Opinion | Projecting the 2022 Iowa football team’s starters

Never too early to look at next season, I guess.

The+Iowa+Hawkeyes+take+the+field+during+the+2022+Vrbo+Citrus+Bowl+between+No.+15+Iowa+and+No.+22+Kentucky+at+Camping+World+Stadium+in+Orlando%2C+Fla.%2C+on+Saturday%2C+Jan.+1%2C+2022.+The+Wildcats+defeated+the+Hawkeyes%2C+20-17.

Grace Smith

The Iowa Hawkeyes take the field during the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl between No. 15 Iowa and No. 22 Kentucky at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 20-17.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor


You know how right after the NFL Draft ends, you immediately see a way-too-early mock draft for next year within hours? This is the Iowa football version of that.

The groans of Hawkeye fans leaving Camping World Stadium on Jan. 1 can still be heard ringing through the Orlando area after Iowa’s Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky. But I’m already on to next season, so to speak. Despite back-to-back painful losses to end the 2021 season (in the Big Ten Championship Game and Citrus Bowl), Iowa accomplished a lot last season. Iowa won 10 games, finally brought a Big Ten West title back to Iowa City, won three trophy games, reached as high as No. 2 in the nation, and so on.

Most of the significant contributors for the 2021 Iowa football team will be back in 2022, which bodes well for the Hawkeyes.

There is still a lot to figure out about next year’s roster. NFL decisions need to be made and transfer portal acquisitions could still be on the way (well, maybe). And there is always the chance that my projections here could make head coach Kirk Ferentz and any number of his assistant coaches roll their eyes at me. But I was pretty accurate last year. So let’s try this again.

May I present to you, the 2022 Iowa football team’s starters (as of now).

Offense

QB — Spencer Petras (6-foot-5, 233 pounds, redshirt senior)

I know, I know. 

I get the criticism of Spencer Petras’ play (but, as I said in another column, don’t go too far). I really do. But Iowa’s options at quarterback right now seem to be Petras, Alex Padilla, Joey Labas, or someone from the transfer portal. By starting Petras in the Citrus Bowl, I would assume that was Iowa deciding between Petras and Padilla. I wouldn’t be surprised if Padilla transferred, especially considering a telling answer from offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz ahead of the bowl game.

The transfer portal has seemingly dried up at QB. I will be curious to hear from coaches and athletes on how Labas, a true freshman last season, develops heading into next season. By all accounts, he has what it takes to challenge Petras for the job. But right now, I think the most likely scenario is Petras lining up under center as the starter for the third season in a row.

RB — Gavin Williams (6-0, 211, redshirt sophomore)

I think one of the most encouraging takeaways from the bowl game for Iowa was how both young running backs looked while taking over for Tyler Goodson. Gavin Williams (16 carries for 98 yards) and Leshon Williams (10 for 42) both brought physical running styles to the rushing offense. We hadn’t seen either of the redshirt freshmen on the field much over the course of the season with Goodson taking up most of the carries.

But, against Kentucky, they showed enough for Iowa fans to be excited heading into next season. Both of the “Williams brothers” as they call themselves (they aren’t actually related) should complement each other next season. Add in incoming freshman Kaleb Johnson, and Iowa should have a productive trio of backfield options.

FB — Monte Pottebaum (6-1, 246, redshirt senior)

At least one member of the Baum Squad will be back next season (not so sure on center Tyler Linderbaum). The mullet-wearing fullback was injured through stretches of 2021 and should be used even more next season (maybe even some more at tight end when needed). And, of course, we’ll still see more punishing blocks from him in the running game.

RELATED: Opinion | Spencer Petras isn’t Iowa’s answer at QB, but he deserves better from fans

WR (“X”) — Brody Brecht (6-4, 205, redshirt freshman)

Iowa’s wide receiver room is very young, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Brecht is the tall, lengthy receiver coaches dream of at the “X” wide receiver position. A thumb injury slowed Brecht down in the fall, but the offseason (when he isn’t on the baseball diamond) should provide him with the opportunity to work his way up the depth chart.

