Iowa Hawkeyes football isn’t exactly known as an offensive juggernaut on the national level. In fact, it may be third on the list of position groups one thinks of when talking about the team from Iowa City.
However, this team burst on to the scene offensively in 2015 and combined with a stingy defense to provide for one of the most difficult teams to beat in the Big Ten last year. Iowa scored 30-plus points in eight of its 14 games last season, including five times in conference play alone.
Can that offensive firepower exist again in 2016?
Last season many wondered if Kirk Ferentz and Co. made the right choice going with intriguing but unproven C.J. Beathard over Jake Rudock following the bowl game in January.
No such questions exist now, as Beathard made the coaching staff look real smart all throughout 2015. He finished last season completing 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns to five interceptions.
While the touchdown numbers may not jump of the page, his ability to not turn the ball over to opponents was key. Beathard also gave a good running dimension to the game, adding 237 yards rushing and six touchdowns on the ground.
He may not be needed as much on the ground in 2016, but that’s perfectly fine if he can duplicate or build even more off of his first season as a starter.
What will be crucial is Beathard’s health, as backup Tyler Wiegers has only four passing attempts to his name in college football, but is brimming with potential. If healthy, Beathard gives Iowa every chance to repeat as Big Ten West division champions.
With leading rusher Jordan Canzeri out of eligibility, a new face of Iowa’s rushing attack will have to emerge in 2016. The question for the coaching staff seems to be experience versus potential heading in to fall camp with very little decided on the name of the starter.
Competing for the starting job is senior LeShaun Daniels and junior Akrum Wadley. Daniels has the experience advantage, having played in 24 career games and is the leading returning rusher from last season with 646 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, Wadley saw his most extensive action of his career last season and showed some real home-run potential.
Wadley rushed for 496 yards and seven touchdowns on just 88 carriers, averaging a team-best 5.9 yards per carry last season. It’s that kind of production that may win the day, but it appears the coaching staff was leaning on the experience of Daniels to be the starter.
Either way, expected both players to see plenty of the ball in a nice thunder-and-lightning combination in the Hawkeyes backfield. Look for junior Derrick Mitchell to be the third back heading in to camp at the very least. He flashed potential in 2015 with 162 yards and two touchdowns on just 25 carries on the season.
One other name to watch in fall camp is redshirt freshman Eric Graham out of Prattville, Ala., who came in to school at 5-10, 200 pounds already and has impressed coaches thus far
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Iowa hasn’t been explosive at wide receiver for a few years now, but returning steady and reliable Matt Vandeberg is going to be a huge help to the offensive effort in 2016. Last season Vandeberg led the team in receptions (65), yards (703) and was second with four receiving touchdowns and was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten for his efforts.
Beating Vandeberg in the touchdown category? That was big play tight end George Kittle, who turned five of his just 20 receptions in to touchdowns. In fact, Kittle averaged a nice 14.5 yards per reception last season and may be the biggest downfield threat the team has in 2016.
Vandeberg will be joined in the starting lineup at wide receiver by a whole lot of inexperience, with both Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer graduated. The biggest name to watch is going to be sophomore Jerminic Smith, who flashed a ton of potential in 2015 as a freshman, catching six passes for 141 yards on the season. Fellow sophomore Jay Scheel appears to be in position to take the other starting spot out at wide receiver after a nice spring himself.
Overall, this is a group that has a lot of potential, but a ton of work to do on the field of play in 2016. With three returning starters on the offensive line and a veteran quarterback, look for this group to figure things out as the season unfolds.
Perhaps the toughest thing to project on the 2016 Iowa offense is just exactly what the offensive line is going to look like. A lot of that had to do with players like James Daniels and Sean Welsh, both expected to compete for starting spots at center or guard, missing time throughout the spring.
However, given where we are today, it appears the coaching staff may be leaning to Welsh to take over at the heir-apparent to Austin Blythe at center. As the spring wore on he got more comfortable and it may not be wise to mess with someone’s confidence.
Look for a nice combination to form around Welsh, with arguably the top offensive lineman on the roster to his left (Boone Meyer) and his competition for the center position, sophomore James Daniels, to his right. Meyer moves inside after starting last season as the left tackle, making way for senior Cole Croston to get his opportunity on the edge.
If Meyer isn’t the best offensive lineman in the group of starters, look at junior right tackle Ike Boettger to be that individual. He is coming off an injury that cost him the final seven games of last season, but seems plenty fit to go in 2016 and that should help an offensive line in a bit of flux.
While the starting group of five seems set, there is a serious lack of experience in the two-deep. As many as three freshmen or redshirt freshmen could be in the mix — Brett Waechter at left tackle along with Jake Newborg and Levi Paulsen at guard.
Our Projected Starters
WR: Jay Scheel, So.
WR: Matt Vanderberg, Sr.
SE: Jerminic Smith, So.
LT: Cole Croston, Sr.
LG: Boone Meyers, Sr.
C: Sean Welsh, Jr.
RG: James Daniels, So.
RT: Ike Boettger, Jr.
TE: George Kittle, Sr.
QB: C.J. Beathard, Sr.
RB: Akrum Wadley, Jr.