3 keys for Iowa football as 2023 season looms 3 weeks away

Aug. 11, 2023 6:00 am
IOWA CITY — It’s that time of year again for Iowa football.
Its preseason local media day is Friday afternoon, and its Kids’ Day open practice is Saturday. (Gates open at 11 a.m., and the practice begins at noon.) Like last year, the open practice is three weeks ahead of Iowa’s first game of the season.
But unlike some other years, the Hawkeyes have some metaphorical clouds hanging over the football facility in the August sky.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has already charged backup kicker Aaron Blom with tampering with records as part of its “ongoing” sports wagering investigation. More charges are possible.
Kirk Ferentz previously said “not a large number” of football players are involved in the probe, though.
Meanwhile, if Iowa’s offense does not average 25 points per game this year, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s contract will terminate as part of a stipulation added by former athletics director Gary Barta.
The investigations and contract ultimatum aside, here are three on-field keys for the Hawkeyes with three weeks to go until the 2023 season:
How reliable will the offensive line be?
It is no secret Iowa’s offensive line had underwhelming results last year.
An improvement to Iowa’s offense — the one ranked 130th out of 131 teams last year in yards per game and worse than 100th in several other key categories — must include an improvement up front.
Offensive-line-specific statistics are not plentiful, but the football analytics website Football Outsiders tracks line yards per carry — a stat that weighs the offensive line’s contributions on running plays. Iowa’s line ranked 128th out of 131 FBS teams last year.
The Hawkeyes will need to make major strides this season on the offensive line. There are some reasons for optimism in 2023.
Six of the seven offensive linemen to start at least one game last year are returning. That includes center Logan Jones, who was in his first season playing on the offensive side of the ball in 2022. Rusty Feth and Daijon Parker transferred from FCS-level Miami (Ohio) and Division II-level Saginaw Valley State, respectively.
Iowa’s upgrade at quarterback with Cade McNamara could alleviate some of the pressure on Iowa’s offensive line. However, McNamara’s addition is hardly a magic bullet for the past troubles up front. When McNamara was Michigan’s full-time starting quarterback in 2021, he averaged 2.5 seconds to throw, according to Pro Football Focus. Iowa’s Spencer Petras, meanwhile, averaged 2.7 seconds in 2021 and 2.6 seconds in 2022.
Does Iowa’s offensive scheme maximize the talents of its new playmakers?
The Hawkeyes have an influx of talent in the receiving corps with the arrivals of tight end Erick All and wide receivers Kaleb Brown and Seth Anderson.
But Iowa’s offensive talent can only go so far if Iowa’s offensive play-calling does not properly use that talent.
Iowa’s reputation for maximizing its offensive talent, particularly at wide receiver, has taken a toll over the last two years.
Take Arland Bruce IV, who has since transferred to Oklahoma State, as an example.
Whether it be his 20-yard touchdown run against Kentucky or impressive sideline catch against Illinois, Bruce had no shortage of plays that showed his potential as a true freshman in 2021.
Bruce saw a dramatic increase in snaps in 2022 — from 272 to 445, per PFF — but his receptions and receiving yards were down from his true freshman season.
Fellow former Iowa wideout Charlie Jones had 21 catches at Iowa in 2021 — the fifth-most on the team. He then transferred to Purdue, where he starred and became a second-team All-American.
Adding players like Brown and Anderson was an important step for improving Iowa’s results in the air. Now, it is up to Brian Ferentz to schematically put the newcomers in a position to succeed.
Does Iowa have the depth to withstand any potential injuries at defensive back or linebacker?
All of Iowa’s first-team defensive backs — Cooper DeJean, Jermari Harris, Quinn Schulte, Xavier Nwankpa and Sebastian Castro — have started games in Phil Parker’s renowned secondary.
The second-team defensive backs on the preseason depth chart — T.J. Hall, Koen Entringer and Deshaun Lee — have much less experience. All three players are in their second years on campus.
Meanwhile, Iowa’s linebacker corps includes Jay Higgins and Virginia transfer Nick Jackson, both of whom have plenty of in-game defensive snaps. The others — Kyler Fisher, Carson Sharar and Jaxon Rexroth, among others — do not have that same wealth of experience.
Injuries are an inevitability in college football, and Iowa’s secondary has been Exhibit A for that in recent years.
Cornerbacks Riley Moss, Matt Hankins and Terry Roberts all missed time in 2021 with injuries. Then in 2022, Jermari Harris and again Roberts missed either most or all of the season.
When DeJean exited Iowa’s Nov. 25 game against Nebraska, Iowa’s lack of experience behind him proved costly in a division-title-spoiling loss.
If a key injury happens in 2023 at either position group, it will be up to a player who has not necessarily proven himself in game action yet to fill the void.

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