For much as Kirk Ferentz loathes the direction of college football, NIL and the transfer portal — “Portal Kirk” has done as good of a job as even the biggest Hawkeye pessimist could ask for.
He made a gargantuan upgrade at QB, somehow replaced Sam LaPorta, beefed up the O-line and added a big-time talent at wide receiver. Not to mention acquiring an all-conference inside linebacker to ease the loss of Jack Campbell.
The window for players to enter the portal has closed, but there’s plenty of talent currently in college football’s wonderful vortex that is still looking for a home. Iowa’s done enough, but they could certainly continue to add. In order, here’s the positional groups that could benefit from some extra help.
5. Running back
It’s not necessarily a need, but it’s an area of the team that needs to progress significantly — and I wouldn’t hesitate to make a splash if the opportunity is there. The group is headlined by freshman breakout star Kaleb Johnson, who broke the school record for freshman rushing yards in a season (779). But behind him? A lot left to be desired, in my opinion.
Redshirt junior Leshon Williams averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in 2022. Redshirt freshman Jaz Patterson is unproven. Johnson could very well elevate further in 2023, but there needs to be depth behind him, and the current set of backs don’t guarantee a whole lot.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz loves the screen game, and he’s going to love it a whole lot more with Cade McNamara’s short-range accuracy. Kaleb Johnson caught just four passes last year. The Hawkeyes would benefit from adding a back who can make things happen in the passing game. Williams can be that player, but if the Hawkeyes can’t lean on their backfield it’s going to be a long 2023.
There’s hope this unit can significantly improve off it’s miserable 2.9 yards per carry in 2022, but those flashes of hope would get a lot bigger with another game-ready player. It’s probably not going to happen, but it would make a huge difference.
4. Defensive end
Similar to the running back position, there’s a player to really (and I mean REALLY) like about the group of defensive ends. I’m calling it now, junior Deontae Craig is going to follow Lukas Van Ness’ footsteps and become a blue chip edge prospect in next year’s NFL draft. He came into his own with 6.5 sacks and a team-best 10 tackles for loss.
But, speaking of Van Ness, who’s traded his black and gold for green and gold, there’s a void at that edge position that Phil Parker likes to keep fresh with constant rotation. Craig headlines the unit, and four-letter senior Joe Evans will certainly do his job opposite of him. It’s not a concern, but the depth at defensive end has suddenly grown thin.
Redshirt junior Ethan Hurkett, who did register a sack in limited snaps in 2022, is going to have his chance. The former three-star recruit is going to have ample opportunity to play, and he’s got an elite interior defensive line next to him to make life easier. Redshirt sophomore Max Llewellyn only appeared in four games, and that’s going to change.
The problem is Kirk Ferentz can’t pitch the chance to start to anybody in the portal. But the truth is Iowa had three players record 6.5 sacks or more in 2022. There’s opportunity to play, it’s just not a sexy pitch.
This team is a Deontae Craig pulled hamstring away from a LOT of uncertainty. And with the team likely losing him and Evans next year, it’s probably a good idea to add a guy that could play 2-3 years. Parker is the best defensive coordinator in America, so it’s not a worry. But much like running back, any addition wouldn’t hurt.
3. Offensive line
Kirk Ferentz hit a home run addressing the trenches via the portal. He added two experienced players in tackle Daijon Parker from Saginaw Valley State, and guard Rusty Feth from Miami of Ohio. They’ll both start and be immediate upgrades.
The problem? It was arguably the worst unit on the team last year. Logan Jones will be the center, and Mason Richman will play left tackle. The two transfers will likely start, but with mass injuries on the o-line already, depth is paramount and is going to be needed.
Kirk Ferentz said that fixing the offensive line would fix a lot of offensive issues. There’s no Tyler Linderbaum or Tristan Wirfs in sight, but this unit just needs to be competent. It doesn’t need to be a strength — it just can’t be a weekly death sentence to any quarterback under center.
And to be fair, there’s hope already in the room. If healthy, offensive line coach George Barnett has six upper classmen at his disposal (guard Connor Colby, tackle Nick DeJong, tackle Mason Richman and centers Logan Jones, Parker and Feth).
But with various injuries already and a pitiful 2022 in the rearview mirror, could an extra proven body really hurt?
Remember what I said previously about Phil Parker’s defense? It’s going to be fine, no matter what. But, if there’s a position I’d truly be worried about on the defense, it’s corner — and the Nebraska letdown is a prime example.
Star cornerback Cooper DeJean exits with an injury and Husker wide receiver Trey Palmer feasts to the tune of 165 yards and two touchdowns. Not a single player scored two touchdowns or went for more than 105 receiving yards before that all year. Iowa probably would’ve returned to the Big Ten championship with a healthy DeJean.
Here’s the good news: Iowa has two proven commodities already in DeJean and fifth year senior Jermari Harris. Here’s the bad news: Harris hasn’t played in a year, still isn’t 100% yet and there’s virtually no experience behind them.
True sophomore TJ Hall and redshirt freshman Deshaun Lee back the two up — neither with any more than a handful of defensive snaps. It’s a scary thought, and one Kirk Ferentz revealed he’s considered addressing in the portal.
But to reiterate — DeJean and Harris could be one heckuva tandem. DeJean’s a first team all-Big Ten player, and Jermari Harris had four interceptions in 2021. But if Harris never fully recovers physically, or DeJean falls victim to another injury — this is one position Iowa cannot afford to be shallow at.
1. Wide receiver
Yes, Iowa’s never had a receiving core half as good as the one in Columbus. Yes, Iowa throws the ball primarily to tight ends and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And, yes, Iowa did just add the highest graded wide receiver prospect in the school’s history in Ohio State transfer Kaleb Brown.
But it’s still the excess belly fat that causes back pain, the rock in Kirk’s black and gold backpack, the pebble that gets caught in the engine as the plane’s taking off. There is ALWAYS a need to fix the wide receiver problem.
As it currently stands, redshirt junior Diante Vines, sixth year senior Nico Ragaini and redshirt sophomore Alec Wick are the only players who have actually played in Iowa’s offense. In 71 games, just four touchdowns and 1,479 yards between the three.
Ragaini was injured for spring practice, which left Vines as the only player that’s actually lettered on the team. There isn’t just opportunity to play wide receiver in this offense, Ferentz should start sending virtual fliers to those available.
But the problem, as it always is: Nobody wants to play the position in Iowa’s offense that heavily leans on the tight end. The Hawkeyes were near dead last in yards per attempt — nobody is running go routes or post patterns.
It remains, and likely will remain, the biggest need.
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