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.
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Kirk tells Mike Riley to assume the position one more time. Sigh.
Iowa’s dominance on the line is the difference on a cold late November day as the Hawkeyes nip the Huskers for the third year in a row.
Enough is enough. Nebraska scraps their way and Mike Riley finally gets a "W" against Iowa.
Payback is a beeeyoutch. The Huskers roll all over the Hawkeyes. Order restored.