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Reviewing the 2017 Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa has been really up...or really down this season.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a hot and cold season for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Penn State narrowly averted an upset loss with a touchdown on the final play of the game to beat Iowa 21-19. The Hawkeyes rebounded from two 17-10 losses to Michigan State and Northwestern to pull off the most stunning upset of the year in college football. Amani Hooker intercepted Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett on the first play of the game and scored to start what became known as “Woodshed, IA” as Iowa defeated the Buckeyes 55-24.

Sophomore quarterback Nathan Stanley has been weirdly efficient this season; he’s completing just 55% of his passes for 2,154 yards, but with 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He’s not a threat to run the ball; after subtracting sacks, he’s lost 100 yards rushing this season. Junior college transfer Nick Easley is Iowa’s top receiver this season with 46 catches for 481 yards and four touchdowns. Sophomore tight end Noah Fant has 25 catches this season for 370 yards and eight touchdowns, which is over a third of Iowa’s passing scores this season.

Fant, a graduate of Omaha South, committed to the Hawkeyes two years ago over Nebraska because Iowa wanted him to play tight end. Mike Riley’s staff thought he was better suited to be a defensive end, even though Fant wanted to be a Husker before finally signing with Iowa.

Iowa’s offensive line had to retool this season after senior tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger’s seasons ended in September due to injury, replaced by two freshmen. That’s meant fewer holes for running back Akrum Wadley, who’s rushed for 862 yards and six touchdowns. Wadley’s yards per carry average dropped from 6.4 in 2016 to just 4.1 this year. Backup James Butler has only rushed for 328 yards this season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry.

Iowa’s defense sits in the middle of the Big Ten in just about every category except one: the Hawkeyes 16 interceptions leads the Big Ten as do the four Pick-Sixes. Junior cornerback Josh Jackson was named Big Ten co-defensive player of the week in back-to-back weeks after picking off three J.T. Barrett passes against Ohio State, then following it up with two interceptions of Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook that were returned for touchdowns. Jackson’s 95 return yards against the Badgers topped the Iowa offense’s 66 yard output. Jackson’s seven interceptions leads the Big Ten this season, as does his total of 24 passes defended.

Middle linebacker Josie Jewell is third nationally in tackles with 113, but got snubbed when the Butkus Award committee left him off their finalists list for this year’s top linebacker award. Defensive end Anthony Nelson leads the defensive line with 6 sacks on the season.

What happens on Black Friday this season might depend more on which Iowa team shows up in Lincoln? Is it the squad that led Penn State until the final second and woodsheded Ohio State three weeks ago? Or is it the team that couldn’t do a damn thing offensively against Wisconsin and lost to Purdue at home last week? We kind of know what Nebraska is: a team that can’t run, block or tackle. The Huskers might have enough left in their passing game to defeat the latter bunch of Hawkeyes. The former?

Well, Husker fans have gotten used to ugly when it comes to Iowa.

With that, here’s the preseason preview of the Iowa Hawkeyes below the jump:

With Bob Stoops' retirement from Oklahoma, guess who's the longest tenured head coach in division 1-A college football? Believe it or not, it's Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

It seems his absurd buyout in his contract keeps him in place at Iowa until his knack for periodically pulling off an amazing season in the middle of a long run of mediocrity saves his bacon. Just look at his last five seasons: 4-8, 8-5, 7-6, 12-2, 8-5.

Seasons like 2012 and 2014 brought grumbles from some Iowa fans about the size of Ferentz's buyout; seasons like 2015 result in a contract extension and an even bigger buyout. So will 2017 be a season for grumbling about or increasing Ferentz's buyout?

The big question for Iowa is at quarterback, where the sun no longer shines. C.J. Beathard is now off to the 49ers, leaving just 13 pass attempts of experience. Junior Tyler Wiegers (6’4” 225 lbs.) threw four passes in 2015 as the backup, but was passed up last season by sophomore Nathan Stanley (6’5” 235 lbs.). As a true freshman, Stanley completed five of nine passes for 62 yards in seven games last season. Wiegers outplayed Stanley in the spring game, but Stanley outplayed Wiegers in a semi-public scrimmage earlier this month. Both are your typical Iowa drop-back passer, though Stanley did run the Wing-T in high school, according to Phil Steele.

