The 2019 College Football season marks 20 years since Kirk Ferentz took charge of Iowa Hawkeyes football. It’s been a tenure of highs and lows. The 2015 unbeaten regular season stands out as the pinnacle of their achievement together. Despite being co-champion of the Big 10 in 2002 and 2004, they haven’t succeeded as outright champions in the conference since 1985. Will 2019 be their year?
They will need to overcome a 2018 that saw the Iowa Hawkeyes struggle in-conference. Despite posting a 9-4 season, including an Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State of the SEC, all four defeats came at the hands of BIG 10 teams.
They opened up 3-0 including a win in the rivalry game with Iowa State. The first defeat came at 18th ranked Wisconsin in game 4, but they rebounded with three straight wins to go 6-1 deep in to October.
However, a three game stretch broke the back of their season, and any hopes of topping the BIG 10 West. A visit to Beaver Stadium saw a 30-24 defeat to Penn State. Back to back 4th quarter defeats followed. Mekhi Sargent’s two, 4th quarter, touchdowns had given them a 36-35 lead in Purdue. However, a field goal with 8 seconds on the clock shattered Hawkeye hearts.
Then, eventual BIG Ten West winners Northwestern came in to Kinnick Stadium and walked out with a 14-10 victory. Two close defeats that could have vastly altered the landscape of the BIG 10. Northwestern went on to be defeated in the Championship game against Ohio State. The Iowa Hawkeyes ended the season with three straight wins, including in the Outback Bowl.
Can the Iowa Hawkeyes defence dominate again in 2019?
The 2018 Iowa Hawkeyes were a force on defence. The unit ranked 11th in the nation in points allowed, helped by a shutout of Illinois. 2019 will again see the emphasis put on the defence. However, it is a unit which has lost a number of key players over the spring. Almost the entire defensive line is gone. Sam Brinks, Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson are no more. Anthony Nelson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. He accounted for 13.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in 2018.
Thankfully for the Iowa Hawkeyes, Nelson’s production wasn’t the pinnacle of performance in 2018. That belonged to defensive end, A.J. Epenesa. He was their most productive player last season and is set to dominate college football in 2019. Alongside the likes of Chauncey Golston, Brady Reiff and Daviyon Nixon, the defensive line is going to be just fine. Dixon, the JUCO transfer in 2018, is an intriguing player to watch this season. His athleticism is incredible for a man standing 6’3′ and 309lbs.
Amani Hooker is a big loss in the secondary after accounting for 4 interceptions and 7 pass break ups. However, there is a buzz around redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson, and he looks set to be a prominent figure in the defensive back group.
There are more questions around the offence than the defence.
The main question is: How do you replace potentially the greatest tight end duo college football has ever seen? T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant accounted for over 1250 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Naturally, all eyes are on the next man up at the tight end position. Shaun Beyer looks to be leading the group. However, there’s no clear distinction and freshmen Logan Lee, Josiah Miamen, and Sam LaPorta could all see playing time.
The wide receiver group will naturally be forced to pick up some of this lost production. Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marquette will lead the way. There is an interesting battle for the final starting receiver spot, between Tyrone Tracy Jr and Nico Ragaini. With no spring game due to resurfacing at Kinnick Stadium, this battle will play out during summer camp.
The destiny of the offence rests in the hands of quarterback Nate Stanley. He returns for his senior year with plenty to prove. He has been highly rated, however there are issues over his decision making and accuracy. It’s a pivotal year for him as he looks to find his place in a crowded 2020 NFL Draft quarterback class.
Stanley won’t have any issues where protection is concerned. Iowa boasts the best offensive tackle duo in the nation, with Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. There’s also excitement in the camp about redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum, who looks set to be the starting center.
Three key players to watch…
#94 A.J. Epenesa – Defensive End
In looking at the Iowa Hawkeyes defence for 2019, I touched on Epenesa’s production in 2018. When you look deeper at it, it’s a staggering performance. His 16.5 tackles for loss led the team, and were 4th most in the BIG 10. His 10.5 sacks led the team, and the BIG 10. Finally, his 4 forced fumbles led the team, and were 2nd in the BIG 10. The forced fumbles were more than the rest of the team combined.
