The five players Iowa misses the most from last season

Jaleel Johnson makes a tackle against Maryland

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – If you could add five players from the 2016 Iowa football team to the current squad, who would they be?

I asked myself that question with it being the midway point in the regular season and come up with the following list.

My first pick might surprise you, but the rankings are based on the current circumstances and where Iowa needs the most help more than on just talent and productivity.

Field position is huge for any team, but especially for a team like Iowa that has a history of playing in close games under head coach Kirk Ferentz. That helps to explain my first pick.

1. Ron Coluzzi, punter/kicker – The graduate transfer from Central Michigan was an unexpected gift who sort of came out of nowhere to help make Iowa’s special teams a strength last season. His consistency as a punter and his ability to consistently produce touchbacks on kickoffs often gave Iowa an advantage with field position.

Punting has been a problem for Iowa this season as Colten Rastetter has struggled with hang time and with distance on his punts. Rastetter struggled to the point where he was replaced by true freshman Ryan Gersonde for the Illinois game, although, the results were about the same.

Coluzzi was named a permanent captain on special teams last season and was a third-team all-Big Ten selection by the coaches and the media.

He punted 75 times for a 41.1 average and had 24 punts downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Coluzzi’s average was misleading, though, because he thrived as a situational punter where distance isn’t always the goal.

2. Desmond King, cornerback/return specialist – Opponents rarely threw his way last season out of fear and respect. King won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top collegiate defensive back as a junior in 2015 and his reputation carried into last season.

King’s interceptions fell from eight in 2015 to just three last season because there weren’t nearly as many opportunities for the Detroit native to make plays. But King almost never missed a tackle and he excelled as both a punt and kick returner.

He is now a rookie with the Los Angeles Chargers after being taken in the fifth-round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

3. Jaleel Johnson, defensive tackle – I considered ranking him ahead of Desmond King, which says a lot about how this season has played out so far.

Iowa has struggled to stop the run as evidenced by opponents averaging a whopping 4.5 yards per carry this season. Johnson was the ultimate run stopper in that he was big, tough and relentless in the trenches. He also had a knack for shedding blocks and was nasty in a good way.

His safety against Michigan helped pave the way to an upset last season.

Johnson led Iowa with 10 tackles for loss last season and with 7.5 sacks. The Illinois native also made first-team All-Big Ten and now plays for the Minnesota Vikings after being selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

4. LeShun Daniels, running back – He and Akrum Wadley formed a potent one-two punch at running back, and did so with contrasting running styles.

The 225-pound Daniels was to power what Wadley is to finesse. They were the first Iowa running backs to each rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season.

Daniels also was highly respected by his teammates and provided the kind of senior leadership that is crucial to a team’s success and chemistry.

The addition of graduate transfer running back James Butler was expected to help fill Daniels' void, and did to a degree until Butler suffered an elbow injury in the third game against North Texas and hasn't returned.

5. C.J. Beathard, quarterback – His 2016 season was mired by injuries and by a sputtering passing attack that struggled to stretch defenses.

And he didn’t play very well at times.

Iowa probably misses Beathard more from a leadership standpoint than from a productivity standpoint. He only threw 17 touchdown passes last season, which is just two more than current starter Nate Stanley has after just six games.

Where Iowa misses Beathard is his experience and his leadership qualities. He led the Hawkeyes to a school record 12 victories in 2015 and to the Rose Bowl that season.

His teammates believed in Beathard and felt empowered by his presence.

Stanley still has to earn that level of respect.

Beathard is now the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and still teammates with former Iowa tight end George Kittle, who also was considered for this list.

Kittle was a big playmaker for the Hawkeyes when healthy, but was slowed by a foot injury last season.

Iowa also has done okay without him at tight end with sophomore Noah Fant and redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson having combined for 23 catches, 356 receiving yards and four touchdowns this season.

Cole Croston also deserves to be mentioned because when the 2017 season started he was the only piece missing from last season’s offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s top collegiate offensive line.

Croston was hobbled by injuries last season, and easy to overlook as a walk-on. But the coaches still named him third-team All-Big Ten last season and the current Iowa offensive line has struggled without him.