A very inconsistent 2016 is now ready to give way to the transition to 2017. There are some key pieces moving on. How will Iowa fill the void?
2016 didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations set atop the shoulders of an Iowa Hawkeye team that seemingly had everything going for it. Now, as we look ahead to 2017, Iowa will not only need to replace quarterback C.J. Beathard, it’ll have to find a way to beat back the sour taste of inconsistency that has plagued the program for so long.
Obviously things will have the same look and culture with Kirk Ferentz still stomping around Iowa City, but how will the Hawkeyes find a way to plug some notable holes and move forward in 2017?
How does all of it add up for the 2017 Iowa Hawkeyes’ football season?
Burning Question: Can Iowa find an adequate replacement for C. J. Beathard?
It’s not like Beathard had the biggest year in the history of quarterbacks wearing black and gold, but you kind of knew what you were getting, and it was mostly good.
He was never going to wow you with pinball type stat lines and air miles without blackouts, but he was the steady leader that kept plays alive and always seemed to make the play when it was needed — more or less.
Now Iowa has to find a way to replace the departed senior, and history would suggest that as the quarterback position goes, so too do the Hawkeyes’ chances of being more than just a tree falling in the forest with nobody around.
The early call here is for sophomore-to-be Nathan Stanley to be the guy, but it’ll likely be an open competition between him and junior Tyler Wiegers. Whomever wins out might need to be just a Toyota Camry rather than a Lamborghini, but he certainly can’t be a Ford Pinto with a broken tail-light.
Biggest Strength: Linebacker
The entire linebacking corps is back, and that includes the Big Ten’s 2016 leading tackler Josey Jewell, who is foregoing a declaration for the NFL to come back for his senior season. He should be a legitimate candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year.
The linebackers in a base 4-3 defense will always be a centerpiece of the scheme, and with Bo Bower and Ben Niemann there to round out a very experienced unit, there’s something to build around. With holes to plug at defensive tackle, you can bank on this unit getting a bushel of tackles.
This is an experienced and talented unit that will lead the way in setting the tone on defense in 2017. Frankly, it’ll need to.
Biggest Weakness: Receiver
If there’s been one area where Iowa has needed a boost over the last couple of years, it has been at the wide-receiver position. The running game and offensive line began to get their sea-legs at the tail-end of the year, but the passing game never really got on track to make the offense a tough one to prepare for.
It says a lot that Iowa’s leading receiver was walk-on Riley McCarron. It may say even more that his leading stat line consisted of just 41 catches for just 506 yards. There is a huge void there that needs to be filled if the Hawkeyes ever want to be mentioned in the same breath as the big boys of the conference.
You like the solid ability of Matt VandeBerg’s contributions coming back because of a medical red shirt, but there needs to be someone to stretch the field. The most likely candidate here is the promising, yet oft-injured Jay Scheel. He has all the ability, but has been inconsistent because of inexperience and a slew of injuries. He needs to get on the field and make a difference, especially with the team breaking the seal on a new signal-caller.
Truth be known, Iowa will need more options to step up as well in the passing game. The lack of game-breaking ability on the outside in today’s game of offensive firewords has kept the program from keeping pace with the other big name brands in the conference.
Players to Watch This Offseason:
Nathan Stanley, QB:
It goes without saying that the quarterback position will be talked about more than corn this upcoming fall in and around Iowa City. The gig is Stanley’s to lose, but he’ll need to show that he’s a leader. Most importantly, he’ll need to show the ability to make some plays down the field.
With Beathard being the unquestioned starter, there wasn’t a ton of work for Stanley in 2016, but he did appear in five games and was the clear No. 2 as a freshman over the more experienced Tyler Wieger and Drew Cook. He’ll clearly need more development after only going 5 of 9 passing in 2016. He totaled 62 yards.
The tools are there. Stanley is a big quarterback at 6-5, 230 lbs. who possesses a big arm. He’ll be the so-called “prototypical” pro-style QB if that still exists today. If all goes according to plan, he could be a main-stay under center for more than just a flash-in-the-pan year.
Akrum Wadley, RB:
Kirk Ferentz is going to the Akrum Wadley well early and often in 2017. LeShun Daniels is gone, so you can expect a big work load for Iowa’s most explosive and dependable offensive weapon.
He flirted with going to the church of the NFL on Sundays only to make Hawkeye fans sing Hallelujah! by announcing his decision to come back for his senior season. All Wadley did in 2016 was average an astounding 6.4 yards per carry. He finished over 1,000 yards and chipped in ten touchdowns.
Even more importantly, Wadley got better as the season wore on, going over 100 yards on the ground in five of the last eight games. He has great vision, can find the hole quickly, and is great in traffic and in the open field. If you watched the Michigan game, he was the best player on the field that night.
Matt VandeBerg, WR:
2016 was supposed to be VandeBerg’s last season, but that was before the injury bug hit the 6-1, 185 lb. receiver. The Hawkeyes petitioned for a medical red-shirt and they got it. As a result, VandeBerg is back as the steadying force in the passing game.
He doesn’t have the type of speed and game-breaking gamesmanship to take the top off the defense, but he’ll make a ton of catches to move the chains and get the tough yards over the middle to allow others to get open. He’ll be the security blanket for a green quarterback in the fall.
Iowa has consistently struggled with turning the page year over year. It has always seemed to be a team that builds on a season by starting out confidently and then coming together as the season wears on. It has also been a team that can let a challenging stretch bleed into subsequent weeks and result in unmet expectations.
It’ll be hard to figure out this team in the fall, but that seems to always be the case. On one hand, there’s enough key pieces there to think the team can keep the ship steady. On the other hand, the loss of Beathard and the lack of a pass-catching threat could be enough to hold this team back from doing much more than shooting for a bowl game.
What we do know is the culture. Ferentz will continue to preach the fundamentals. There will be the intent to play solid defense and special teams, and a utilization of a ball control offense with Akrum Wadley as the main option.
As usual, it’ll come down to execution. It’ll come down to breaks. And it’ll come down to how well the guy pulling the trigger under center can buckle his chin straps and be a difference maker.