This was as a sophomore. Epenesa is still honing his skill set. He’s still working on the nuances of his game. It’s a skill set that’s based on explosiveness at the line of scrimmage. He’s also incredibly strong. As a high school discuss thrower, his arm strength is superb. He puts this to devastating use to break blocks or just push blockers out of his way.
For a guy who stands at 6’6, Epenesa is extremely good at getting low. This is put to great use in getting round offensive tackles and pursuing the quarterback. This is where he excels. He’s not going to blow you away with his run blocking skills. What he will do is get after the quarterback and get his hands on the football.
Expect more sacks, tackles for loss, and more forced fumbles in 2019. Then expect to see A.J. Epenesa’s name early in day one of the 2020 NFL Draft.
#74 Tristan Wirfs – Right Tackle
Iowa has a reputation for producing great offensive line talent, and Tristan Wirfs is the next great one. He already has one up on those that have gone before. No freshman had started on Kirk Ferentz’s offensive line. That was until 2017, and Tristan Wirfs.
At 6’5′ and 322lbs, Wirfs is an absolute beast. In high school he was a state champion in wrestling, discuss and shotput. Long story short, he is STRONG! If his high school resume wasn’t enough to convince people of his strength, then his performance in the weight room did. He smashed Brandon Scherff’s weight room record at Iowa.
On the field, he puts his strength to good use. Combined with good hand skills, it makes him an extremely effective pass blocker. For a man of his size he also possesses good athleticism, in particular he has good feet. Again, this makes him extremely effective in pass blocking, but also allows him to get out to the next level when run blocking.
Football players often talk about getting better everyday. Wirfs and Epenesa go against each other in practice every day. They’re making each other better, and they’re both set to benefit come the 2020 NFL Draft.
#3 Tyrone Tracy Jr. – Wide Receiver
It may seem questionable to be excited by a player who is currently in a battle for the WR3 spot on the team. However, allow me to elaborate.
Tryone Tracy Jr. is a former multi position player at high school. He was also a track star. So, not only is he incredibly versatile but he’s also FAST!
He holds a number of records at Decatur Central High School, so we know he can perform. Tracy left Decatur in 2017 with the records for receiving yards in a single season and career. He also holds the touchdown records for a single season (16) and career (33).
In addition to the records he also received many accolades in high school. He was voted the Gatorade Player of the Year in Indiana. His performances earned Offensive Player of the Year in two seasons. He was voted first team all-county, all-midstate, and all-state in three straight seasons.
Despite Iowa not having a spring game this year, Tracy has been impressive for the team in practices. He looks set to win the battle with Nico Ragaini and start in the slot. The Hawkeyes use a lot of underneath passing routes, and I expect to see a number of passes come Tyrone Tracy’s way this year. He can utilise his speed to make plays after the catch.
Back to back weekends to make or break the story of 2019…
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the success of Iowa’s season rests on two October weekends. On October 5th they visit the Big House to take on Michigan. Then the following weekend Penn State visit Kinnick Stadium for “The Stripeout”. Winning both games would be a huge statement. The problem for Iowa is that the games will mean as much for the success of the Wolverines and the Nittany Lions, as they do to the Hawkeyes. They are without doubt the toughest games on Iowa’s schedule.
There’s a very good chance that they hit the Michigan game at 4-0. Opening games with Miami (OH) and Rutgers should be easy. Game 3 is the rivalry game against Iowa State. Although it’s at Iowa State, they are a team replacing a ton of talent, and Iowa have the upper hand in the rivalry game record.
In the second half of the schedule, Purdue and Wisconsin provide the toughest test.
It’s highly likely that those three form the top teams in the BIG 10 West this year. As long as Iowa can lockdown Rondale Moore (Purdue), and bottle up Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), then they should avenge the defeats from last year.
I don’t expect Northwestern to repeat their fantastic 2018 campaign. The Hawkeyes should beat them, Minnesota and Illinois. They end the regular season against Nebraska who, with Adrian Martinez as QB1, could be a thorn in the side.
The Iowa Hawkeyes are my tip for the BIG 10 West. Can they go one step further than the 2015 team, and finish the job with victory in the Championship Game?
Feature Image Credit: www.kinnickedge.org