Better or worse? Previewing Iowa’s offense in 2020
Iowa’s offense regressed last season but the Hawkeyes were still opportunistic enough to finish 10-3 overall, 3rd in the B1G West and ranked No. 15 in the AP and Coaches polls.
It was Iowa’s first double-digit win total since capturing the division title in 2015 and the sixth campaign of 10+ victories under veteran head coach Kirk Ferentz. Iowa started the season 4-0, dropped games to Michigan and Penn State, then regrouped to win seven of eight the rest of the season.
Three of Iowa’s four 30-plus-point performances came in non-conference games, the other being a 30-0 shutout of Rutgers in Week 2.
After that, the most points Iowa scored in conference play (27) didn’t occur until the regular season finale against Nebraska. Iowa headed into the offseason on an offensive high, racking up a season-high 49 points in the Holiday Bowl victory vs. USC.
Iowa returns many key offensive pieces but will have to replace three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley and B1G Offensive Lineman of the Year Tristan Wirfs. However, Ferentz is certainly no stranger to reshuffling his roster.
So what should we expect from the Iowa offense in 2020? Let’s break it down:
Passing offense: Better
Stanley had a decent season but didn’t make the leap many expected, totaling 2,951 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, 7 interceptions and a 131.2 passer rating.
Sophomore Spencer Petras is expected to take over at quarterback and will add a more dynamic element to the position. Petras has good size (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) and a big arm. Not having spring practices due to the pandemic was a blow to the inexperienced Petras, but a stacked deck of explosive receivers will ease his acclimation.
Senior Ihmir Smith-Marsette amassed 44 receptions, 722 yards (the most by an Iowa receiver since Marvin McNutt in 2011), and 5 touchdowns last season. Smith-Marsette is a versatile threat from all levels of the field.
Senior Brandon Smith is healthy and back in the fold. Smith is a physical target who got off to a strong start last season (33 receptions, 407 yards, 4 touchdowns) prior to a season-ending high-ankle injury on Oct. 19 vs. Purdue.
Redshirt sophomore slot receiver Nico Ragaini led Iowa with 46 receptions. Ragaini is reliable across the middle and can even run deep routes when called upon.
Sophomore running back Tyler Goodson (24 receptions, 166 yards) offers a reliable pass catching option out of the backfield.
Count on an uptick in production at tight end from sophomore Sam LaPorta and senior Shaun Beyer. LaPorta caught 6 of his 15 receptions in the Holiday Bowl. Beyer is a reliable option to supplement LaPorta. Freshman Elijah Yelverton offers additional depth to the unit.
Petras will have to sort through a learning curve but the Iowa passing attack figures to make significant strides.
Rushing offense: Better
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Wirfs in the first round in the NFL Draft. Losing the standout right tackle is a big blow but the rest of the offensive line remains intact.
More is needed from the offensive line to improve a running attack that ranked 90th in the nation (3.95 yards per carry).
Graduate transfer Coy Cronk could assume the right tackle position. Left tackle Alaric Jackson was tabbed as a potential first-round pick before being riddled with nagging injuries last season. Jackson is slated to become Iowa’s first ever four-year starter at left tackle. Cronk and Jackson would form one of the country’s most experienced guard tandems.
This cast of running backs could be Iowa’s best since 2017. Three scholarship running backs voluntarily left the program, most notably the outspoken Toren Young, but there’s still plenty of depth.
Goodson (638 yards, five touchdowns) showed flashes of potential in his freshman campaign. Goodson was the first true freshman to lead Iowa in rushing. Goodson hasn’t rested on his laurels during the pandemic, as he’s been vigorously working out with his personal trainer, according to Hawk Central. The additional bulk to the already explosive and shifty Goodson makes him capable of a 1,000-yard rushing season.
Senior Mehki Sargent (563 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Ivory Kelly-Martin, part of Iowa’s leadership group, return as steady complements to Goodson in the backfield. Kelly-Martin was the Week 1 starter prior to Goodson taking over.
The improved Iowa running game will pair nicely with the passing attack.
Special teams: Better
Superb kicker Keith Duncan returns for his final season of eligibility.
Duncan is the reigning B1G Kicker of the Year. Duncan converted 29 of his 34 field goals (including the game-winner vs. Nebraska) and all 32 of his extra point attempts. Duncan’s 29 field goal conversions set a B1G record and ranks sixth in college football history.
Smith-Marsette was one of the nation’s best kick returners last season. Smith-Marsette followed up a strong 2018 to lead the B1G Ten and rank fourth nationally in kickoff return average (29.6 yards). Smith-Marsette capped off the season with long kickoffs for touchdowns against Nebraska (95 yards) and vs. USC in the Holiday Bowl (98 yards).
Max Cooper replaced Ragaini at punt returner at the halfway mark last season. Cooper didn’t show much but he’ll be given the opportunity to earn the spot. Redshirt freshman Daraun McKinney is another intriguing option in the mix. The Michigan native set program records for punt and kickoff touchdowns at River Rouge.
Special teams will again be a strong suit for Iowa.
The Iowa offense is stacked with skill position players. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has to be salivating at the weapons at his disposal.
Ultimately, the success of Iowa’s offense will come down to Petras. If he can jell with a dynamic group of pass catchers, there’ll be the chance for a ton of chunk yardage.
Goodson appears ready to take a sophomore leap in the backfield. The offensive line will pick up the slack from the departed Wirfs. Special teams will remain exceptional because of Duncan and Smith-Marsette.
Iowa has a daunting slate, including early season contests vs. Iowa State and Michigan and later a road back-to-back against Ohio State and Penn State, but with an improved offense, another double-digit win total is a realistic possibility.