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Behind Enemy Lines: A Discussion with Go Iowa Awesome

We had a discussion with Pat Vint of Go Iowa Awesome previewing Miami’s opener at Iowa.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Mississippi State vs Iowa Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

This is a post from Pat Vint of Go Iowa Awesome previewing the Iowa Hawkeyes ahead of their matchup with the Miami RedHawks. To hear Jordan Rinard preview things from Miami’s perspective on Go Iowa Awesome’s latest podcast, click here.

2018 felt like a missed opportunity for Iowa. Having started the season 6-1, the Hawkeyes lost three in a row in late October-early November. That slump ended with a home defeat against Northwestern that sealed the division for the Wildcats and guaranteed Iowa would not win ten games. Kirk Ferentz then lost four underclassmen to the NFL Draft, including a pair of tight ends taken in the first round.

Had some of those underclassmen stayed, Iowa would almost certainly be the favorite to win the Big Ten West. As it is, the Hawkeyes might still be a prohibitive favorite. On paper, Ferentz still returns a bunch of important pieces. Senior quarterback Nate Stanley will start for the third season. Iowa’s tackles, Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, are both being named among the best offensive linemen in the nation. Iowa’s receiver corps is uncharacteristically deep and talented, and the defense is anchored by arguably the most purely talented player that Ferentz has had in 21 years in charge. If it’s not going to happen this year for Iowa, it’s probably never going to happen again under Captain Kirk.

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Back in the 1990s, Hayden Fry brought in a walk-on named Epenesa Epenesa. He ended up playing a bit, and the Iowa crowd loved him on name alone. Twenty-odd years later, Epenesa’s son, A.J., was a five-star recruit and one of the best high school defensive ends in the nation. He committed early to Iowa, which hadn’t landed a five-star recruit in over a decade, and played a bit as a true freshman.

Iowa was stacked at defensive end last season, what with now-Tampa Bay Buccaneer Anthony Nelson on the weak side and all-arounder Parker Hesse opposite him. But it was when Iowa forced a passing situation, Hesse moved to tackle, and Epenesa entered the game that Iowa’s defense truly came alive. Epenesa recorded 16.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, both leading the team. He was first team All-Big Ten from the media, second-team from the coaches. He is a consensus preseason All-American. And he has done it all without starting a game.

Iowa’s defense is predicated on a pass rush from the front four alone. If they’re going to get to the quarterback as effectively in 2019 as they did in 2018, the defense is going to need the same production from Epenesa (1) without Nelson’s help on the other side, and (2) while playing every down. If Epenesa can do it, Iowa’s defense could be special, and Iowa is rarely better than average without an exceptional defense.

My Favorite Martin

Iowa’s offense was bolstered when Oliver Martin, a former four-star receiver from Iowa City who originally went to Michigan, entered the transfer portal and immediately came back to Iowa. For more than two months, fans have waited for word on whether Martin would be eligible this year. If so, he would supplement a receiver corps that is legitimately four-deep for the first time in nearly a decade. Martin spent the fall taking reps as if he was going to be eligible, and it was clear he is the most versatile receiver on the team. Martin took snaps at split end and in the slot during Iowa’s limited open practices, and exhibited the skills that had him in contention for playing time in Ann Arbor.

On Wednesday morning, Martin’s waiver was granted. Kirk Ferentz has already said that Martin will play if eligible. The question remains just how much he will see the field, and how effective he will be if he does. Iowa’s spent the last two years relying on a junior college walk-on and Division II transfer as primary options at receiver. That unit finally has a chance to be better than merely outperforming modest expectations, with outside threats Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette joined with slot receivers Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragiani. If they can truly spread the field and scare defenses, Iowa’s offense has a chance at being more than the usual time-eating, field-position-dominating machine of old.

Another Pro Under Center?

Nate Stanley has posted some excellent stats in two years as starter: If he merely matches his 2017 and 2018, he’ll leave Iowa as the all-time career leader in touchdown passes, with equally excellent yardage totals. But Stanley hasn’t been transcendent, tending toward the dreaded “Game Manager” in most circumstances other than the 2017 win over Ohio State.

Even in 2018, with T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, Stanley didn’t have weapons like this at his disposal. If he improves on his deep ball and decisionmaking, Stanley could be set for the kind of year that catapults a tall, strong, big-armed quarterback up draft boards. On the one hand, Ferentz has said he’s encouraging Stanley to open up the offense and take chances. On the other hand, Iowa has a tendency to beat the turnover gene out of multiple-year starters to the point where their effectiveness drops in Year Three. For obvious reasons, a consistent, and consistently good, Stanley is crucial to everything Iowa wants to do in 2019. Whether he can do that is anyone’s guess.