WR (“Z”) — Keagan Johnson (6-1, 197, sophomore)

Iowa wide receiver Keagan Johnson celebrates a touchdown during a football game between Iowa and Colorado State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (Jerod Ringwald)

Johnson didn’t catch his first pass of the season until the fourth game, but emerged as a big-play threat, averaging 19.6 yards per catch. Going into his sophomore year, Johnson is undoubtedly Iowa’s top receiving option. The “Z” spot seems to be the place wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland would most like to line Johnson up.

Charlie Jones will also see significant snaps if he returns for a sixth season.

WR (“Slot”) — Arland Bruce (5-10, 193, sophomore)

Bruce, like Johnson, quickly elevated himself to the top of Iowa’s list of receiving options during his first season with the Hawkeyes. The quick, shifty slot receiver caught 25 passes last season and ran for three scores, showing his versatility on the offensive side of the ball. I think Bruce could be a solid punt/kick return option, too, if Jones (the reigning Big Ten Returner of the Year) doesn’t come back.

Nico Ragaini will also see some time here, or at least somewhere else on the field. But Bruce has definitely surpassed him as far as playing time and usage.

TE — Sam LaPorta (6-4, 249, senior)

The latest standout Hawkeye tight end is coming off of his best performance to date (seven catches for 122 yards and a touchdown in the Citrus Bowl). There’s a chance LaPorta could opt to turn pro instead of coming back for his senior year. For the sake of this column, I’ll say that the first Iowa tight end to lead the Hawkeyes in catches (53) and receiving yards (670) since 1992 will come back for a final season.

Luke Lachey will be ready to take over the top spot if LaPorta does leave. But, at the moment, I think they will both be on the 2022 roster, setting up a strong tight end duo for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa offensive lineman Mason Richman lifts up Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta during the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl between No. 15 Iowa and No. 22 Kentucky at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 20-17. (Grace Smith)

LT — Mason Richman (6-6, 296, redshirt sophomore)

Richman earned the starting left tackle spot out of fall camp, replacing four-year starter Alaric Jackson. Maybe Richman will be the next Hawkeye to earn that title. He produced enough to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in his first season. Richman missed 2.5 games last season because of injuries, but had a solid first season as a starter.

LG — Cody Ince (6-4, 282, redshirt senior)

Ince is the swiss army knife along Iowa’s offensive line. He can play any of the five positions along the offensive front. Injuries prevented Ince from being the key contributor up front that he was supposed to be last season. Left guard seems to be where Ince will fit in best, especially with Kyler Schott declaring for the NFL Draft.

C — Michael Myslinski (6-3, 278, redshirt freshman)

To start things off, if any projected top-10 pick was going to return for another season, it would be Linderbaum. He genuinely seems to love playing college football. The All-American and Rimington Award winner doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get to the glamorous NFL lifestyle.

But still, I think Linderbaum has played his last down in a Hawkeye uniform.

So, I think Iowa turns to Myslinski to anchor the offensive line next season. Originally, I thought Schott returning to play center for a year was a possibility. Now that that isn’t an option, it will be the scrappy Myslinski or Cornell graduate transfer Hunter Nourzad as the likely replacements for Linderbaum.

RG — Justin Britt (6-4, 302, redshirt junior)

Britt started the first three games of the year for the Hawkeyes, but returned to a rotational role after Schott returned from his foot injury. Injuries have plagued Britt throughout his Hawkeye career, but next season could be the time for him to break through.

RT — Connor Colby (6-6, 298, sophomore)

In his first year playing college football, Colby started Iowa’s final 11 games. That doesn’t happen with many Iowa offensive lineman. Colby seems destined to move from right guard to right tackle, a weak spot for Iowa in 2021, next season. While we’re here, David Davidkov is an intriguing name to keep an eye on. Colby will start somewhere, but Davidkov elevated himself up to the No. 2 left tackle ahead of the bowl game and could be in contention for a role moving forward.

Defense

LE — John Waggoner (6-5, 266, redshirt senior)

Although not the flashiest player on the edge, Waggoner is a reliable presence on the defensive line for the Hawkeyes. Iowa is a tad thin at defensive end, especially with the loss of Zach ZanValkenburg. A somewhat proven edge rusher might be what Iowa needs out of the transfer portal the most. Well, aside from maybe a quarterback.

DT — Noah Shannon (6-0, 289, redshirt senior)

Iowa should have both of its starting defensive tackles back this season, including Shannon. The undersized lineman recorded 47 tackles last season. Logan Jones could factor in here as well after missing last season with a knee injury.