That’s not a big deal because at Iowa, the offense flows through the running back position. Last year’s leading rusher, senior Akrum Wadley (5’11” 195 lbs.) returns after rushing for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Wadley split carries with the departed LeShun Daniels, who gave Iowa two 1,000 rushers in a season for the first time. Daniels carried the ball 45 more times than Wadley, making Wadley’s 6.4 yards per carry average shine. Of all returning Big Ten west running backs, only Purdue’s Brian Lankford-Johnson averaged more yards per carry than Wadley. Replacing Daniels is senior James Butler (5’9” 210 lbs.), who decided in July to transfer from Nevada. Eligible immediately as a graduate, Daniels would have been the leading returning Mountain West running back, rushing for 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Wolf Pack in 2016 and 1,342 yards in 2015.

Only one wide receiver with a catch last season returns this season: senior Matt Vandeberg (6’1” 195 lbs.), who had 19 catches for 284 yards and three touchdowns before a broken foot ended his 2016 season in week four. In 2015, Vandeberg led the Hawkeyes with 65 catches for 703 yards. Junior college transfer Nick Easley (5’11” 203 lbs.) walked on this spring and claimed a starting position despite not getting any division 1-A scholarship offers. At Iowa Western, Easley was a first team junior college All-American last year, catching 72 passes for 954 yards. Sophomore tight end Noah Fant (6’5” 232 yards) caught nine passes for 70 yards last season. A healthy Vandeberg alone will make the Iowa receivers (and quarterback) better, but there isn’t much experience to work with after him.

Iowa might have one of it’s most experienced offensive lines ever, and from a team that won the Joe Moore Award last season for the best offensive line in college football. Senior right guard Sean Welsh (6’3” 295 lbs.) is a three-year starter, while senior left tackle Boone Myers (6’5” 310 lbs.) is a two year starter. The most inexperienced guy, junior left guard Keegan Render (6’4” 310 lbs.) started only 7 games last season. One of the keys to Iowa’s success on the line is liberal substitution to develop the young linemen, even when the older guys are playing well or the game is somewhat close. It’s a strategy that paid off for Iowa last season as injuries forced Iowa to use nine different starting lineups.

Seven starters return on the Iowa defense, with three on the defensive line. Junior defensive end Parker Hesse (6’3” 257 lbs.) leads the returning Hawkeyes with eight tackles for loss last season, while junior defensive end Matt Nelson (6’8” 285 lbs.) led returners with 5.5 sacks last season. Senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata (6’2” 287 lbs.) is a two year starter. Keep an eye on true freshman A.J. Espenesa (6’5” 270 lbs.), who Iowa wants to try out as a pass rushing specialist at defensive end.

All three linebackers return, led by senior middle linebacker Josey Jewell (6’2” 236 lbs.), a preseason first team All-America AP honoree. His 124 tackles last season ranked second in the Big Ten. Senior weakside linebacker Bo Bower (6’2” 235 lbs.) started all 13 games as a freshman, then spent his sophomore season on a milk carton, lost on the depth chart. He regained his starting job last season, ranking second on the team with 91 tackles. Senior “Leo” linebacker Ben Niemann (6’3” 233 lbs.) is a two year starter who ranked fourth on the Hawkeye defense with 69 tackles. This should be the best linebacking corps in the West division, and could contend to be the best in the entire conference.

As if it were going to be tough enough to replace all-American cornerback Desmond King in the secondary, the Hawkeyes lost promising junior safety Brandon Snyder (6’1” 214 lbs.) this spring to a torn ACL. Last season as a sophomore, Snyder was third on the team with 85 tackles; Iowa is holding out hope that Snyder might be able to return later in the season. The only returning starter in the secondary is senior safety Miles Taylor, who’s started the last two seasons.

Looking at Iowa, it’s clear that Iowa will be stout in the running game - both on offense and defense. It’s how Iowa deals with passing that will define their season. Inexperience at quarterback, receiver and in the secondary are the major question marks for the Hawkeyes. How those get answered will, in turn, determine whether Iowa fans lament Kirk Ferentz’s massive buyout or look to make it even larger.

That just seems like such an Iowa thing.