Opinion | Projecting the Iowa football team’s 2021 starters

The 2020 season is over, so it’s time to look ahead to 2021.

Iowa+quarterback+Spencer+Petras+leads+a+huddle+during+a+football+game+between+Iowa+and+Nebraska+at+Kinnick+Stadium+on+Friday%2C+Nov.+27%2C+2020.

Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras leads a huddle during a football game between Iowa and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor


A new year brings with it a lot of new things, including a new Hawkeye football team.

The 2020 Iowa team had its season ended prematurely after Missouri pulled out of the Music City Bowl because of COVID-19 issues within its program. The game was canceled as a result, and after finishing the season 6-2 and on a six-game win streak (and two-game cancellation streak), Iowa is on to 2021.

I love projecting how teams are going to look. I’m the type of person that will read a mock draft a year ahead of time. So I thought the new year would be a good opportunity to take a (very early) look at the 2021 Iowa team.

Iowa returns its starting quarterback, an All-Big Ten running back and center, a breakout defensive lineman, the best punter in the Big Ten, and other key pieces from the 2020 team.

There are also some holes to fill in all three phases.

Most of the stay-or-go decisions have been made by Iowa players. The NCAA afforded football athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic, but the majority of Iowa’s seniors have still decided to move on with their careers. If there is a pending decision, I will weigh in with my thoughts.

Below is my first look at next season’s team. As a note, the year associated with each player will be their classification at the start of next season (junior, senior, etc.).

Here we go.

Offense

QB — Spencer Petras (6-5, 231, redshirt junior)

I don’t think this is a lock, but Petras obviously has the advantage having started every game last season. Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan should have the opportunity to compete for the starting job, but Petras will likely still be the starter under center in 2021.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras attempts a pass during a football game between Iowa and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. Petras threw for 193 yards with one touchdown and one interception on the day. (Shivansh Ahuja)

Petras was inconsistent during his first season as a starter, at times missing open targets and looking flustered in the pocket. His best football did come at the end of the season, particularly in the second halves of the Illinois and Wisconsin games. I’d like to see how he looks with a full offseason to prepare. For all the criticism, some of it being deserved, Petras did lead the conference’s No. 2 scoring offense last season (31.8 points per game).

RB — Tyler Goodson (5-10, 200, junior)

Goodson returns after a first-team All-Big Ten sophomore season. Goodson led an Iowa rushing attack that looked its best since the Shonn Greene days. His teammate in the backfield, Mekhi Sargent, is gone, meaning Ivory Kelly-Martin will likely be the No. 2 rushing option. Kelly-Martin underwent knee surgery in December, and it remains unclear when he will be at 100 percent.

FB — Monte Pottebaum (6-1, 244, junior)

One half of Iowa’s “Baum squad,” Pottebaum, who was awarded a scholarship by head coach Kirk Ferentz at the end of the season, was a fierce blocker for Iowa’s run game in 2020. The same should continue in 2021.

WR (“X”) — Tyrone Tracy Jr. (5-11, 203, redshirt junior)

Tracy felt underused in Iowa’s passing game for most of 2020, but now that Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette have moved on, he has the opportunity to be the team’s top receiver. A big-play threat, Tracy should provide some explosiveness to Iowa’s offense.

WR (“Z”) — Charlie Jones (6-0, 187, redshirt senior)

Jones made an impact on special teams in his first season of action with the Hawkeyes, and he should have the opportunity to get more touches on offense next season. There will be competition for this spot, including freshman Keagan Johnson and redshirt freshman Desmond Hutson, but Jones’ teammates raved about his performances in practice last season. I want to see what Jones does with a full workload.

WR (“Slot”) — Nico Ragaini (6-0, 193, redshirt junior)

Despite proving in 2019 that he was a reliable receiver over the middle, Ragaini was limited to only 18 catches last season. Part of that was attributed to Iowa opting to run plays out of two tight end sets, but Ragaini’s touches were limited even when he was in. Ragaini led Iowa with 46 catches two seasons ago.

TE — Sam LaPorta (6-4, 249, junior)

For much of the 2020 season, LaPorta was Petras’ favorite target. For good reason. LaPorta seems like the next great Hawkeye tight end. He led the team with 27 catches last season. Iowa’s second tight end position will need to be filled after Shaun Beyer’s departure.

LT — Mark Kallenberger (6-5, 290, redshirt senior)

Alaric Jackson will be missed on Iowa’s offensive line. The four-year starter at left tackle (how is that even possible in the Big Ten?) is on to the NFL. Kallenberger has played guard and right tackle for Iowa, but never left tackle. His impressive play on the right side of the line stood out last season and should earn him a crack at the starting left tackle job.

LG — Cody Ince (6-4, 285, redshirt junior)

Started the final six games of the season, a stretch where Iowa won every game and dominated rushing the ball. No doubt he will be starting for Iowa again up front next season.

C — Tyler Linderbaum (6-3, 289, redshirt junior)

Linderbaum’s decision to return to Iowa rather than enter the NFL draft is massive for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum throws a block during a football game between Iowa and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cornhuskers, 26-20. (Shivansh Ahuja/The Daily Iowan) (Shivansh Ahuja)

Perhaps as big as Brandon Scherff’s decision to return to Iowa City. Next season will be Linderbaum’s third starting at center for Iowa. The Rimington Trophy finalist will be one of the best players in college football next season, and a leader on the line for the Hawkeyes.

