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Early Wisconsin football 2017 preview: Week 11 vs. Iowa

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Black Heart Gold Pants takes an early look at the Hawkeyes.

Iowa v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

After a Rose Bowl season for Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2015, his program took a step back in 2016 with an 8-5 season. Last year’s campaign concluded sourly with a 30-3 lopsided loss to the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl.

Now without defensive back Desmond King, quarterback C.J. Beathard, and many other significant contributors, Iowa looks to continue to contend in the Big Ten West division. Along with their usual rivals in the West, the Hawkeyes will have to face Big Ten champion Penn State, College Football Playoff participant Ohio State, and a recovering Michigan State in their crossover divisional matchups.

Black Heart Gold Pants’ Max Brekke previewed who and what to watch for Iowa this spring.

Another year for Kirk Ferentz and his coaching staff. What’s the general feeling heading into the 2017 season, and were there any major coaching changes?

There is a feeling of great optimism heading into 2017 despite the multiple departures of key players. A lot of this has to do with the second part of your question—the offensive coaching staff has been completely revamped behind new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.

Now, before you all laugh at the idea of another Ferentz taking charge of the Iowa football program, let me explain something. This Ferentz is a little less stubborn than the elder and seems to be willing to incorporate some more modern ideas into the offensive playbook. That, paired with his willingness to tell Kirk how he sees things, looks like it could be an important asset going into the future. The hires for position coaches also aren’t sexy, but they’re known recruiters who have had a lot of success at their previous stops. Tim Polasek is particularly intriguing, as he was the offensive coordinator at NDSU during their title run.

Who are the key contributors coming back for the Hawkeyes?

The biggest piece coming back for the Hawkeyes is going to be Akrum Wadley. He burst onto the scene in 2016 and left defenders in his dust all season long on his way to over 1,000 yards on the ground. With the rest of last season’s offensive pieces exhausting their eligibility, he’s essentially the only one coming back who contributed to the offense last season. Honorable mention goes to Matt VandeBerg, although what he has left after sitting out most of the previous season with an injury is left to be seen.

Iowa v Illinois
Akrum Wadley runs against Illinois last November.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

On the defensive side of the ball, the linebacking corps is returning in its entirety and that’s the most important thing for the Hawkeyes after losing so much talent on that side of the ball. Josey Jewell, who was snubbed from last year’s all-Big Ten teams, is going to be back for his senior year and he’s been the most important player for the Hawks on that side of the ball despite the fact that Desmond King was there due to his play-calling ability and leadership.

Who will they have to replace from last year’s team?

How much time do you have? Let's go through the laundry list.

On the offensive side of the ball, it all starts at quarterback, as two-year starter C.J. Beathard and George Kittle graduated and are likely to be drafted by NFL teams this summer. 2016’s leading receiver, Riley McCarron, and starting running back LeShun Daniels also graduated. Basically, everyone that did something outside of Wadley is gone. This spring will be interesting.

The defensive side of the ball isn’t any different—both of last year’s starting cornerbacks are gone in Greg Mabin and King, while defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie both graduated as well. Expect to see a lot of new faces the next time Iowa comes to town.

Which player or players could be a breakout candidate?

Noah Fant should get a good look at tight end on the offensive side and any wide receiver could break out, but who it will be is up in the air—no one on this roster has proven themselves even a little bit and if no one breaks out, it could be a long year in the passing game a la 2016. I personally like Adrian Falconer to break out.

On the other side of the ball, true freshman A.J. Epenesa will likely get lots of playing time early on and that’s exciting, as he’s ready to play right this moment. Aaron Mends and Manny Rugamba also will likely make more of an impact now that there are lots of open spots and they’ll be thrust into more prominent roles. There’s a lot to like from these three and the drop-off from their predecessors probably won’t be too steep. That’s great to know for Iowa fans.

Which position battles are worth watching this spring?

First and foremost, quarterback. Will Nathan Stanley get the starting job after being the primary backup to Beathard last year, or will Tyler Wiegers use that wake-up call to win the position? Will Drew Cook finally show up on the field? It’s wide open.

Wide receiver will be interesting, but that will mostly be due to the fact that none of them seem to have a leg up on the second spot next to VandeBerg.

Lastly, the remaining linemen spots will be interesting. Epenesa should get playing time, but Cedrick Lattimore is supposed to be the real deal and could get some playing time too.

Outside of these positions, there is a good idea of who will earn the playing time at the open spots. Defensive back and running back are likely already decided, while Iowa will definitely utilize multiple tight ends so it's not worth reading into who will earn the starting spot. It should be a really fun spring!

2017 Wisconsin Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (CT) Spring Q&A Preview
Date Opponent Time (CT) Spring Q&A Preview
Sept. 1 Utah State 8 p.m. Mountain West Connection
Sept. 9 Florida Atlantic 11 a.m. Underdog Dynasty
Sept. 16 at BYU 2:30 p.m. Vanquish the Foe
Sept. 30 Northwestern TBA Inside NU
Oct. 7 at Nebraska TBA Corn Nation
Oct. 14 Purdue TBA Hammer and Rails
Oct. 21 Maryland (Homecoming) 11 a.m. Testudo Times
Oct. 28 at Illinois 11 a.m. The Champaign Room
Nov. 4 at Indiana TBA Crimson Quarry
Nov. 11 Iowa TBA BHGP
Nov. 18 Michigan TBA Maize N Brew
Nov. 25 at Minnesota TBA The Daily Gopher