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B1G Thoughts: Five offseason questions for Iowa

The Hawkeyes enter 2023 surrounded with drama with their offensive coordinator, but that is not the only issue they have to fix this offseason.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 season has come to an end. It was a great season that leaves many questions to be answered as we enter the 2023 offseason. Michigan won the Big Ten for the second year in a row, taking the crown from Ohio State.

Ohio State enters the new year a field goal away from a national championship appearance, but now has to replace C.J. Stroud. Will this be the first time in almost a decade that the best quarterback in the conference doesn’t wear scarlet and grey?

Nebraska, Purdue, and Wisconsin enter 2023 with new coaches while Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Indiana’s Tom Allen enter on the hot seat. Penn State has high expectations, Illinois will try to rebound from a late-season collapse, and Minnesota is trying to replace four of the best players in program history.

This is the final offseason before USC and UCLA enter the conference and the new TV deal starts. Teams must build a foundation that will last in the ever-changing landscape of college football. The 2023 offseason is essential for every team, so let’s dive in and see which five questions each team must answer before the 2023 season begins.

Will they reach the 25 points per game and seven win threshold?

The biggest story surrounding Iowa this offseason is the status of offensive coordinator and nepotism hire Brian Ferentz. The son of head coach Kirk Ferentz led a dismal offense that averaged a measly 17.7 points per game in 2022. It became a running joke all season that Iowa’s defense and special teams would out-score the offense on any given Saturday, and bettors won big by betting the Iowa under on a weekly basis.

The offense drew more and more attention throughout the season as the defense continued to play well, ending the campaign with 40 points scored on six defensive touchdowns and two safeties. After the season, nearly everyone — fans, casual observers, and local and national media members alike — all called for Kirk to relieve his son of duty.

A firing wasn’t necessary. He’s a good offensive line coach, but removing the offensive coordinator title at least. Instead, Kirk stood strong behind his son, and athletic director Gary Barta reworked his contract. In 2023, Brian will have a $50k pay cut, and must reach performance metrics of averaging 25 points per game and winning seven games this season. If he reaches these goals, he’ll get a bonus that will make up the lost salary plus some and a contract extension. Missing the mark will lead to his contract ending in June 2024.

This may have satisfied Kirk, but to the rest of college football, this is a joke. Scoring 25 points per game is a laughably low standard, good for roughly 85th in the country, and seven wins are below Iowa’s standards. These numbers were clearly selected for Brian to pass with flying colors. In his six seasons as offensive coordinator, Iowa has only failed to reach 25 ppg twice. Even with the low bar, Iowa’s offense is abysmal, and it’s no guarantee that they will meet this mark.

Iowa’s Offensive Outputs

Season Points per game Rank
Season Points per game Rank
2022 17.7 123rd
2021 23.4 99th
2020 31.8 40th
2019 25.8 88th
2018 31.2 44th
2017 28.2 66th

Is Cade McNamara the quarterback that will unlock this stagnant offense?

I can go on for days discussing Iowa’s offense and my lack of faith in Brian Ferentz, but it’s not my opinion that matters. What does matter is that Iowa put its faith in the right quarterback. After putting up with Spencer Petras for the past three seasons, the Ferentz’s are rolling with former Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara.

McNamara is absolutely an upgrade over Petras, but how much of an upgrade is yet to be determined. As the starter in 2020, McNamara played his role perfectly, handing the ball off to stud running backs Hasan Haskins and Blake Corum. He was not asked to throw much, but when he did he limited turnovers, throwing only six interceptions in 14 games.

The issue with putting your trust in Cade is he was operating behind a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line, had three NFL running backs on the roster and a defense full of players who would ultimately get picked in the top 100 of their respective NFL Drafts, including first-round pick Aidan Hutchinson.

In one season as a starter, McNamara had a 15-to-6 touchdown to interception ratio. In three seasons, Petras had a 24-to-19 touchdown to interception ratio. At a minimum, McNamara should turn the ball over less than Petras, but he is going into a situation with significantly less talented players on offense. If Iowa is expecting McNamara to save them they may be in trouble, but if they can some offensive skill players to support him their offense may come back to life just enough to score 25 points per game.

Is there another tight end ready to enter stardom?

Iowa is a finalist for tight end university, consistently having some of the best tight ends in college football. The best tight end on the roster is almost guaranteed to be an NFL Draft pick, and his backup is probably going to step up and immediately fill his shoes. Iowa has had George Kittle, Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, and Sam LaPorta in the last 10 years.

LaPorta won the Big Ten Tight End of the Year this past season, and is one of the top-ranked players at his position in the 2023 NFL Draft. LaPorta led the team in receiving with 657 yards. Whether Iowa refuses to recruit wide receivers or wide receivers refuse to go there, they lack talent at that position. Charlie Jones’s explosion at Purdue won’t help with the recruiting of wide receivers either when it is clear they stunted his growth and lack the ability to use his talent.

That makes finding another star tight end that much more important. The next guy up may already be on the roster, as their second leader in receiving yards was a backup tight end in Luke Lachey. Lachey ended the year with 398 yards and four touchdowns. At 6-foot-6 Lachey has the size to be a match-up nightmare. For this offense to have any chance to succeed, they will need Lachey or someone else on the roster to fill the hole left by another NFL tight end pursuing a professional career.

Can they develop a competent rushing attack?

Despite Petras and his many struggles — and trust me there were a lot of them — he was not helped by Iowa’s inability to run the football.

After losing running back Tyler Goodson and all-world center Tyler Linderbaum, the Hawkeye rushing attack plummeted. As a team, they averaged 94.9 yards per game, 2.9 yards per carry, and 0.9 touchdowns per game. I don’t need to tell you how bad that is. Starting running back Kaleb Johnson had his moments, finishing with 779 yards and six touchdowns.

The problem is there are multiple backup running backs who had more yards and touchdowns. Add in the fact that the second-leading rusher only had 413 rushing yards and you start to see the problem.

As a team, Iowa ran for 1,234 yards and 12 touchdowns. Four running backs in the conference ran for more yards singularly, and another four had 12 or more touchdowns. It is unacceptable for a single player to be able to outrush an entire team, and unthinkable for four players to do. Whether it be the offensive line talent or the running back, Iowa has to find a consistent and effective running game or it is doomed to repeat last year’s awful performance.

Who will step up to replace defensive stars?

Iowa’s success has always relied on its defense. Even at its best under Brian Ferentz, the offense was only 40th in the country. Meanwhile, the defense is almost always in the top five, typically finishing top two nationally. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has built enough cache for us to believe he will have his defense ready to play no matter what, but they are losing some key contributors.

They enter 2023 without defensive end and sack leader Lukas Van Ness, star linebacker and unanimous All-American Jack Campbell as well as second-leading tackler Seth Benson in addition to Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather, who played corner and safety, respectively. If you’re following along, they lost key members at every level of the defense, but they’re hit the hardest at linebacker.

They return Cooper Dejean, who will enter 2023 as a betting favorite for Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year after getting three pick-sixes in 2022. Former five-star safety Xavier Nwankpa is expected to step in for Merriwether, and transfer linebacker Nick Jackson hopes to fill a piece of the void left by Campbell and Benson. The only unit that is whole is a defensive line that returns seven out of nine players who played the most snaps.

It would be naive to think the Hawkeyes will take a major step back in 2023, but it is also unlikely they score 40 defensive points on the season. Even an incremental step back could be disastrous for the program if the offense can’t find a way to put points on the board. Parker has a tough job this offseason trying to find the right combination to carry the Hawkeyes program for another season.