DT — Logan Lee (6-5, 277, redshirt junior)

The former tight end added another 48 tackles to the defensive line’s total last season. Yahya Black is another player who should be significant snaps at his position.

RE — Lukas Van Ness (6-5, 264, redshirt sophomore)

Van Ness tied defensive end Joe Evans for the team lead with seven sacks last season while playing defensive tackle. Moving Van Ness out to end could be out of necessity given the thin nature of the position at the moment. He has the size and strength to play outside and remain a formidable pass rusher. Evans should stay in the mix in pass rushing situations.

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

Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell celebrates after a play during a football game between Iowa and Maryland at Maryland Stadium on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (Jerod Ringwald/The Daily Iowan) (Jerod Ringwald)

This has a chance to be the best linebacking corps under Ferentz. And that’s saying something.

And all that starts with how great Campbell is in the middle of the defense. Again, Campbell is someone who could turn pro, but I would think will decide to return for another season. My bold prediction heading into the 2021 season was that Campbell — who finished the season with 143 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble, two recoveries, and a couple of touchdowns — was going to be the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. I don’t think that take would be very bold heading into 2022.

WLB — Seth Benson (6-0, 229, redshirt senior)

Benson wasn’t too bad himself last season, either. The weak-side linebacker tallied 105 tackles and showed off his elite closing speed to the ball. Benson is a rather reliable pass rush option as a linebacker. There aren’t many better tackling duos than Campbell and Benson in the country.

OLB — Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 236, redshirt junior)

There are few players on Iowa’s roster I want to see get more snaps than Jacobs. Iowa got creative in its defensive packages to get Jacobs on the field more last season. I’d expect that to carry on next season.

CASH — Dane Belton (6-1, 205, senior)

This is probably the most unlikely prediction in this column, but I think Dane Belton will be back for another season as a Hawkeye. I’m sure this take won’t age poorly at all. Belton led the conference with five interceptions and was named first-team All-Big Ten last season. For my money, Belton is playing the best at “Cash” of any defensive back since it was implemented in defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s defense.

CB — Riley Moss (6-1, 194, fifth-year senior)

Iowa defensive back Riley Moss returns an interception for a touchdown during a football game between No. 18 Iowa and No. 17 Indiana at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Jerod Ringwald)

Well, this one was surprising.

I fully expected the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year to turn pro. But Moss, who tore his PCL in the middle of the season, has a chance to boost his draft stock and cement his status as an all-time great Hawkeye defensive back with another standout season at cornerback. With a deep defensive back room, having Moss spend some time at slot corner or Cash could be interesting, especially if Belton leaves. But for now, let’s keep Moss at home at cornerback.

FS — Xavier Nwankpa (6-2, 190, freshman)

Like Johnson and Bruce last season, Nwankpa is enrolling early to make an immediate impact. I fully expect him to. The premier recruit of the Ferentz era should be the top candidate to jump in and replace Jack Koerner at free safety.

SS — Kaevon Merriweather (6-0, 211, redshirt senior)

The hard-hitting safety will get another chance to be a starter in the secondary next season. Maybe Merriweather, who recorded his first-career interception last season (Iowa set a program record for picks in a season), will get his hands on the ball more as a senior.

CB — Terry Roberts (5-10, 180, redshirt senior) and Jermari Harris (6-1, 185, redshirt junior)

Both of these corners should see plenty of time next season, even with Moss coming back.

Roberts was hampered by a bone bruise that kept him out of the second half of the season, but played well at cornerback (and of course on special teams) when he was on the field. Harris recorded four interceptions on the season and played his best game in the Citrus Bowl. Replacing Matt Hankins will be a challenge, but the Hawkeyes have the depth to still be strong at corner.

Special teams

PK — Aaron Blom (5-11, 190, redshirt sophomore)

Going from Keith Duncan to Caleb Shudak is about as seamless a transition a team can hope for. The Hawkeyes are hoping for something similar with Shudak’s departure. It probably comes down to Blom or freshman Drew Stevens here.

P — Tory Taylor (6-4, 231, junior)

The Punter from Down Under is back for at least one more season. Taylor averaged 46.1 yards per punt, although his touchback rate increased. Still, special teams should continue to be a strength for Iowa next season, especially at punter.


Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

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