2016 season preview: Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes finished the 2015 regular season with a perfect 12-0 record, only to be defeated by Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and humiliated by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. While the regular season schedule should test them more this year, they return a significant amount of experience from last year’s West division championship team. Let’s take a look at what the 2016 season has in store:
The Big Ten is very short on QB talent, but Iowa’s C.J. Beathard stands out as the highest graded returning QB from 2015 in the Big Ten. He may not have a typical NFL arm, but he can make plays with his feet, and executes Iowa’s system efficiently, particularly when utilizing play-action (his 120.3 NFL QB rating off play-action fakes ranks him ninth among returning FBS QBs). He must improve his deep passing (he completed just 18-of-49 throws of 20 yard or more from the line of scrimmage), but his ability to buy time and improvise often resulted in positive plays outside of the pocket, and ranked him fifth among returning QBs in rating on throws made at least 2.6 seconds after the snap.
While RB Jordan Canzeri departs, LeShun Daniels, who graded better and is a better athlete than Canzeri last year despite less snaps, is back, as is Akrum Wadley. This should be a formidable duo, as they are also joined in the backfield by FB Adam Cox, who last year was our fourth-highest returning FB in run blocking. 2015’s leading receiver, Matt Vandeberg (65 catches for 702 yards last season), returns this year, as does George Kittle, who is likely the most complete TE in CFB.
The top returning offensive lineman is RG Sean Welsh, as he holds our eighth-highest run blocking grade from 2015 among returning guards. Also returning are starters Cole Croston (LT) and Boone Myers (LG). Center Ike Boettger and RT James Daniels are projected to be the other two starters on the line, and both took over 250 snaps in 2015.
The defense is led by CB Desmond King, who could be a top-ten pick in the NFL draft next spring. He is joined in the secondary by CB Greg Maybin and strong safety Miles Taylor, both of whom started last season and logged well over 850 snaps.
The defensive line also returns three starters from last season, highlighted by defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. He boasts the 15th-highest run grade in 2015 from returning FBS DTs. Outside of Johnson, none of the returning defensive linemen for Iowa posted positive overall grades, and in particular their pass rushing grades were unimpressive.
The linebacker corps looks to be in better shape than the defensive line, as Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann return as starters from last year’s unit, as does Bo Bower (207 snaps in 2015), who was the strongest of the three on run defense last season. Jewell graded positively in all three phases of defensive play, but was particularly impressive in coverage last season (he had our third-highest run grade among returning linebackers).
Without question, King is the undisputed star of the team. He was our second-highest graded CB in all of FBS last year, behind only Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis. His eight interceptions (which led the country) combined with 12 pass break ups also puts him at No. 1 in terms of total passes defended. QBs had a NFL rating of just 48.6 when throwing at him — 12th-best among returning CBs.
TE George Kittle is our second-highest graded returning TE from 2015, even though he played less than 400 snaps. Now poised to take over as the full-time starter, Kittle looks poised for a monster year in 2016. He holds the sixth-highest receiving grade from last year among tight ends, as well as the fifth-best mark for run blocking.
Last year’s impressive regular season record was certainly aided by Iowa’s schedule, as the Hawkeyes avoided Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. This year should be a much tougher schedule, as divisional opponents Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska all look to be improved (although Minnesota is the only road game of the three), and they will host a loaded Michigan team on November 12. While it is unlikely they make it through the regular season unscathed once again — considering the offense essentially returns intact and the defenses has experienced studs at all three levels — the Hawkeyes should be considered favorites to repeat in the West division.