Josh Jackson was a relative unknown in the summer of 2017.
Amani Hooker wasn’t a household name last summer but was a returning starter in 2018.
Both players were early entrants to the NFL Draft after their respective junior seasons.
In fact, six Hawkeyes in the past two years have left eligibility at Iowa on the table and opted for the league.
All six were drafted in the fourth round or earlier.
If they elect to declare early, juniors A.J. Epenesa and Tristian Wirfs will both be coveted prospects in next year’s draft. Heck, Alaric Jackson could also be a Day 1 or Day 2 pick with another good season.
But like Jackson and Hooker, there also could be an under-the-radar player who shows he’s ready for the next level with a breakout season.
Which players are the best candidates? Let’s look to the guys who made an impact last season when given an opportunity.
Brandon Smith (WR)
You guys probably think I’m nuts, but just hear me out on this one.
Somebody is going to have to catch passes without Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and Nick Easley in this offense. Smith is the logical choice as the No. 1 option because of his playing experience on the outside.
His 28 receptions for 361 yards and two touchdowns were somewhat pedestrian last season, but the numbers were better than they appear. He was the third or fourth receiving option in the offense, remember. Smith did show flashes of greatness at times too, whether it was a couple tough catches in the bowl game against Mississippi State’s elite defense, or that ridiculous over the defender’s helmet grab at Minnesota.
At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, he’s a physical specimen, which is something the coaches raved about since he arrived on campus in 2017. His physical gifts should continue to create mismatches in Brian Ferentz’s scheme and potentially lead to a huge season.
Smith would be the first Hawkeyes receiver selected in the NFL Draft since Marvin McNutt in 2012 and just the second in the last 17 years.
Geno Stone (Safety)
Stone fits the mold of the recent Iowa defensive backs to go to the league. All have been cerebral players. All have been fundamentally sound. And yes, all have been a notch below athletically elite for their position.
Stone is now one of the veteran leaders in the secondary with Hooker and Jake Gervase both departed. An All-Big Ten honorable mention choice last year, he tallied 39 tackles and four interceptions – including a pivotal pick-six against Penn State.
His maturity as a sophomore safety allowed Phil Parker to move Hooker to the cash position last season. That gave the Hawks defense a 4-2-5 look and an added dimension against spread offenses in the final two-thirds of the season.
He’s shown a knack for consistently making plays throughout his two years in Iowa City. Can he make more of them in 2019, much like Hooker and Jackson did in their junior seasons, to get on the draft board of NFL teams?
Chauncey Golston (DE)
Golston was overshadowed by Iowa’s stacked defensive end position last season, but the redshirt junior will be starting opposite Epenesa this fall.
His production in limited reps (around 32 snaps per game) last year gave a glimpse into his potential. He recorded 35 tackles, including nine for a loss, with 3.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries off Epenesa strip sacks.
If he gets around 20 more snaps per game, then double-digit TFLs and at least seven sacks should be expected. Production like Anthony Nelson’s 2018 season (13.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks) is not out of the question either.
Golston is a little smaller than Nelson and Epenesa in stature, but he has plenty of athleticism to play in the NFL. He might even translate to a more versatile player than Nelson at the next level because of his mobility.
Nelson parlayed his great junior (and sophomore) season into a fourth-round draft selection. Don’t be surprised if Golston does something similar in 2019.