By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The 2018 Iowa football team will take center stage on Friday at the team’s annual media day event.
We saw glimpses of Kirk Ferentz’s 20th Hawkeye squad during spring practice in April, and then heard from Ferentz and from three key players who represented Iowa at Big Ten media day two weeks ago in Chicago.
But we’ll finally get an up close look on Friday at a team that has been in the news recently for all of the wrong reasons, with four players, including three starters, already suspended for the Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois.
Adversity of this kind is nothing new as it is part of the college football landscape.
Look past the adversity, though, and what do you see?
How would you describe the 2018 Iowa football team, which returns 15 starters from a team that finished 8-5 last season?
“I think we certainly have the potential to be a good football team,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said at Big Ten media day last month in Chicago.
That’s about as bold of a statement that you’ll get from Ferentz, but he is right to use the word potential because his current team is both hot and cold. It's a team that is loaded in some areas and depleted in other areas, a team that gives reason for hope, but also for concern.
It seems that for every strength, there is a weakness or a concern with the 2018 Iowa football team.
Stacked at tight end, untested and gutted at linebacker.
A quarterback (Nate Stanley) who threw five touchdown passes in victories over both Iowa State and Ohio State versus a quarterback who combined for just two touchdown passes in losses to Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Purdue.
An offensive line that returns three starters versus an offensive line that will be without two of the starters – tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson – in the season opener, and that technically only returns one full-time starter if you take injuries from last season into account.
A reliable and experienced kicker (Miguel Recinos) versus an unreliable and inexperienced punter.
“Our punting game was less than stellar last year,” Ferentz said. “If we’re going to have a good football team, we’re going to have to take a step forward in that direction.”
A tradition of running the ball versus a backfield with no starting experience and little game experience.
“The obvious thing we’re lacking is experience at running back,” Ferentz said. “But we like our players there. They just haven’t played very much.”
A schedule perceived as soft and favorable versus a reputation for being at risk of losing to just about anybody, especially a directional school from the Mid-American Conference.
Four proven defensive ends, including an over-achieving fifth-year senior (Parker Hesse), and two emerging stars in Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa versus defensive tackle where two of the top players at that position – Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff – will be suspended for the season opener.
Two proven starters at safety versus the return of only one part-time starter at cornerback.
A schedule that doesn’t include Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State versus a schedule that includes Iowa State and Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium and Minnesota, Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue on the road.
And though it is typical for an Iowa team to have certain strengths and weaknesses, they just seem magnified with the current team.
The tight end position is absolutely loaded, maybe the best in all of my years of covering Iowa, but there is no experience at linebacker beyond contributing on special teams.
That’s pretty extreme, and symbolic of this team.
I consider Iowa to be an 8-4 team on paper right now, but closer to 9-3 than 7-5, partly due to the schedule.
This recent string of player arrests and suspensions is certainly a distraction, but it won’t define the team as long as it stops now.
The fact that Ferentz will become Iowa’s all-time winningest football coach with his next victory is another distraction because the media will focus on it until it finally happens.
“I hate that kind of stuff,” Ferentz said.
This team will be defined by how it performs over the course of the season.
There is much to like about the 2018 Iowa football team, but also much to be concerned about.
You just keep going back and forth from the pros and the cons.
Overall record: 155-118 (22 years)
At Iowa: 143-97 (19 years)
Big Ten: 86-68
Iowa's 2018 schedule
Sept. 1 - vs. Northern Illinois
Sept. 8 - vs. Iowa State
Sept. 15 - vs. Northern Iowa
Sept. 22 - vs. Wisconsin
Oct. 6 - at Minnesota
Oct. 13 - at Indiana
Oct. 20 - vs. Maryland
Oct. 27 - at Penn State
Nov. 3 - at Purdue
Nov. 10 - vs. Northwestern
Nov. 17 - at Illinois
Nov. 23 - vs. Nebraska