Kirk Ferentz returns as the dean of Big Ten coaches heading in to 2018, and that means the well-oiled machine that is the Iowa Hawkeyes program won’t be changing it m.o. much.
But, coming off a second mediocre season after a Big Ten title game appearance, what will 2018 bring for the Hawkeyes? Will it be a rise to the top of the West division or will they struggle against rising rivals like Minnesota and Wisconsin again?
We began to dive in to the Hawkeyes with a look at the 2018 offense, next up is a look at the other side of the ball.
Biggest Question Mark:
Can Iowa replace all of its starting linebackers?
One look at the depth chart at the end of the 2017 season shows the easy answer to the biggest question — Iowa losses all three end of season starting linebackers. Ben Niemann, Josey Jewell and Bo Bower are all gone from a tough Iowa defense in 2017.
Not only is that trio gone, but they have been at the core of this defense for a few years now. The trio combined for 305 tackles, 23.0 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, while also being the team’s top three tacklers on the year. Talk about tough acts to follow?
More worrisome is that there wasn’t a lot of production from the understudies this season. Amani Jones is the leading returning tackler at linebacker, and he had all of eight of them this season, same for potential starter at middle linebacker Kristian Welch. Are those two capable of stepping up? It’s a serious question to ask this offseason. But, neither are guaranteed starting minutes either.
No matter who ends up filling their shoes, it is going to be a tough act to follow in 2018. Do the Hawkeyes have the parts to get the job done in a defense that needs its linebackers to be assignment sure and tough?
Reason to Be Optimistic:
A veteran defensive line
While the linebacking group got a lot of attention in 2017, the performance of Iowa’s d-line was equally impressive and almost all of it will be returning in 2018. Three of the top four players on the tackles for loss list were defensive linemen in 2017 and only Nathan Bazata and his 6.5 tackles for loss are gone.
Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson are great building blocks, but freshman A.J. Epenesa could be the real star of this group. He started off his career at Iowa with just 15 tackles in 13 games, but he also managed to rack up 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in that same time frame. He may have a hard time cracking the starting lineup with Hesse and Nelson entrenched at the end positions, but it is a nice problem to have compared to what is happening behind them.
There will be an interesting competition between former backup defensive tackles Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore in replacing Bazata as a starter in 2018. Both had good years in backup roles, again a nice problem to have.
When you are reloading or rebuilding at linebacker, it certainly helps to have the guys in front of them capable of picking up some slack, and that’s what Iowa has in its defensive line for 2018.
Reason to be Pessimistic:
No Josey Jewell
While the early loss of cornerback Joshua Jackson the NFL draft isn’t ideal, Iowa has shown it can overcome the loss of elite secondary players before. Desmond King was great, but Iowa hardly missed a beat once he graduated and Jackson had a lot to do with that. We’ve already talked about the loss of all three starting linebackers, but only one of them stands above the crowd and his name is Josey Jewell.
He was the heart and soul of the Hawkeyes defense for the past two seasons and the quintessential Hawkeye of this generation. Just how important was Jewell to the Iowa program? Try replacing 433 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 6 interceptions and 26 passes defensed for one’s career.
That alone would be enough, but Jewell was an invaluable leader too. Where the leadership comes from is almost as important as the raw production, and with all the transition happening at linebacker heading in to 2018 that loss of leadership is going to be huge. If the Hawkeyes don’t find the kind of leadership Jewell provided there could be trouble for the Hawkeyes in a suddenly improving West division.
Projected Starting Lineup:
DE: Anthony Nelson, Jr.
DT: Matt Nelson, Sr.
DT: Cedrick Lattimore, Jr.
DE: Parker Hesse, Sr.
OLB: Aaron Mends, Sr.
MLB: Kristian Welch, Jr.
OLB: Amani Jones, So.
CB: Michael Ojemudia, Jr.
FS: Jake Gervase, Sr.
SS: Amani Hooker, Jr.
CB: Matt Hankins, So.
It will be very interesting to see how the Hawkeyes regroup from the loss of all three starting linebackers and half of its starting secondary. Luckily, Iowa has shown a history of being able to build talent behind the scenes and when it comes their turn they show up.
However, this season feels a bit different, especially at linebacker. The backups played sparingly and are very young overall. This offseason is going to be key to their development, but I’m not sold they have the immediate answers there and that has always been a bad sign during the Ferentz era.
We’ll see if the line can hold this group up while people are learning on the job behind them. But, keep a keen eye on the development at linebacker and safety this offseason. If there are questions still left following spring ball, this could be a classic case of the third year following a big season slide from Ferentz-led Hawkeye programs.
This offseason will test the plug-and-play mantra unlike just about any in the Ferentz era that I can personally remember.