The major question for Iowa heading into the 2017 season is at quarterback and who will emerge as the winner of a two-man battle between sophomore Nathan Stanley and redshirt junior Tyler Wiegers.
The two inexperienced quarterbacks are competing during preseason camp to replace starter C.J. Beathard, now with the San Francisco 49ers.
Iowa decided not to redshirt Stanley as a true freshman last year and he backed up Beathard, completing 5 of 9 passes for 62 yards in seven games while burning a season of eligibility.
Wiegers has been in the program for a while now while waiting his turn behind Beathard and Jake Rudock to see some playing time.
Based on their performances during an early scrimmage, Stanley looks to be the front-runner. But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz expects this week’s scrimmage to be more of a defining moment.
“Hopefully we’ll make a lot of strides,” Ferentz said. “Maybe the thing will be a little more clear then. But we’d like to let this thing run out a little bit.”
Quarterback is the most visible and potentially impactful position battle for the Hawkeyes, who are coming off an 8-5 season that was disappointing in many respects after they fell short of expectations to win the Big Ten West Division.
Expectations are considerably lower this year. Iowa is picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the division.
The Hawkeyes face a rugged Big Ten schedule with crossover games against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State, and play division opponents Northwestern, Wisconsin Nebraska on the road.
In addition to the quarterback situation, Iowa has question marks at wide receiver and in the defensive secondary.
“I think if you just look at our team in a nutshell, our inexperience is really on the perimeter both offensively and defensively, including the quarterback position,” Ferentz said. “If you want to talk about strengths, the closer we are to the football, that’s probably where we’re a little more experienced. So it’s all how the team comes together.”
At wide receiver, the Hawkeyes welcome back Matt VandeBerg, who went down with a broken foot during the fourth game last season and was granted a medical redshirt. He was the team’s top pass catcher at the time of the injury.
The other wideouts are more in doubt. The Hawkeyes traditionally struggle to find speed guys who can play the position and get open. Whether anyone emerges this season — sophomore Devonte Young has looked good in preseason camp — could be one of the keys to the offense’s success.
The rest of the offense appears to be set with an experienced and typically tough line and emerging young tight ends.
Talented senior Akrum Wadley, an All-Big Ten candidate, returns at running back after rushing for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns on 168 carries and catches 36 passes for 315 yards and three TDs.
Wadley will be joined by Nevada graduate transfer running back James Butler, who ran for 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Wolfpack last year. Butler’s arrival could be a real gift for the Iowa offense.
“We’re going to complement each other,” Wadley said. “James is a great back. He’s explosive, he’s versatile, he could catch out the backfield, and we just got to find ways (to get him the ball).”
The defense, like the offense, is the most solid in the front end. The Hawkeyes will be anchored by three returning starters at linebacker and two defensive linemen plus the addition of stud recruit A.J. Epenesa at defensive end. Led by senior Josey Jewell, the linebacking unit could be the best in the Big Ten this year.
The back end of the defense was hardest hit by personnel losses and consequently the most suspect group as the Hawkeyes prepare for their Sept. 2 opener against Wyoming and Josh Allen, the Cowboys’ ballyhooed quarterback.
The biggest loss in the secondary is former Thorpe Award winner Desmond King at cornerback. Projected starting safety Brandon Snyder sustained a knee injury during the spring and likely won’t be available all season.
That leaves sophomore Manny Rugamba, who made some big plays as a freshman last year, and Joshua Jackson are the likely cornerbacks with sophomore Jake Gervase taking over for Snyder and strong safety Miles Taylor returning.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Akrum Wadley — A dual-threat back, Wadley ran for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns on 168 carries and caught 36 passes for 315 yards and three TDs a year ago despite sharing time in the backfield with LeShun Daniels Jr. If Wadley stays healthy, he could be poised for a big season in 2017. Daniels used up his eligibility, but Nevada graduate transfer James Butler joined the Iowa program this summer and gives the Hawkeyes a capable and experienced complement to Wadley. With an inexperienced quarterback and wide receivers, the Hawkeyes will need Wadley to make plays to be successful. Iowa ranked 121st of 128 FBS teams last year in total offense.
BREAKOUT STAR: C James Daniels — Coach Kirk Ferentz has developed some outstanding offensive linemen during his time as a head coach and assistant at Iowa, but Daniels could end up being ranked with some of the best. Athletic and skilled, Daniels is a returning two-year starter who will be in the middle of a veteran group that returns largely intact after being named college football’s top offensive line a year ago. The Ohio native is the brother of LeShun Daniels Jr., who completed his eligibility last year, and the son of former Ohio State offensive lineman LeShun Daniels Sr. James Daniels was named to the Rimington Award preseason watch list.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE A.J. Epenesa could be one of the top players that Kirk Ferentz has signed during his 18 seasons as Iowa coach. The five-star recruit has looked impressive in preseason camp, flashing his talent at a kids’ day scrimmage with what would have been four sacks in a regular game. He’s strong enough and quick enough to make an impact right away at a deep positon for the Hawkeyes. His emergence could allow Iowa to move defensive ends Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse inside to play tackle and help offset the loss of NFL draft pick Jaleel Johnson. Epenesa has the size and strength to play right away, but he’s still learning the defense. “He’s impressed us,” Ferentz said. “He definitely belongs on the varsity.”
Minnesota visits Iowa on October 28th.
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