Iowa football: 5 biggest holes to fill in 2021 starting lineup
Iowa began the 2020 season in disappointing fashion with back-to-back narrow losses but finished strong on a 6-game winning streak.
Iowa ranked 2nd in the B1G in points per game (31.8), 6th in rushing yards per game (171.0), 8th in total yards per game (368.6) and 11th in passing yards per game (197.6). Defensively, Iowa ranked 2nd in total yards per game (313.8), 3rd in points per game (16.0), 3rd in rushing yards per game (107.6) and 5th in passing yards per game (206.1) in the B1G.
Overall, Iowa will lose 3 offensive starters (wide receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette and unanimous All-American left tackle Alaric Jackson) and 3 defensive starters (B1G Defensive Player of the Year Daviyon Nixon, All-B1G first-team defensive end Chauncey Golston and linebacker Nick Niemann). Iowa will also have to replace a part-time starter in linebacker Barrington Wade.
The 5 biggest holes will be the positions previously filled by Jackson, Smith-Marsette, Nixon, Golston and Niemann. In my projected 2021 starting lineup, I have left tackle Mark Kallenberger, wide receiver Nico Ragaini, defensive end Joe Evans, left defensive tackle Noah Shannon and weakside linebacker Seth Benson as the replacements for the aforementioned departing starters.
Let’s break down the 5 biggest holes and what each replacement can offer in the starting lineup:
Left tackle: Nick DeJong replacing Alaric Jackson
What you need to know: The 6-7, 285-pound Jackson was a unanimous All-American at left tackle and made 42 starts at Iowa. Jackson was a pillar of stability and performance.
Versatile three-year letterman Mark Kallenberger was expected to be the successor to Jackson. However, his recent decision to retire has created competition for the spot. Options range from shifting starters Cody Ince (left guard) or Jack Plum (right tackle) into the position or going with sophomore Nick DeJong or highly touted 4-star freshman David Davidkov.
For the sake of continuity, it would be best to not shuffle Ince or Plum. Also, while the 6–6, 295-pound Davidkov is gifted and will eventually serve as a foundational piece for the line, starting DeJong is the most logical option. While in high school, the 6-6, 296-pound DeJong was a three-sport athlete and played multiple football positions (tight end and defensive end). DeJong transitioned to the offensive line when he arrived at Iowa. DeJong has only played in 1 game but his athleticism and versatility make him the most intriguing choice.
Wide receiver: Nico Ragaini replacing Ihmir Smith-Marsette
What you need to know: Smith-Marsette was Iowa’s receiving leader in yards (345) and touchdowns (4) last season.
The redshirt junior Ragaini regressed with just 18 receptions last season after leading Iowa with 46 receptions in 2019. A major factor for the decrease was a reduction in targets because of the presence of Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and tight end Sam LaPorta.
With Smith-Marsette and Smith gone, the 6-foot, 193-pound Ragaini will be a primary option at wide receiver. Ragaini should serve as a reliable catching threat across the middle.
Defensive end: Joe Evans replacing Chauncey Golston
What you need to know: Last season, Golston earned All-B1G first-team honors for tallying 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. The decorated Detroit native totaled 130 tackles, 12 sacks and 3 interceptions during his career.
The redshirt junior Evans brings energy and a dynamic motor to the left defensive end position. The Iowa native is a former walk-on who transitioned from linebacker to defensive end in 2019.
During his freshman season, the 6-2, 248-pound Evans flashed his potential by tallying 4 sacks. Last season, Evans recorded 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 pressures and a pass breakup in his limited reps.
Left defensive tackle: Noah Shannon replacing Daviyon Nixon
What you need to know: Nixon was sensational at left tackle, en route to capturing B1G Defensive Player of the Year. Nixon collected 5.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, a pick-6 and a forced fumble to earn first-team AP All-America honors.
The 6-foot, 288-pound Shannon already has some experience as a backup at left DT, so the transition shouldn’t be too arduous. However, the redshirt junior will be challenged by underclassmen Yahya Black, Logan Jones and Isaiah Bruce. That being said, count on the more experienced Shannon to get the nod initially.
Shannon played in all 8 games last season, with 1 start. Shannon collected 11 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. Shannon amassed a forced fumble and fumble recovery during the 2019 season.
Weakside linebacker: Seth Benson replacing Nick Niemann
What you need to know: Niemann led Iowa last season with 77 tackles and also had 2.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
In a breakthrough campaign, Benson finished last season second on Iowa in tackles (47). Benson, who also added 2 sacks, figures to be a dynamic presence. Benson shared time with Jack Campbell at middle linebacker last season. Now that Niemann is gone, Benson can move over to weakside linebacker to pair with the middle linebacker Campbell.
Djimon Colbert is another option because he started at weakside linebacker for 2 seasons before sitting out last season due to the pandemic. However, Benson seized his opportunity last season, so expect him to be in the driver’s seat to begin the 2021 campaign.