Iowa football: 5 biggest storylines for the Hawkeyes’ final spring workout session
New year, new offense? One can only hope in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes are back in full swing after an 8-5 season. And yes, 8 wins is a substantial total for most teams, but Iowa could have been extraordinary in 2022. An elite defense under Phil Parker was wasted due to an inept offense.
Iowa’s defense allowed opponents 13.3 points per game — 2nd-fewest among all FBS programs. Its offense, though, was able to muster up only about 17 points per outing while finishing dead last among Power 5 schools in total yards.
But the situation may change in 2023.
Brian Ferentz is back as offensive coordinator since nepotism ranks stronger than sustainability, but at least he’ll have an upgrade at quarterback in Michigan transfer (and former starter) Cade McNamara. Parker is slated to return for his 24th season. Even with the departures of players such as Riley Moss, Lukas Van Ness and Jack Campbell, this is Iowa we’re talking about, where defensive talent grows taller than cornstalks in mid-spring.
Will all this be enough to give fans hope? Maybe ease their doubts? Anything? Anything at this point?
Here are 5 major storylines to follow entering Saturday’s open practice at Kinnick Stadium that concludes the spring workout period. Gates open at 9:45 a.m. local time with the practice slated to begin an hour later. Admission is free.
McNamara, the master of the offense?
From just name alone, McNamara might be the best quarterback to join the program since Jake Rudock left the Hawkeyes for Ann Arbor and the Wolverines in 2015. Funny how history always has a way of restoring balance in the world.
McNamara might have lost the starting job last season to JJ McCarthy, but don’t read too much into it. The year prior, he led the Wolverines to a B1G title and an 11-1 regular season record. It was him, not “mini Harbaugh,” facing off against Georgia and a bevy of future NFL defenders down in Miami in the CFP.
McNamara should provide stability in the passing game, a significant component missing last fall under Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla. No Iowa quarterback has completed over 64% of his throws since 2010. In 2021, McNamara completed 64.5%.
Everything for McNamara comes down to his relationship with Brian Ferentz. Since the son of 25th-year head coach Kirk Ferentz was retained, expect plenty of the same concepts to be on the table even with a new QB running the show. The difference? Maybe McNamara makes them look functional?
There have been promising results coming out of camp thus far, and McNamara isn’t in danger of losing the starting nod. But can he elevate the offense from immobile to at least sustainable? Saturday might give us some indication.
Offensive line depth
It’s hard to say Iowa’s offensive line is in shambles. Mason Richman and Connor Colby are entering their 3rd seasons as full-time starters on the left side. Logan Jones, Beau Stephens and Nick DeJong have started at least 10 games each since 2021.
Having players indoctrinated in the offense will provide stability, but a team’s only as strong as its weakest link, or in this case, line member. Who will have the chops to step up and offer similar production should a starer miss time?
Better yet, who will push the starting 5 to improve? It’s not as if the Hawkeyes were a model of excellence in 2022. They averaged 251 yards per game, the lowest mark in conference play since Ferentz took over in 1999. And while passing has always been a low point, Iowa averaged less than 95 yards on the ground, its lowest total since before the B1G grew out of its name 3 decades ago.
Iowa added 6-5, 300-pound Daijon Parker from Saginaw Valley State and Rusty Feth of Miami of Ohio via the portal. Parker started 18 games the previous 2 years at the D2 level, and Feth started 34 as a key interior OL for the Redhawks. The Hawkeyes also were aggressive on the recruiting trail, adding 4-star Trevor Lauck and 3-star Leighton Jones. While Lauck and Jones won’t be on hand to participate Saturday, perhaps the duo can carve out roles this summer.
Iowa is known for producing NFL offensive line talent. Will there be any on the field protecting McNamara come midseason? How about just Saturday?
A new No. 1 target
Iowa and tight ends are like Peach Cobbler and ice cream. One ain’t right without the other.
Sam LaPorta is off to the pros after leading Iowa in nearly every receiving category. The good news? Erick All seems to be on track as the team’s future top weapon when his former Wolverines teammate finds him in the open field. Part of the deal to land McNamara was that his security blanket would have a roster spot.
Chemistry is essential in a passing game. Consider All and McNamara as covalent bonds. All they did was connect in Ann Arbor en route to a conference title. In 2021, All hauled in 38 passes for 437 yards and 2 touchdowns. Who knows if those numbers would have expanded last season had he remained healthy?
The Hawkeyes also feature Luke Lachey back in the building, so he’s also going to be an element in the short-yardage game. Perhaps Iowa doesn’t need to worry about adding receiver talent if one of the tight ends turns into the Robin of the offense. After all, every hero needs a sidekick, right? Iowa has a couple candidates in line to be McNamara’s.
Consider linebacker the bronze standard of talent that always seems to produce in Iowa City. Losing Campbell stings, but the Hawkeyes could be content with the combination of Jay Higgins and Karson Sharar up the middle.
Could the same be said in the secondary? All-B1G performers such as Moss and defensive captain Kaevon Merriweather aren’t easy to replace. And while Cooper DeJean is slated to return after leading the program in interceptions, he can’t cover everything.
Keep a close eye on former 4-star Xavier Nwankpa as Merriweather’s replacement on the strong side. He filled in down the stretch last season and impressed in a limited role. The same goes for Quinn Schulte at the free or Sebastian Castro inside at the nickel. Redshirt freshman Koen Entringer and sophomore TJ Hall could prove they’re ready for expanded roles come September with a strong performance as well.
Last season, Iowa ranked just outside the top 10 in passing touchdowns allowed with 13. The team hasn’t allowed more than 19 touchdowns scored through the air since 2013. Don’t expect that to change with Parker at the helm, even if there are some growing pains on Saturday.
With the portal officially opening last Saturday, attention turns toward names looking for new homes. Iowa will have to watch from both angles. Players who could feel as if they’re limited in the offense might leave for greener pastures. Then again, one team’s 2nd-stringer could end up being a starter with upside on the right roster.
Iowa likely will keep everyone it thinks can start for the foreseeable future, but the program could be aggressive in adding more weapons around McNamara. Nico Ragaini is the only receiver with over 100 yards on the outside. Brody Brecht is no longer a member of the roster since he turned on the heat from the pitcher’s mound. And while banking on Diante Vines to take the next step forward is fine on paper, will it be on the field?
Keep a close eye on receiver and running back as positions that could use upgrades via the portal.