Iowa football: 5 storylines, 5 players to watch during Hawkeyes’ preseason camp

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz’s 25th camp as the Iowa Hawkeyes’ coach opens Wednesday with anticipation that several questions find answers during the next four weeks.
Iowa’s players and staff believe they have a good team and don’t have any depth-chart candidates injured entering training camp. The Hawkeyes were 8-5 last year with one of the nation’s top statistical defenses but the complete opposite on offense. That leads to plenty of inquiries that require clarity.
Though neither the staff nor The Athletic has answers yet, here are five storylines and five players to watch throughout preseason camp in Iowa City.
Gambling investigation: When Iowa (and Iowa State) announced it had turned information to the NCAA and the state’s Department of Criminal Investigation had opened a gambling probe, it was still in early May. It wrecked Iowa’s NCAA Tournament baseball squad, but the first football game was four months away. Now, with camp opening, feelings about the NCAA’s gambling investigation have shifted from concern to frustration.
Iowa has multiple football players involved in the investigation, including starting defensive tackle Noah Shannon. It’s not publicly known how much each athlete bet and on what event, but both are significant when gauging the penalties. If a player wagered less than $200 on a non-Iowa event, there’s no real punishment. If it was on an Iowa event, such as women’s basketball, the players could receive a lifetime ban.
“It’s pretty much out of our hands at this point,” Ferentz said. “If we don’t hear anything, how can a player play? I’m not an expert on this, and hopefully, we don’t get to this point where I need to know it, but I would assume if you play a player who ends up getting suspended, you end up forfeiting. So my guess is you have to hold them out based on what I saw in the spring. I hope we’re not in that situation.”
The drive for 325: The Iowa-related topic that dominated most of the offseason — outside of women’s basketball superstar Caitlin Clark, of course — dealt with the altered contract for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. After the offense’s poor statistical performance last year, athletic director Gary Barta forced the assistant coach to accept a $50,000 salary reduction (actually $120,000 when his negotiated raise was removed) and halted his two-year contract rollover. In addition, Iowa needs to win seven games and average 25 points per game or Brian Ferentz will lose his job.
Why 25 points per game? If Iowa scores 25 points in a game under Brian Ferentz, the Hawkeyes are 31-1 with the only blemish a last-second loss at Purdue in 2018. During his first four seasons as the offensive coordinator, Iowa averaged 29 points per game. The last two, 20.6 points per game.
New QB: In normal years, this would be the topic de jour, and it will be Sept. 2. But until there’s some resolution in the gambling probe and the snark evaporates a bit around Brian Ferentz, the glow of new starting quarterback Cade McNamara will remain in the shadows.
McNamara, a graduate transfer from Michigan, led the Wolverines to the 2021 Big Ten crown and a College Football Playoff berth. He missed all but three games last year after knee surgery and transferred to Iowa in January. He has been the unquestioned starter for the entire offseason, and his impact has stretched well beyond the field.
“I’m encouraged,” Iowa tight end Luke Lachey said. “Cade will add a lot of spice to the offense, and I’m excited for him.”
OL competition: Inexperience along the offensive line provided one common element in Iowa’s offensive woes during the past two years. Only one lineman from the original 2018 or 2019 classes (fourth- and fifth-year players) started any games last season, and that totaled only five. A trio of sophomores formed the core of Iowa’s left side, and redshirt freshmen combined for 11 starts.
This year, left tackle Mason Richman (25 starts), left guard Connor Colby (24 starts) and center Logan Jones (13 starts) are juniors. Beau Stephens (10 starts) and Gennings Dunker (one start) are sophomores. Nick DeJong, a senior who began his career as a walk-on, has 17 career starts spanning multiple positions. Graduate transfers Rusty Feth (Miami of Ohio) and Daijon Parker (Saginaw Valley State) will compete for starting roles, as will junior Tyler Elsbury.
With the added experience, depth and growth, Kirk Ferentz looks for a major jump from his line.
