The Hawks don’t start their NCAA allowed 15 spring practices until after the University’s spring break in the middle of March, but now that both December’s and February’s national signing days have come and passed, let’s take a look at how each position group is shaping up for the 2019 season. We’ll start with the QBs since they’re the unofficial team leaders who perennially seem to draw the most attention.
It should come as no surprise that the QB1 job is in the hands of seasoned senior to be Nate Stanley. Stanley has started all 26 games for the Hawks the past two seasons and will enter the 2019 season with high expectations having accrued 5,289 passing yards and 52 passing TDs over the last two seasons.
Barring any offseason departures, last year’s backup and soon to be redshirt sophomore Peyton Mansell will be battling redshirt freshman Spencer Petras for the role of QB2. Both played sparingly last year in mop-up time only.
Incoming class of 2019 recruit Alex Padilla isn’t totally out of the picture either as he’s an early enrollee already on campus for this spring semester. If you recall, three years ago Stanley secured the back-up QB role in his true freshman season so there’s a chance that Padilla could beat out Mansell and Petras. Moreover, given the new NCAA rule allowing freshman to play in up to 4 games without burning their redshirt, there’s a strong chance that Mansell, Petras, and Padilla could all see the field in garbage time during the 2019 season.
For the time being, however, it’s just too soon to tell who QB2 will be if Stanley were to get hurt. It should be a three-horse race among Mansell, Petras, and Padilla with redshirt freshman Connor Kapisak and senior Ryan Schmidt being scout team warriors.
When it comes to protecting the QBs, the Hawks will be returning junior OTs Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. Both men are behemoths with Jackson checking in at 6’7”, 320lbs and Wirfs 6’5”, 320. Both men are also potential NFL draft prospects who could leave early. Needless to say, Jackson and Wirfs are seasoned veterans who the Hawkeye coaches can depend on.
Sophomore to be Mark Kallenberger will be the primary back-up to Jackson and Wirfs at OT. Although a bit on the lighter side–Kallenberger is listed at 282lbs–he gained some valuable experience last season and should be prepared to contribute as needed. Beyond Kallenberger, true freshmen and highly regarded in-state recruits Ezra Miller and Tyler Endres will likely be the prime candidates groomed to be heirs should Jackson or Wirfs opt to enter the 2020 NFL Draft. Redshirt freshman Jack Plumb could factor in too.
On the interior of the offensive line, the Hawks lose C Keegan Render and OG Ross Reynolds to graduation. Both were multi-year starters and solid players who have a chance to play in the NFL. Junior to be Cole Banwart played OG last year and will surely be in the mix again this year. From post-season coaches’ press conferences, it sounds like Banwart and redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum will compete for the Center spot. Offensive Line Coach Tom Polasek has hinted that he’d like to have Linderbaum—who just switched over to offense from defensive line during bowl prep—play center and Banwart stay at guard. We’ll see what happens throughout spring ball and fall camp, but for now it safe to say that Banwart will likely be one of the starters on the interior of the line. The only question is whether he’ll be at OG or C.
At Guard, the Paulsen twins are the prime candidates. Both will be seniors, and both have significant playing experience over the last couple years. Senior to be Jake Newborg should factor into the two-deep lineup too.
The tight end position is wide open with the departures of presumptive first round draft picks TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant. Hock and Fant accounted for 47% of Iowa’s receiving yards last season and 13 of Stanley’s 26 touchdowns. It goes without saying, there are four huge shoes to fill.
Nonetheless, the Hawks do return a few players with experience. Senior to be Nate Weiting has primarily served as a blocking specialist catching only 3 passes for 68 yards the last two seasons. Fellow senior to be Drew Cook saw his role increase in the absence of Fant during the Outback Bowl and has a good chance to be a contributor in 2019. Meanwhile, 6’5” junior to be Shaun Beyer has also seen the playing field, mostly on special teams, before his season was cut short by injury.
The Hawks brought in a good crop of tight ends too. Three star Illinois prospects Logan Lee, Josiah Miamen, and Sam LaPorta all have excellent chances to see the field immediately.
It’s tough to say how the tight end group will ultimately shake out. On the plus side, the Hawks have a plethora of bodies. Three returning players with limited experience, three incoming recruits, and a handful of other bodies on the roster suggest that the hawks may use a tight-end-by-committee approach. That is unless somebody emerges as an every down player who can both block and catch.
More to the point, whereas the Hawks sometimes used three tight end sets last year due to the depth of the tight unit, more snaps may go to wideouts and running backs this coming season.
