, a 5-foot-9, 192 pound Junior. Canzeri showed great explosiveness last season racking up 481 on 74 carries (6.5 YPC). Canzeri has good quickness, and impressive elusiveness in the open field, and was able to break free with regularity. Canzeri did all of his damage late in the season, when the Hawkeyes seemed to start having a ton of confidence in him. Expect him to continue to be a key part of this running game.

The Hawkeyes appear to have more depth than they have had in recent memory at the wide receiver position. Kevonte Martin-Manley enters his senior season, and will certainly be a key part of the offense. Martin-Manley has plenty of expirience, is a good route runner and has nice athleticism. Talented Juniors Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer showed some nice skills and potential last season. At 6'2, 200 and 6'4, 205 respectively, Smith and Hillyer are big and athletic options for Rudock in the passing game.

Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies has shown huge upside in off-season workouts, and absolutely dominated in the Spring Game. Willies stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds. He has great speed and athleticism, and appears to have the talent to give the Hawkeyes the legitimate deep threat that they have lacked for years. Willies is certainly a player to keep an eye on this season.

Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz was one of the most reliable targets for the Hawkeyes last season, but he has now moved on to the NFL. The tight end position is featured in the Iowa offense, and some sort of combination between Jake Duzey, Ray Hamilton and George Kittle should be able to carry the load admirably. Each of these players have produced for the Hawkeyes in the past, and could really emerge with more opportunity.

Senior left tackle Brandon Scherff decided to turn down the opportunity to become a first round pick for one more season, as he returns to anchor the Hawkeyes’ offensive line. Scherff is a physical freak, and one of the best offensive lineman in college football. He certainly has a future playing on Sundays, but for now Scherff is one of the most important players on this Iowa team. Scherff is on the pre-season watch list for both the Lombari Award (best lineman or linebacker) and the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman), and is a serious competitor to take home either award.

Junior center Austin Blythe is another talented lineman who will play a key role for the Hawkeyes. Blythe does not have the elite physical skills of Scherff, but he is talented, and is a very smart player who rarely makes a mistake. Blythe is also a finalist for the Lombardi Award and the Rimington Award, which is given to the best center in college football at the end of the season.

Jordan Walsh, Mitch Keppy, Andrew Donnal, Ryan Ward and Sean Welsh appear to be the candidates for the other three positions across the offensive line. Led by Scherff and Blythe, the Hawkeyes will be strong up front once again this season.

 

Defense

The strength of the Iowa defense this season comes at the defensive tackle position. Carl Davis is a big (6-foot-5, 315 lbs.), physical and athletic player up front who is getting his fair share of national attention. Davis has been productive at Iowa, but this is a big year for him. Nobody questions his tools, but he needs to have a more consistent impact on the game. If he produces like he is capable, Davis could easily become a first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft right along with Scherff.

Louis Trinca-Pasat is Davis’ partner in crime up front, and while he does not have the obvious tools like Davis, he is a hard-nosed player with a very high motor. Trinca-Pasat is relentless up front, and consistently makes plays in the backfield. This duo is as good as any in the nation.

Drew Ott and Mike Hardy are solid, yet unspectacular at defensive end for the Hawkeyes. They will not put up huge numbers, but both guys are very experienced, and will get the job done. Defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson, Darian Cooper and Faith Ekakitie, along with ends Nate Meier and Riley McMinn show some nice upside, and will provide good depth for the Hawkeyes in the trenches this season.

Linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey were all outstanding for Iowa last season. Unfortunately, each of these players were Seniors and have now moved on. Iowa’s ability to replace their linebacker core is probably the biggest question that this team faces heading into the season.

While they certainly lack experience, the linebackers are talented and have some upside. Senior Quinton Alston will take over in the middle, and while he was stuck behind Morris for three seasons, Alston flashed brilliance at times, and could quickly become a very good player for the Hawkeyes.

Sophomore Reggie Spearman played in a limited role last season, and showed his obvious talent. He is still a very raw player, but Spearman is likely to play huge minutes for the Hawkeyes this season at linebacker. Travis Perry will likely be the other starter at linebacker for the Hawkeyes. While he will never be the most athletic player on the team, Perry is solid and really excels in coverage.

These three could make for a solid core, but there is an extreme lack of depth behind them. All of the talent on the D-Line will help these guys out tremendously, and likely bail them out at times.

Desmond King returns after a great Freshman campaign. King showed incredible talent and instincts at the cornerback position, and has a very bright future ahead of him. Sean Draper and Maurice Fleming appear to be the favorites for the corner spot opposite of King, but it will likely be a wide open race with Malik Rucker and Greg Maybin involved as well.

John Lowdermilk is the starter at strong safety. Lowdermilk is a solid player, especially against the run, but he does get beat deep too often. Converted corner Jordan Lomax is appears to be the favorite to start at free safety, with Anthony Gair likely to get a look as well. Aside from King, there are a ton of question marks throughout the secondary for the Hawkeyes. However, there is some upside as well.

 

2014 Season Outlook

This Iowa team may be a bit different than their teams in the past. With a good returning quarterback, elite-level offensive line play, a deep stable of running backs and pass catchers with huge upside, the offense looks to be right on track heading into the season. Defensively, the Hawkeyes have a ton of holes to fill, and will be relying on plenty of players with very limited experience. Rudock and the offense may have to outscore their opponents this season.

This may be the best opportunity that Iowa will have for a long time to be legitimate Big Ten title contenders, and it does not have everything to do with their talent on the roster. The Hawkeyes have one of the softest schedules in the nation. Arguments could easily be made for Iowa being the favorites in each and every regular season game they play this season.

Saturday, August 30th Northern Iowa Home
Saturday, September 6th Ball State Home
Saturday, September 13th Iowa State Home
Saturday, September 20th Pittsburgh Away
Saturday, September 27th Purdue Away
Saturday, October 11th Indiana Home
Saturday, October 18th Maryland Away
Saturday, November 1st Northwestern Home
Saturday, November 8th Minnesota Away
Saturday, November 15th Illinois Away
Saturday, November 22nd Wisconsin Home
Friday, November 28th Nebraska Home

No Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State for the Hawkeyes this season. While they certainly will not be winning any strength of schedule contests, this slate of games could easily set up a ton of wins for the Hawkeyes.

As you can see above, the toughest games on the Iowa schedule this season are at home. In fact, likely their most challenging game on the road will be when they head North on November 8th to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Iowa and Minnesota are bitter border rivals, but the Hawkeyes have mostly dominated the series in recent memory. The fact that this game appears to be their toughest road test, says everything you need to know about Iowa’s schedule.

Iowa takes on the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers in back-to-back weeks to finish out the regular season. These will be the toughest games on the schedule for Iowa, and will likely decide who heads to the Big Ten Championship Game from the Western side of the conference. Luckily for Ferentz’s squad, both of these matchups will take place in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. Seriously, this schedule could not be any better for Iowa this season.

While a favorable schedule is nice, it does not mean a thing for a bad team. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes appear to have a talented roster to put on the field this season, and one that brings back a lot of experience.

Buckle in Iowa fans, the 2014 season could become something special.