RG — Kyler Schott (6-2, 293, redshirt senior)

Pushed into the lineup because of the team’s injuries in 2019, Schott impressed enough to make his way back into the starting lineup in 2020. He dealt with injuries of his own last season, but looked sharp when he was in the lineup and should be a start at guard again in 2021.

RT — Jack Plumb (6-7, 293, redshirt junior)

Plumb filled in at right tackle when both Kallenberger and Coy Cronk (a player who I think could benefit from returning to Iowa, but hasn’t announced anything) were out of the lineup. He started two games, which will be valuable in-game experience as he competes for a starting role.

Defense

LE — Joe Evans (6-2, 248, redshirt junior)

Evans has been productive when he has seen the field, particularly as a freshman in 2019 when he recorded four sacks. I like Evans’ chances of earning a starting spot opposite Zach VanValkenburg, although John Waggoner will likely also see significant snaps.

DT — Noah Shannon (6-0, 288, redshirt junior)

Losing Daviyon Nixon, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American, is going to hurt. So will the losses of Jack Heflin and Austin Schulte (both players I’d be surprised to see back). Shannon will be among the defensive tackles tasked with making up for those losses.

DT — Logan Lee (6-5, 267, redshirt sophomore)

This offseason will be an opportunity for Lee to develop and earn a starting spot. Yahya Black and Logan Jones are some other names to watch here.

RE — Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 270, sixth-year senior)

VanValkenburg’s decision to return to Iowa was more good news for the Hawkeyes. The second-team All-Big Ten performer will be Iowa’s top pass rusher next season, and should continue to develop in his second season as a starter. The former Division II player will likely be Iowa’s only returning starter on the defensive line.

MLB — Jack Campbell (6-5, 243, 6-5, 243, junior)

I think Iowa has a future All-Big Ten first team linebacker in Campbell, who missed the first three games of 2020 with mononucleosis.

Dec. 12, 2020; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell tackles Wisconsin running back Garrett Groshek during the second quarter of the Iowa v. Wisconsin football game at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa defeated Wisconsin with a score of 28-7. (Katie_Goodale)

His presence was immediately felt once he returned to the lineup. Campbell can go sideline to sideline and make the big plays in the backfield, and he will lead the Iowa defense next season.

WLB — Seth Benson (6-0, 231, redshirt junior)

This is a tricky position. Djimon Colbert started two seasons for Iowa at weakside linebacker, but sat out the 2020 season because of the pandemic. Benson and Campbell split reps at middle linebacker last season while Nick Niemann (the team’s leading tackler who is now onto the NFL) played weakside. With how well Benson played, I don’t see how defensive coordinator Phil Parker can keep him off the field.

OLB — Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 235, redshirt sophomore)

As Iowa goes into its 4-2-5 subpackage more and more, the outside linebacker position is used less and less. Jacobs is an intriguing young linebacker for the Hawkeyes, and should fit into the position that’s recently been occupied by Barrington Wade.

Cash — Dane Belton (6-1, 205, junior)

Belton started last season at strong safety and is a versatile piece in Iowa’s secondary. Iowa’s “Cash” position in the 4-2-5 seems to be the place that suits him best. Belton can cover a receiver in the slot, rush the quarterback and step up in run support, contain the edge — basically whatever Parker needs him to do.

CB — Riley Moss (6-1, 191, senior)

Losing four-year starter Matt Hankins is a huge loss for the secondary, and Moss steps in now as the team’s top cornerback. Moss possesses underrated ball skills (six career interceptions) and is a reliable cover corner for the Hawkeyes.

SS — Kaevon Merriweather (6-2, 205, redshirt junior)

Merriweather is a hard-hitting safety who earned a starting spot back after missing most of the 2019 season with an injury and losing his starting role. He is another player who is capable of playing the cash position. Iowa has a lot of talent in the secondary, including recent graduate transfer Xavior Williams. At Northern Iowa, Williams was a versatile defensive back, playing both safety and corner. He could play either at Iowa, and could also get some time at cash, depending on where Parker likes him.

FS — Jack Koerner (6-0, 205, redshirt senior)

Koerner recovered from a scary watercraft accident in the offseason and had a stellar season in 2020 that earned him second-team All-Big Ten honors.

Iowa’s Jack Koerner celebrates an interception during a football game between Iowa and Michigan State in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. The Hawkeyes dominated the Spartans, 49-7. Iowa forced 3 MSU interceptions. (Shivansh Ahuja)

Koerner took advantage of being thrust into the lineup in 2019 and has become one of the team’s best defensive players. The safety out of Des Moines finished third on the team in tackles (45) and first in interceptions (three) last season.

CB — Terry Roberts (5-10, 177, redshirt junior)

Roberts has been a special teams ace for the Hawkeyes, but now has an opportunity to heavily contribute on defense. Iowa lost corners Julius Brents and Daraun McKinney to the transfer portal during the season, so someone needs to step up at this position.

Special teams

PK — Caleb Shudak (5-8, 178, sixth-year senior)

It’s going to be odd not seeing Keith Duncan trot out onto the field to attempt field goals, but Shudak is a very capable replacement for the beloved Hawkeye kicker. Shudak has been with the program for a long time, and should take advantage of the free year from the NCAA and return to Iowa for a sixth season.

P — Tory Taylor (6-4, 225, sophomore)

Taylor was the Big Ten’s punter of the year despite never having seen a live American football game prior to joining the Hawkeyes. The Australia native averaged 44.1 yards per punt last season and had an impressive touch on his kicks, often downing them inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. Good luck following up that freshman season.

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