For the time being, Weiting and Beyer are slated to be the starters, but these positions are far from solidified. If healthy, Weiting has proven he’s a capable blocker, but he’ll have to develop his receiving skills a bit to be an every down type of player like Hockenson. On the flip side, Beyer is seen as more of receiving threat, reminiscent of how Fant was utilized in 2017 as a sophomore.
On that note, let’s size up the wideouts. Stanley will have to find his next go-to option with the departure of two-year starter Nick Easley and his team-high 52 receptions in 2018. Juniors to be Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette have both shown potential as receiving threats. Smith, at 6’3”, 220lb is a down-the-field threat who has shown glimpses of greatness with acrobatic catches. The key for him, is becoming more consistent. Similarly, Smith-Marsette has also flashed greatness as an offensive weapon and returner. At 6’1”, 175 Smith-Marsette excels at making people miss in space with his quickness. If both Smith and Smith-Marsette can find ways to consistently get open, they’ll monopolize a majority of the wideout snaps.
Competing with the Smith’s for snaps will be senior Dominique Dafney, sophomore Max Cooper, redshirt freshmen Tyrone Tracy Jr., Nico Ragaini, and Calvin Lockett, plus incoming recruit Desmond Hutson.
Dafney has been a solid contributor on special teams, perhaps most notably known for blocking a punt against Penn State this past season. At 6’2”, 225lbs Dafney is built in a mold akin to Brandon Smith. If Smith were to get injured, Dafney would be the next best option as a bigger-bodied, physical receiver.
Cooper had his season cut short by injury this past year but could emerge as the de facto Nick Easley replacement. Tyrone Tracy could slide into the possession receiver role previously manned by Easley too. Both Cooper and Tracy check in at 6’0”, 185lbs and have shown the ability to evade tackles in space. Not to be remiss, Ragaini will get a shot as well. It will be interesting to see how this battle shakes out. All three could split snaps, or one of them could separate themselves from the rest as the third wideout behind Smith and Smith-Marsette.
Lockett and Hutson will most likely be vying to take snaps away from Smith-Marsette as they are rangier receivers. Lockett, a speedster, checks in at 6’2” but just 170lbs while Hutson will enter the Iowa program at 6’4”, 195lbs. Still, both will probably only see meaningful snaps if Smith-Marsette needs a breather and the Hawks have a 3 or 4 wide personnel package.
Fullback Brady Ross battled through injuries last year and should secure the spot in his senior season. Should Ross get banged up again—which is certainly foreseeable given the physicality of the position—it’s anybody’s guess who might fill in. With the departure of senior Austin Kelly, the only other fullbacks on the roster are redshirt freshman Turner Pallissard and Joe Ludwig. Notwithstanding, there’s opportunity for somebody to switch positions should Ross get injured.
At Tailback the Hawks return the three-headed monster of Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young, and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Combined, the triumvirate of juniors to be accounted for 89% of Iowa’s rushing yards last season. All three backs took their turn being listed as the starter, yet it was largely a running-back-by-committee platoon. Towards the end of the season Sargent seemed to separate himself as the lead back with his blend of shiftiness and power, but he’s far from the clear cut first option. Barring an offseason transfer the triumvirate will likely share carries again this coming season with sophomore to be Henry Geil competing with incoming freshmen Shadrick Byrd and the highly touted Tyler Goodson—who has drawn comparisons to former Hawkeye great Akrum Wadley–for garbage time carries.
Rounding out the offense are the placekickers. Multi-year starter Miguel Recinos has graduated leaving the duties of kickoffs and FGs/XPs wide open. Keith Duncan—the guy who kicked the game-winning field goal against Michigan as a true freshman in 2016–is still around and will get a stab at securing the kicking duties. He’ll be competing with walk-on junior Caleb Shudak, although incoming recruit Lucas Amaya can’t be counted out. Given Iowa’s knack for playing close games where kicking often counts, this will be a position group to monitor as spring ball gets underway and into the fall.
