A year ago Iowa surprised many when they completed an undefeated regular season, won the Big Ten West, and made a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. There was no question that they were the benefit of a soft schedule that saw them avoid the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, but they also adopted a lot of change in the program that was cause for their resurgent success.
The Hawkeyes will have a favorable schedule once again but not as generous as it was a year ago. Ohio State and Michigan State are still missing from the slate but Michigan and Penn State do return to the schedule, with the game against the Nittany Lions coming on the road in a night game at Happy Valley.
It was clear that the positive vibes a year began and ended with C.J. Beathard. He was named the clear and concise starter immediately after the letdown of the 2014 regular season which spurred Jake Rudock to transfer to Michigan. Beathard never looked back. His numbers will never dazzle you but he 'crosses all the boxes off in terms of what you want from your quarterback," as Stanford head coach David Shaw said leading up to the Rose Bowl.
The backfield returns two of their top three rushers from a year ago. Long gone is Jordan Canzeri but the dent it takes is pretty insignificant when you consider LeShun Daniels was the actual starter a year ago and returns, as well as Akrum Wadley who ran for over 200 yards at Northwestern in addition to a few more solid games. Both fullbacks leave due to graduation so it could be a trial period for guys like Drake Kulick and Brady Ross.
The offensive line loses valuable seniors in Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh. Even those losses could prove to be not as critical as one would usually believe. James Daniels played in every game a year ago as a true freshman, including two starts, and is in line to replace Jordan Walsh at right guard. Sean Welsh slides from left guard to center to fill the vacancy of Blythe. Boone Myers slides from left tackle to left guard. A year ago, Myers started 10 games.
Henry Krieger Coble is a pretty big loss for Beathard as he was one of his favorite targets as a tight end. However, George Kittle will step in and he's played in several games in his own right. Kittle actually is the more explosive player, and lead the team with six touchdown catches a year ago. Kittle could be one of the breakout players in the Big Ten this year.
Wide Receiver is the big question mark on the offense as every other position remains intact. They lose two of their three starters in Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer. Leading receiver Matt VandeBerg does return and was the other favorite weapons for Beathard. Jerminic Smith is the likely replacement as the vertical threat. He started in place of Tevaun Smith when he was out with an injury and showcased glimpses of being the vertical threat the Hawkeyes can rely on. The other spot will likely come down to in-state product Jay Scheel or senior Riley McCarron.
The biggest shake-up on the defense comes along the line of scrimmage. Tackles Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata were worthy of all-Big Ten consideration a year ago and both return but there's some turnover at defensive end. Parker Hesse starts on one side and got a lot of playing time a year ago after Drew Ott tore his ACL but Matt Nelson and Anthony Nelson will be pretty green on the other side with little experience with the departure of Nate Meier. Depth remains the question along the defensive line as little is proven outside of Faith Ekakitie at defensive tackle.
The only linebacker that left was senior Cole Fisher, and though he had a fine season in 2015, they should have little trouble replacing him with Aaron Mends. Mends is super athletic, very quick, and gives the defense an added dimension. Josey Jewell should also be an all-conference performer and probably should have been a year ago. Ben Niemann is another capable pass rusher at linebacker and plays quick. This unit will have the most speed and athleticism it has had in some time.
Desmond King's return for a final season leads the way in the secondary. The Jim Thorpe Award winner was amongst the nation's leaders in interceptions a year ago. Hard-hitting safety Miles Taylor and very sound cornerback Greg Mabin are also back. The nickelback Josh Jackson even returns. Brandon Snyder will be the new free safety and could be the next walk-on to success story in Iowa City. The depth is also there with a young talent in Josh Jackson and a senior leader in Anthony Gair.
The defense returns a lot to a unit that was pretty stingy even a year ago.
The return units should be fine. Desmond King was the leader on both kickoffs and punts and should be again. Other alternatives will be Matt VandeBerg, as he was a year ago, but they have also been experiencing with Josh Jackson and Jerminic Smith.
There will be both a new kicker and punter for the Hawkeyes this season and neither has been decided. Candidates for the open kicker spot include freshman Keith Duncan, and sophomores Miguel Recinos and Mick Ellis. The punting vacancy will be a battle between Colten Rastetter, Ben Canby, incoming freshman Jackson Terry, and Central Michigan transfer Ron Coluzzi. They'll want to have a solution for these openings by the end of fall camp so it does not drag into the season.
We're back to that guy C.J. Beathard. He was the most valuable last year as he instilled energy into an offense that was lacking it severely in the years prior to him being named the unquestioned starter. The senior signal caller is the captain, the playmaker, and the vocal leader for the Hawkeyes and he will be counted on even more in his final season in Iowa City as he will have to aid in the growth of their young receiving core. They'll need to lean on him quite a bit, at least early on.
Iowa is not known for playing true freshmen a considerable amount, in any year. They also have very few positions where a newcomer can arrive and take ownership and see the field immediately. One spot that it is possible for 2016 is at tight end. Nobody has stepped up yet to be a good alternative to George Kittle at this point. They bring in two worthy candidates in Noah Fant of Omaha and T.J. Hockenson from Chariton, Iowa. With Fant being the most ready in terms of being flexed out as a receiver and having the ability and experience as an in-line blocker, he'll enter Fall camp as the most prepared to have an immediate role. He lit up the camp circuit and spurred Nebraska and UCLA to sign with Iowa.
2015 RECORD: 12-2 (8-0 B1G)
2015 FINAL RANK: 9th (AP Poll)
2015 POSTSEASON: 45-16 loss to Stanford (Rose Bowl)
LETTERMEN RETURNING: 41 (21 O, 19 D, 1 ST)
LETTERMEN LOST: 22 (11 O, 9 D, 2 ST)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 O, 7 D)
STARTERS LOST: 10 (4 O, 4 D, 2 ST)
Out: LB Jim Reid (Boston College), RC Seth Wallace (Iowa LB coach)
In: LB Seth Wallace, RC Kelvin Bell