“I think we have the right people in place, and I think we have the right competition,” Ferentz said. “We’ve got to stay healthy. We have to improve. Everybody’s got to improve on our team for us to be where we want to be. But I’m excited about it.”
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LB makeover: The Hawkeyes began 2022 with perhaps the nation’s top linebacking corps with Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs as the starters. Campbell won the Butkus Award and became a Detroit Lions first-round pick. Benson was a second-team All-Big Ten linebacker and is in camp with the Denver Broncos. Jacobs suffered a season-ending biceps injury and transferred to Oregon.
Jay Higgins stepped in for Jacobs in sub packages last year and now is the unit’s veteran. Joining him is graduate transfer Nick Jackson, who was a two-time second-team All-ACC linebacker at Virginia. Behind them are several inexperienced linebackers who need to become game ready this month.
“I kind of fell in love with Jay right away like when you meet him,” Ferentz said. “There’s something about him that just you gravitate to him and our players all gravitate to him. He doesn’t have the experience of Campbell and Benson. But he’s just been so strong in our program.”
Players to watch
WR Kaleb Brown: Iowa wide receivers averaged 5.8 catches per game last year and totaled 76 for the season. The unit is a shell of itself compared with even 2019 when receivers hauled in 169 receptions.
Brown, a redshirt freshman transfer from Ohio State, could ignite the receiving corps to put it back in the right direction. Brown played in four games last year with the Buckeyes with one catch, but he immediately vaults into contention for Iowa’s No. 1 receiver. After he committed to Iowa in May, Brown joined the receivers, tight ends and McNamara on a trip to California to work with Jordan Palmer and former NFL star receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
“I was able to see the kind of talent and what he was bringing to the team from a football standpoint,” McNamara said. “I know the rest of the team and the coaches, and everyone is very happy he’s on our team.”
LB Nick Jackson: A two-time second-team All-ACC linebacker, Jackson picked Iowa over Oklahoma and is a pivotal newcomer to one of the nation’s top defenses. Jackson led the ACC in tackles per game last year at 10.4 and in total tackles in 2021 with 117.
Jackson has 354 career tackles, including 161 solo tackles and 20 tackles for loss plus 10.5 sacks. He also was a two-time team captain. With Campbell and Benson in the NFL, Jackson’s leadership and production could make for a semi-seamless transition.
“(I’m) physical, smart and just try to be around the ball every single play,” Jackson said. “I think if you’re a linebacker, you got to be around the ball, whether it’s pass (or) run. That’s the one position, I feel like you have the freedom to be around the ball and make plays.”
CB Jermari Harris: After injuries shredded Iowa’s secondary in 2021, Harris stepped in at cornerback and became a valuable contributor. He intercepted four passes that year and started six games. He entered the 2022 offseason injured but a likely starter. Instead, he was unable to play.
This spring, Harris returned to his starting role. He wasn’t quite to his late-season 2021 level, but he showed flashes of why he was one of the Big Ten’s most productive defensive backs.
Cade McNamara and Joe Evans could help shape Iowa's 2023 season
C Logan Jones: It’s not easy to follow maybe the program’s greatest player at your position, but Jones didn’t shy from the comparisons. He immediately flipped his jersey number to 65 — same as former All-American Tyler Linderbaum — and made the same jump from defensive tackle to center as his predecessor.
Jones didn’t quite take to the position as quickly as Linderbaum, and there were problems with the snap. But on double teams, Jones did show his rare strength, including a program-record 700-pound squat, and his quickness on reach blocks. A significant jump isn’t out of the equation.
DT Aaron Graves: It says something for Graves that even when competing on the team’s deepest unit, he was able to play 205 snaps last year as a true freshman. It wasn’t unexpected; Graves was the MaxPreps Male Athlete of the Year in 2022 and was perhaps the most dominant line-of-scrimmage player in state history. Still …
This year, Graves has put on more than 20 pounds and bears a resemblance to Mr. Incredible in the Pixar family movie. Perhaps that is a dose of hyperbole, but it would surprise no one if Graves became an All-Big Ten candidate without starting a game, like Lukas Van Ness last year.

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