6 offseason priorities for the Iowa football program in 2021
Here are 6 priorities for the Iowa football program to address this offseason:
Spencer Petras taking a leap
Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras had his share of ups and downs during his first season as a starter. Iowa started the season 0-2 with narrow losses to Purdue and Northwestern, in large part because Petras was inconsistent. Even when Iowa turned it around with 4 straight wins, Petras was still uneven.
However, Petras broke out during the final 2 games of the regular season. Petras stepped up to tally 431 passing yards and 5 touchdowns in the victories vs. Illinois and Wisconsin.
That being said, Petras still needs to work on his deep ball. Petras had a bevy of talented receivers but had been lacking the chemistry for long completions until finding some magic with Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the regular season finale.
Petras will also need to show that he’s fully turned the corner with his ability to protect the ball. After throwing 5 interceptions through the first 6 games, Petras didn’t have any in the last 2. Petras was much more poised with greater command in those final 2 outings.
Petras made nice strides down the stretch but it doesn’t make him an automatic lock as the starting quarterback. Petras will have to once again earn his position by competing against Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan. Plus, Petras will have to elevate himself without playmakers Brandon Smith and Smith-Marsette, as well as lineman Alaric Jackson.
If Petras can put together a strong junior season, Iowa will be well-positioned for a special 2021.
Continued strides with locker room culture
Iowa ended up with one of the most decorated recruiting groups in its history despite allegations going into this season about racial bias in the program.
Three-star defensive back Jordan Oladokun (Tampa, Fla.) was the only Black recruit who decommitted from Iowa.
It’s going to take time to see if there won’t be lingering long-term roster effects from the allegations. However, the recruiting success suggests Kirk Ferentz’s apology and expressed willingness to change the locker room culture has been convincing.
Going into next season, Iowa needs to continue to institute best practices and make sure all its facilities are comfortable places for Black players.
Replacing Alaric Jackson
Jackson made 42 starts for Iowa along the offensive line from 2016-2020. The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Detroit native was a Freshman All-American in 2017, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2018 and a third-team All-Big Ten selection in 2019. This year, he made first-team All-Big Ten.
With the reliable Jackson headed to the NFL, Iowa will have a massive void to fill.
Rising junior Mark Kallenberger is the most intriguing option to replace Jackson. The 6-5, 290-pound Kallenberger has the most experience of any candidate (but none of his 9 starts came at left tackle) and provides solid athleticism and length.
Another option is 6-6, 296-pound Nick DeJong. DeJong arrived at Iowa as a walk-on in 2019 and his dimensions make him worthy of a look.
Protection for Petras and carving out lanes for Goodson will be key, so figuring out the left tackle spot will be vital.
Shoring up the interior defensive line
The main defensive area Iowa needs to replenish in 2021 is the interior defensive line.
After a breakthrough season, Daviyon Nixon declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. Nixon amassed 5.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, a pick-6, and a forced fumble this season to earn first-team AP All-America honors.
Nixon made a major leap coming off of a sophomore year in which he tallied 3 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has Nixon as the No. 1 defensive tackle on his big board from Dec. 17.
Jack Heflin is also expected to depart. During his first season at Iowa, the senior transfer tallied 21 tackles and a sack.
Six-foot, 288-pound sophomore Noah Shannon makes the most sense of any returning option at left tackle. Shannon has previously served as a backup. I would give Shannon the initial nod because he has the potential to slot into the position and be a contributor.
Other options to consider include 6-5, 279-pound Yahya Black, 6-3, 267-pound Logan Jones and 6-2, 273-pound Isaiah Bruce.
The Iowa defensive line played an integral role in the unit’s stinginess last season. In order to have another dominant campaign, Iowa has to solidify the trenches.
Finding offensive snaps for Charlie Jones
Charlie Jones provided an excellent spark for Iowa as a punt returner, leading the B1G in yards per return. Jones had a spectacular 54-yard score vs. Michigan State. In that victory, Jones totaled 105 yards on his 5 punt returns.
Jones walked on at Iowa after transferring from Buffalo, and he flashed his potential at wide receiver last training camp with many acrobatic receptions.
The Iowa offense can be even more dynamic by carving out a role for Jones. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz needs to devise creative ways to get the explosive Jones out in the open field where he can exploit mismatches.
Jones will have to vie against some talented receivers, such as freshman Keagan Johnson, to get reps. However, this is Jones’ time to shine and he’s prepared to seize this opportunity.
We already saw how electric Jones can be on special teams. B1G defenses could be in for trouble if Iowa unleashes Jones as an X-factor on offense.
Field goal kicking reliability
Departing senior Keith Duncan converted 14 of his 18 field goal tries and all 26 of his extra points in 2020. Duncan amassed 252 points during his 3 seasons at Iowa. Duncan was a consensus All-American in 2019 after setting a B1G record with 29 field goals. So yeah, he’ll be missed.
Caleb Shudak has been an admirable backup kicker during his career. If he returns as expected for a sixth season, he’ll need to make the transition seamlessly in order for Iowa to not regress in the kicking game. Shudak has served as Iowa’s kickoff man for the last two seasons.
Shudak might not rise to the lofty standard set by Duncan. However, as long as he’s serviceable and efficient, Iowa will have enough support to register enough points to be competitive in B1G play.