By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football team’s season opener against Miami of Ohio on Aug. 31 at Kinnick Stadium is now less than a month away and here are my answers/predictions to 10 questions that should go a long way in determining whether the season is a success or a failure.
I recently predicted that Iowa will finish 8-4 during the regular season, and the answers to these questions should help to explain my thinking.
1. Will the top three running backs from last season – juniors Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin – stay as the top three running backs this season?
There is plenty of hype surrounding incoming freshmen Tyler Goodson and Shadrick Byrd, and deservedly so, but it would take a lot for either one of them to supplant any of the top three running backs.
Sargent, Young and Kelly-Martin have all started at least three games and have built a level of trust with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
I’m not suggesting that the three veteran running backs are untouchable, but the top three spots on the depth chart are clearly theirs to lose at this stage. One of the newcomers would have to show consistency in all phases, including ball security, blocking and playing at the right tempo, in order to crack the top three.
That might be asking too much for a kid just out of high school.
Iowa has eight running backs listed on the preseason roster, including seven on scholarship.
2. Will offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs live up to incredibly high expectations?
Neither one has made first-team All-Big Ten yet, but you’d never know it based on the enormous hype surrounding both of them.
Jackson made second-team all-conference last season, while Wirfs made honorable mention.
They both will have to do better than that this season in order to match the hype. My guess is that one of them will make first-team All-Big Ten and the other will make second team.
It’s just hard to believe that both of Iowa’s offensive tackles will make first-team All-Big Ten, especially considering how often the running game sputtered last season.
3. Will graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton solve the problems at punter?
The bar hasn’t been set very high, considering that Colten Rastetter has averaged less than 40 yards per punt over the past two seasons.
The hope is that Sleep-Dalton will have the same impact that fellow graduate transfer Ron Coluzzi had as the Iowa punter in 2016.
Sleep-Dalton obviously still has to win the job over Rastetter and backup Ryan Gersonde. But it seems highly unlikely that Sleep-Dalton would’ve transferred to Iowa without believing that he has a serious chance to start.
My guess is that Sleep-Dalton will emerge as the starting punter and will average slightly more than 40 yards per attempt.
4. Will any of the tight ends finish with at least 30 receptions and will the group combine for at least 50 catches overall?
I’ll say no to the first question and yes to the second question. It will likely be more of a tight end by committee this season with seniors Nate Wieting and Drew Cook and junior Shaun Beyer getting most of the playing time.
Wieting is the only tight end on the current roster who has caught a pass for Iowa, but he only has three receptions.
It would be foolish to think that any of the current tight ends could pick up where T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant left off last season. But there will be pressure on Wieting and his cohorts to deliver because the tight end position is such a key part of the Iowa offense.
5. Will Daviyon Nixon have an immediate impact at defensive tackle?
I’ll say yes for two main reasons, including the fact that Iowa likes to rotate its defensive linemen in order to keep them fresh. That means Nixon, a 6-foot-3, 309-pound sophomore, should have plenty of chances to make an impact without being fatigued.
My second reason is that Nixon had a scholarship offer from Alabama, which speaks volumes about his potential.
6. Will Ihmir Smith-Marsette return a kick for a touchdown and will he lead the conference in kick returns for the second year in a row?
Yes to the first question and yes to the second question. The New Jersey native developed into a huge weapon as a kick returner last season, averaging 29.5 yards on 24 returns. He also set an Outback Bowl record with 150 yards on five kick returns.
Smith-Marsette was close to returning a kick for a touchdown on several occasions last season. Look for him to clear that hurdle this season, assuming teams kick to him.
7. Will Iowa average at least 150 rushing yards per game?
That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask until you realize that Iowa only averaged 148.4 rushing yards per game last season, which ranked ninth in the Big Ten.
My guess is that Iowa will average between 150 and 175 rushing yards per game. So the answer is yes, but not a resounding yes.
8. Will the new starter at the cash position on defense perform well enough for Iowa to use the 4-2-5 alignment more than the traditional 4-3?
Call me stubborn or old-fashioned, but I’m not ready to dismiss Iowa’s 4-3 defensive alignment just yet.
The 4-2-5 alignment was installed last season after an Iowa linebacker was beat by a faster and shiftier Wisconsin receiver, with the thinking being that a fifth defensive back would help to eliminate that mismatch in space.
The results were encouraging, but how much of that was due to Amani Hooker playing the cash position last season?
Hooker played it so well that he was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year last season. He then decided to skip his senior season and is now a member of the Tennessee Titans after being selected in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
9. Will the new starting kicker pick up where Miguel Recinos left off last season?
I’m reluctant to say yes at this stage due to the lack of experience at kicker and because Recinos developed into a reliable weapon. He made 17-of-22 field-goal attempts last season, including the game-winner against Nebraska.
It was easy to take Recinos for granted last season, so his value might not be fully appreciated until this season.
10. Will Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley break Chuck Long’s school record of 74 career touchdown passes?
That would require Stanley to throw 23 touchdown passes this season, but that might be asking too much due to the inexperience at tight end and because of Iowa’s brutal road schedule with games at Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Stanley enters his senior season with 52 scoring strikes, but 27 of them were caught by either Fant (18) or Hockenson (9).
My guess is that Stanley will fall just short of breaking Long’s record.