Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
No. 20 Iowa
2018 record: 9-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense
Replacing two first-round tight ends
Iowa made history at the 2019 NFL draft when tight ends T.J. Hockenson (No. 8 to Detroit) and Noah Fant (No. 20 to Denver) were both selected in the first round. Before Hockenson and Fant, no tight end teammates had ever gone in the first round of an NFL draft.
Understandably, much of Iowa’s offense centered around those two. In 2019, the Hawkeyes will need to adjust.
Iowa has a really solid quarterback in Nate Stanley, who is entering his third season as the starter. Stanley threw for 2,852 yards and 26 touchdowns last fall, 18 of which went to Hockenson, Fant and top wide receiver Nick Easley, who is in camp with the Buffalo Bills.
So where will Iowa turn? For one, the Hawkeyes return a trio of solid running backs (Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin) behind a stellar offensive line. A more explosive running game — Sargent had the team’s only two 100-yard rushing efforts late in the year — should present some openings for receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette and whoever fills some big shoes at tight end.
Smith and Smith-Marsette haven’t shown the consistency needed to be top Big Ten receivers. Their development will be key for the Iowa offense.
A.J. Epenesa highlights a talented defense
Iowa returns four starters from a defense that allowed just 293.6 yards per game last fall, the seventh-best figure nationally. But a player who didn’t start a game earned first-team All-Big Ten honors: defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
Epenesa, even in a rotational role behind Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson, ranked among the Big Ten’s best with 10.5 sacks (first), 16.5 tackles for loss (fourth) and four forced fumbles (second). Now a junior, he is the centerpiece of a defensive line full of players set to make the leap from secondary to primary roles.
The same is true at linebacker where Djimon Colbert returns in the middle and senior Kristian Welch should slide into the other starting spot in the 4-2-5 alignment the Hawkeyes heavily feature.
The team’s starting cornerbacks (Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins) and strong safety Geno Stone (4 interceptions) are back, but Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Amani Hooker moved on to the NFL. Hooker routinely played near the line of scrimmage in a hybrid DB-LB role and had 65 tackles and four interceptions. That versatility will be difficult to replicate.
Iowa’s place in a crowded Big Ten West
Midway through last season, Iowa was 6-1 with every win coming by double digits and looked like it would cruise to a Big Ten West title. But that strong start preceded a brutal three-game losing streak with a combined margin of defeat of 12 points: 30-24 to Penn State, 38-36 to Purdue and 14-10 to Northwestern.
The home loss to Northwestern clinched the West for the Wildcats, a deflating turn of events for Iowa. Despite that, Kirk Ferentz’s team finished the year on a three-game winning streak, including an impressive win over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. It marked the seventh season with nine or more wins in Ferentz’s 20 years in Iowa City.
The strong finish created a sense of optimism entering 2019. But the West is getting better. Nebraska and Minnesota are on the rise, Northwestern has Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson at quarterback, and Wisconsin has a legit Heisman candidate with Jonathan Taylor at running back.
Iowa has a tough schedule, too. The Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska games are all on the road. That won’t be easy, but Ferentz believes the close losses from last year can flip the other way in 2019.
“Last year I thought we played good football. All of our four losses, they were basically one-possession ballgames. That's really the difference between being at the top, being near the top, being in the middle or being at the bottom, how you handle those little things,” Ferentz said at Big Ten Media Days.
Biggest game: at Nebraska (Nov. 29)
Iowa’s trip to Nebraska could ultimately decide the Big Ten West. But before that could potentially come to fruition, there are three losing streaks to snap. The Hawkeyes have pulled off some upsets in recent years, but they’ve lost three straight games to Northwestern and Wisconsin. Purdue has also knocked off the Hawkeyes twice in a row. Iowa will need to exact some revenge to get back to Indianapolis.
OT Alaric Jackson
If Iowa wants to return to the Big Ten title game, improved offensive line play is a must. The interior of the line has some question marks, but the two tackles are excellent — especially Alaric Jackson on the left side. The 6-foot-6, 320-pound junior emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen in 2017 and took his game to a new level in 2018. Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, both NFL prospects, make up one of the best tackle duos in the Big Ten.
From Tom Kakert at Rivals’ Hawkeye Report: I think the biggest concern is developing depth, especially along the defensive line. In the last two years, the Hawkeyes had a true two-deep who could play and potentially start. It helped to keep everyone fresh and allowed players like Epenesa and Nelson to play at a high level. None of the new backups have played a meaningful snap at the college level and many of them are younger players who are still physically developing.
Kirk Ferentz always wants a balanced attack and last year, Iowa really didn't run the ball at the level they want to. The Hawkeyes averaged just under four yards per carry and 148 yards per game. This year they won't have Hockenson and Fant to lean on in the passing game, so they need to have a more effective and consistent ground game. The pieces are there with an offensive line led by Wirfs and Jackson and solid backs in Sargent and Young, but they have to do it at a higher level this season.
Hawkeye Report’s breakout player
DE Chauncey Golston
“A lot of the preseason hype this year has been going to Epenesa and rightfully so. He's a terrific defensive end and an impact player, but his teammate on the other side of the defensive line, Chauncey Golston, is a player who could break out this year,” Kakert told Yahoo Sports. “Golston came on strong last year with 3.5 sacks late in the year. With opponents keying on stopping Epenesa, there's a good chance that Golston breaks out this year for the Hawkeyes.”
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
DE A.J. Epenesa
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: There’s already talk that Epenesa could be a top-10 selection next spring when it’s all said and done. After a 10.5-sack season, the expectations bar has been raised extremely high entering his junior year. And yet, Kirk Ferentz appeared to be tamping down the expectations on his young edge rusher while simultaneously praising Epenesa’s potential at Big Ten Media Days.
“He’s got phenomenal ability and he’s got a great attitude and [has] done a lot of good things on the field,” Ferentz said. “But he still has a lot of room for improvement. When he really figures out how to use all those skills he has, it’s going to be a lot of fun for him.”
Ferentz compared him to Adrian Clayborn, a first-round pick in 2011 who has started games for three different teams. But NFL scouts see a higher ceiling for the 6-6, 280-pound edge — even if he has to make improvements against the run. Ferentz made sure to mention that, too, but it’s clear he likes what he’s seen to this point.
“I’m really confident his best football is in front of him,” Ferentz said, “because he’s still really learning to use what he has.”
WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette
Smith-Marsette has shown flashes of his potential throughout his time in Iowa City. He had 18 catches for 187 yards and two scores as a freshman and 23 catches for 361 yards (a 15.7-yard average) and three touchdowns last year. Now counted on as a first-string receiver, Smith-Marsette has the skill-set to be a big-play threat for the Hawkeyes, but needs to play more consistently. He is one of the top return men in the conference, too.
I know it’s a running joke to say Iowa always goes 8-4, but 8-4 looks like a pretty good bet for this team, especially if you think this is the year the Hawkeyes get wins over teams like Purdue and Northwestern.
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