Mock 2019 Depth Chart: Offense
QB– Nate Stanley, Peyton Mansell/ Spencer Petras/ Alex Padilla
RB– Mekhi Sargent/ Toren Young/ Ivory Kelly-Martin
FB– Brady Ross, TBD
LT- Alaric Jackson, Mark Kallenberger
OG– Cole Banwart/ Levi or Landan Paulsen
C– Tyler Linderbaum/ Cole Banwart
OG– Levi or Landan Paulsen
RT– Tristan Wirfs, Jack Plumb/ Ezra Miller/ Tyler Endres
SE– Brandon Smith, Dominique Dafney
WR– Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Tyler Lockett/ Desmond Hutson
TE– Nate Weiting/ Shaun Beyer, Drew Cook
TE/WR– Logan Lee/ Josiah Miamen/ Sam LaPorta, Nico Ragiani/ Tyrone Tracy/ Max Cooper
K– Keith Duncan/ Caleb Shudak, Lucas Amaya
Turning to the defensive side of the ball, by now it’s no secret that the Hawks are rather thin on the defensive line. Matt Nelson, Sam Brincks, and Parker Hesse will be lost to graduation and junior Anthony Nelson declared for the NFL draft. To boot, Brandon Simon and Garrett Jansen announced they are leaving the program while highly-touted big-man Daviyon Nixon is still mulling over his options to transfer out of the program.
Nonetheless, the Hawks still return an experienced and talented group anchored by All-American candidate AJ Epenesa and under-the-radar star Chauncey Gholston on the ends. Establishing depth may be a concern, but Epenesa and Gholston are both bona fide game-wreckers. Last year Epenesa led the team with 10.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles while playing roughly half of the team’s defensive snaps. Just think what he could do playing every, or nearly every snap.
Anthony Nelson’s younger brother, Nate Nelson, and fellow redshirt freshman John Waggoner are next in line behind Epenesa and Gholston at D-End. In fact, until the incoming recruits join the fold they’re the only other options listed on the roster!
Fear not though. Defensive Line coach Reese Morgan has been with Coach Ferentz for 20 years and has been known to find diamonds in the rough. Perhaps incoming freshman Jake Karchinski or Taajhir McCall will be the next great find. They’ll certainly get as good-a-chance as any freshman to be an immediate contributor.
There’s also the possibility that the Hawks snag a grad transfer or too this spring to shore up depth concerns at D-End.
At D-Tackle the Hawks have a little bit more depth. Seniors to be Cedrick Latimore and Brady Reiff return experience and production. Both have seen significant playing time the past two seasons and will be depended upon as key contributors once again this year.
Behind them there’s Daviyon Nixon—if he decides to stay with the Hawks and is academically eligible—and a handful of inexperienced bodies. Among the inexperienced are senior to be Jack Kallenberger (yes, the brother of presumptive backup LT Mark Kallenberger), juniors to be Dalles Jacobus and Austin Schulte, and redshirt freshman Noah Shannon.
In press conferences throughout bowl prep, coaches spoke highly of Shannon so he’s probably got the best shot to be in the rotation at D-Tackle. Moreover, there’s a chance Kallenberger could split time at D-End given the lack of depth at the position. And don’t count out incoming freshman Jalen Hunt. The 6’2, 262 lb Michigander could push for playing time.
On the offensive side of the ball running back is the deepest, most experienced position group. On the defensive side it’s the linebackers. And also much like the running backs, there aren’t clear-cut starters and backups. Sophomore to be Djimon Colbert and junior to be Nick Nieman will once again compete for snaps at WIL (weak inside linebacker). Nieman held the spot until an injury in the Wisconsin game sidelined him. In his absence Colbert played well, but in the Outback Bowl both rotated in and out. Regardless of who gets the nod, or even if one beats out the other for the spot, this position should be in capable hands.
Senior to be Kristian Welch appears to be on track to be the captain of the defense at middle linebacker. Jack Hockaday manned the middle for most of last year when he was healthy, but with his departure due to graduation, Welch is first in line. Senior to be Amani Jones—who was the starter at the beginning of the season last year—is also a candidate along with redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle—the son of long-time Hawkeye Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Doyle.
As for who will man the other linebacker position, that is perhaps the toughest to predict. Historically the Hawks have deployed a 4-3 defense but this past year they tried out a bit of a 4-2-5 look with future NFL DB Amani Hooker playing a hybrid role as a DB/LB. At first, we thought that Hooker playing the hybrid role was simply due to the personnel the Hawks had. The linebackers were inexperienced and there were three competent safeties: Hooker, Geno Stone, and Jake Gervase. So, maybe the Hawks’ decision to have Hooker play the hybrid role simply came down to the coaching staff wanting to put the best players they trusted the most on the field.
However, coming out of the bowl game, Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker and Head Coach Kirk Ferentz have hinted that they might opt to stick with the 4-2-5 defense, at least against certain teams. Therefore, for the time being we’ll operate under the assumption that the Hawks will use a 4-2-5 defense as the base personnel package.
