Iowa’s concerns at wide receiver and quarterback have been made pretty clear since the end of spring practice in April.
The Hawkeyes will be ushering in a first-year quarterback after NFL-caliber star C.J. Beathard graduated. Losing players like Riley McCarron, Jay Scheel and Jerminic Smith for myriad reasons has depleted the depth at receiver. George Kittle, one of the toughest tight ends in the B1G last year, has to be replaced.
Performances by quarterbacks Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers in the team’s spring game in April certainly weren’t comforting. Both struggled with accuracy and turnovers, problems that Beathard didn’t have much issue with.
And then there were the receivers. Young and inexperienced, receivers struggled with their routes in the spring finale, making life even more difficult for the guys under center. Matt VandeBerg wasn’t available due to a broken foot in Iowa’s spring game, which attributed to the problem. Though he should be ready to go by the start of the season, the Hawkeyes are going to need guys like Adrian Falconer and Devonte Young to develop into good second and third options quickly.
Those are the challenges for first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. And while those are certainly some significant deficiencies, the concerns might be slightly exaggerated.
For a lot of teams, so much uncertainty in the passing game would translate to a significant decline in offensive efficiency. But Iowa somehow finds a way to win even without the most effective approach through the air.
You don’t even have to travel back that far for some examples. Two years ago the Hawkeyes had the conference’s 11th ranked passing game, averaging 204.4 yards per game. Beathard entered the year with just one start in his career and Tevaun Smith was the only noteworthy receiver returning. Iowa finished the regular season 12-0 and made an appearance in the B1G Championship Game.
Last year, Iowa still managed to win eight games – including a mammoth win over No. 3 Michigan – despite averaging 153.2 yards per game through the air, ranked 118th nationally.
It’s not as if the Hawkeyes are attempting to replace key cogs in a run-and-gun type of scheme. If that were the case, maybe the situation would be a little more severe.
With Heisman-caliber running back Akrum Wadley behind a veteran offensive line, Iowa shouldn’t have much trouble establishing itself as a ground-and-pound team. The Hawkeyes did average 4.45 yards per carry last season, a mark that has the potential to be much higher in 2017. That should set up play-action passes fairly regularly this season, which might become the bread-and-butter for the offense this fall.
Iowa has a knack for utilizing its tight ends and running backs in the passing game, as well, which will serve as a benefit to an undermanned receiving corps.
Sophomore Noah Fant has the potential to pick up where Kittle left off. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound tight end is expected to be a critical piece in Iowa’s offense this fall, both as a blocker and a pass-catcher. Wadley was actually Iowa’s second-leading receiver last season, hauling in 36 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
Both Fant and Wadley should be reliable targets in the passing game.
The biggest issue for the Hawkeyes this fall is the ability to throw the deep ball.
Beathard had the arm strength and the accuracy to go downfield and give Iowa that extra dimension. Even though VandeBerg – the team’s top threat deep – has the ability to make big plays, Stanley and Wiegers don’t have the same skill set to stretch the field the same way Beathard did. Catching defenses off guard or trying to connect for a big play might be a lot more difficult for the Hawkeyes this year.
That might be the only area offensively where there’s a significant drop off.
Iowa certainly has some reason to be concerned about its inexperience in the passing game. Ushering in a new quarterback, building up young receivers and replacing a quality tight end is a tall order for a first-time offensive coordinator. But the inexperience at those key positions won’t alter the Hawkeyes’ offensive approach.
Quarterback play needs to improve and receivers need to step up. But the situation isn’t as dire as it may seem. Not with Wadley in the backfield, VandeBerg returning as the top target and a seasoned offensive line.
The Hawkeyes have won without a dominant passing attack before. They have the pieces do it again.