With that said, the hybrid role is wide open. A DB like senior to be Michael Ojemudia could be a prime candidate. At 6’1”, 200lbs Ojemudia—or ‘OJ’ as he’s often called—might have to bulk up a bit to handle the position. Fellow senior to be Devonte Young could get a look at the hybrid role too. Young, a physically imposing player who switched over to defense from wide receiver last season, stands at 6’0”, 205 and could benefit from a full offseason of practice as a DB. Incoming freshmen DB Sebastian Castro might have the size to fit the role as well at 6’1”, 200lbs.
Then there’s always the possibility that a true linebacker could man the spot. Incoming freshmen Jestin Jacobs, Jack Campbell, and Yahweh Jeudy are talented enough to push for playing time. So if the Iowa coaches’ philosophy is to put the best players on the field, it’s anybody’s guess who could fill the hybrid role. For now we’ll just put Ojemudia in there as he’s a veteran DB who appears to be the odd man out at Corner.
Now, you may be asking yourself, ‘if OJ is the odd man out at corner, who are the two men ahead of him’? Junior to be Matt Hankins and sophomore to be Julius Brents should be healthy after injury plagued 2018 seasons. When healthy, both showed the ability to lockdown receivers and tackle, two critical parts of playing corner.
Other sophomore to be Riley Moss and redshirt freshman DJ Johnson will likely serve as backup corners if Ojemudia mans the hybrid role. That is unless one of the incoming freshmen pushes for playing time. And it’s likely that one (or ore than one of them) will. With Trey Creamer and Josh Turner leaving the program, there’s not a ton of depth at DB. Plus, Brents and Moss both played extensively last year as true freshmen so it’s not unprecedented for a DB to come in and contribute right away. Along with Castro, the true freshmen trio of Dane Belton, Daraun McKinney, and Jermani Harris will get a chance to make the two-deep.
At safety, junior to be Geno Stone is poised to continue laying the boom as a free safety. With Hooker sliding into the hybrid role last year, Stone wound up playing free safety and played quite well with 4 interceptions and one forced fumble.
The strong safety position is a bit murkier as the incumbent—Jake Gervase—played his last game as a Hawkeye in the Outback Bowl. Senior to be John Milani and redshirt freshman Kaevon Merriweather both played sparingly last year and should vie to be the next man in.
There’s also been talk that Riley Moss could transition from corner to safety. Having been burned on multiple occasions last year, perhaps safety would suit Moss better as he wouldn’t be asked to play as much man coverage. One of the true freshmen DBs could find a home at strong safety too.
And last but not least, the punters! Senior to be Colten Rastetter returns for his senior campaign. Rastetter has started for the last two years and appeared to have improved early on last year; however, by year’s end he regressed. All in all, Rastetter 2018 average of 38.9 yards per punt in 2018, barely eclipsing his 2017 average of 37.8 yards per punt.
Ergo, with the news that Arizona State grad transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton has joined the Hawks, he’s the knew presumptive starter with a solid 43.8 yards per punt average last season. Therefore, junior to be Ryan Gersonde will likely be duking it out with Rastetter once again this off-season, but for the backup role this time, instead of the starting role.
Mock 2019 Depth Chart: Defense
DE– AJ Epenesa, Nate Nelson/ Jack Kallenberger
DT– Cedrick Lattimore, Daviyon Nixon*/ Noah Shannon
DT– Brady Reiff, Austin Schulte/ Jalen Hunt
DE– Chauncey Gholston, John Waggoner
WLB– Nick Nieman/ Djimon Colbert, Jestin Jacobs
MLB– Kristian Welch, Dillon Doyle/ Amani Jones
HYBRID– Michael Ojemudia, TBD
LCB– Matt Hankins, DJ Johnson
RCB– Julius Brents, Riley Moss
FS– John Milani/ Kaevon Merriweather, Riley Moss
SS– Geno Stone, Riley Moss
P– Dalton Sleep-Ferguson, Colten Rastetter/ Ryan Gersonde
So, there you have it. In the words of the fictional Vicky Vallencourt character from the classic Adam Sandler movie The Waterboy, “This ain’t no guess. It’s what it’s going to be!”
Just kidding! By no means do I claim that this is definitively how the 2019 depth chart will shake out. It’s February and things change in a hurry. Inevitably, players will transfer, people will get hurt, and lesser known players will emerge. But, for now this is how I see the 2019 depth chart shaping up for the Hawks.