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Previewing Saturday's season opener between Iowa and Miami (Ohio) (2:30 p.m., ESPNU).
Miami (Ohio) finished sixth in the Mid-American Conference, allowing 404.6 yards a game and 5.63 yards per play last season. Opponents averaged .458 points per play against the RedHawks last season (100th in the country). Miami had just 17 takeaways and finished 123rd in the nation with an average turnover margin of minus-1.3 yards per game.
This is a new year and Miami head coach Chuck Martin likes his defense, which returns seven starters. Three defensive linemen, including second-team all-MAC performer JT Jones, and a pair of linebackers should give the RedHawks some maturity where a college football team needs it.
The RedHawks defensive line is coached by Corey Brown, a University of Iowa grad and defensive lineman for the Hawkeyes in 1999, Kirk Ferentz’s first season as Iowa’s head coach.
Iowa has some stuff that it probably wants and maybe needs to see in the running game.
Senior LeShun Daniels is being counted on to be the “guy” for the first time in his career. He had 31 carries in Iowa’s final four games last season. Junior Akrum Wadley had star moments last season, but carried the ball only 18 times in Iowa’s final five games. Junior Derrick Mitchell is in his second year at running back after switching from wide receiver last year. True freshmen Toks Akinribade and Toren Young remain in the mix for carries.
The Hawkeyes’ O-line seems set, with sophomore James Daniels taking over at center. Junior Sean Welsh got a look there in the spring, when Daniels was out with a knee injury, but a camp injury slowed him and reopened the door for Daniels.
The RedHawks get junior cornerback Heath Harding back. After being named Miami’s defensive skill player of the year in 2014 (98 tackles, two INTs), Harding suffered a season-ending injury in week 3 last season.
Miami allowed opposing QBs to complete 61.6 percent of their passes (100th nationally) and 7.5 yards per pass attempt (84th). Opposing quarterbacks also completed 19.7 passes a game vs. the Redhawks (83rd in the nation). Opposing QBs also enjoyed an average passer rating of 140.5 against Miami (95th in the nation).
The RedHawks should be able to generate a pass rush. Jones earned second-team all-MAC honors last season with 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Nose tackle Ikeem Allen (6-1, 268) also had 4.5 sacks. Miami finished the season with 29.0 sacks, finishing with a sack percentage of 7.69 (23rd overall).
This will be a good test for an Iowa offense that surrendered 10 sacks in its two losses last season, including 7.0 against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard was sacked 2.3 times a game last season (75th most in the nation). Iowa finished 13th in the Big Ten with 30.0 sacks allowed.
The offensive line is a little different from last year. Junior Boone Myers, who started 10 games at left tackle in ‘15, is now left guard. Senior Cole Croston, who made 10 starts at tackle last season, has been installed at left tackle. Junior right tackle Ike Boettger is back after missing most of the final eight games with an ankle injury.
Don’t expect big changes in how the Hawkeyes approach pass protection, at least as far as the offensive line goes. There won’t be a lot of chipping from the backs or tight ends. O-line coach Brian Ferentz will expect his linemen to hold up in one-on-one situations.
Iowa needs some wide receivers and tight ends to be more than they’ve perhaps ever been in an Iowa uniform. Sophomore wide receiver Jay Scheel feels like he’s poised to make a move. After playing three snaps in 2015, he claimed the X receiver spot. Senior wide receiver Riley McCarron had eight targets and five receptions last season. Sophomore Adrian Falconer had one target.
Senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg (65 receptions) and senior tight end George Kittle (six TDs) will be counted on to carry the passing game.
Miami is maturing up front and that should help improve rushing numbers that were pretty rough in 2015. The RedHawks averaged just 3.64 yards a carry (113th in the nation) and 129.6 yards per game (12th in the MAC). Four starters return to an offensive line that includes two sophomores and a redshirt freshman.
Martin focused his recruiting in his first three years at the school on offensive linemen. If the RedHawks expect to punch their way out of fifth place in the MAC’s East Division, it’s going to ride up front. Martin wants a physical offense.
“The most improved position group is going to be the offensive line,” Jones said on Miami’s website. “I go against those guys every day. We’ve got a lot of young guys who’ve already played, so they know the tempo of the game. That’s why I think they can come in and get it done this year.”
Ten starters overall return to Miami’s offense, including leading rusher Alonzo Smith (5-9, 225). Smith gained 498 yards and scored five TDs. In perhaps the RedHawks’ best win last year, Smith rushed for 109 yards and a TD.
Iowa should be able to stop the run. The Hawkeyes return five of their front seven, including defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata and middle linebacker Josey Jewell. Opponents caught on to the fact that Iowa was solid against the run last season, trying 33.5 rushes a game, which was 11th fewest in the country.
The big question for Iowa’s rush defense will be developing capable backups on the defensive line. Senior tackle Faith Ekakitie and redshirt freshman end Anthony Nelson will boost depth. Getting to Nos. 7 and 8 would do wonders for keeping this defense fresh through 12 games.
Sophomore quarterback Billy Bahl (6-4, 237) started Miami’s last seven games as a true freshman in ‘15. The nerves showed early. In his first 63 pass attempts, Bahl threw nine interceptions (one pick every seven throws). In his final 157 passes last season, Bahl started to get it and threw just four picks (one INT every 39.3 throws).
Bahl led the RedHawks to two of their three wins, including a 20-13 triumph at Massachusetts in the season finale that snapped a stretch of 22 consecutive road losses. Improvement is needed. Bahl did complete just 44.5 percent of his passes with eight TDs and 13 INTs.
Miami returns a big chunk of its top producers at wide receiver. Senior Rokeem Williams (6-1, 197) led the RedHawks with 33 receptions for 543 yards and two TDs. Junior Jared Murphy (5-10, 179) caught 29 catches for 439 yards and a pair of TDs. Williams and Murphy were more productive in 2014. Their fortunes flowed alongside the RedHawks’ struggles in the passing game. Tight end Ryan Smith (6-4, 265) also returns. He was productive with 5 TDs among his 21 receptions.
Iowa might show an answer for maybe the biggest FAQ of the offseason for defensive coordinator Phil Parker: Where is the pass rush going to come from? Sophomore end Parker Hesse was the winner of the camp disruption competition. Since spring defensive line coach Reese Morgan has called Anthony Nelson a potential pass rush threat. Johnson provides a great push from the middle of the defense on passing downs.
Perhaps look for the Hawkeyes to make more of an impact with substitution packages. This is where any one of the linebackers who’ve lost out in a competition for starting time might show up. Sophomore Aaron Mends was a stand-up pass rusher late last season in third-down rush packages, so was junior Bo Bower, who’s slated to be the starter at WLB.
If Iowa gets a pass rush, a secondary that’s led by Desmond King and Greg Mabin, a pair of three-year starters at corner, should, as the kids say, eat.
Both teams are replacing their kickers and punters. Miami will call on sophomore Nick Dowd for field goals and sophomore Justin Martin at punter. Between them, Dowd has made a field goal and two PATs.
And that’s still more than the Hawkeyes. OK, not technically. Senior Ron Coluzzi has won the punter spot. He’s a graduate transfer from Central Michigan. Last season, Coluzzi was ninth in the MAC with 39.15 yards a punt. He also had 21 touchbacks as kickoff specialist. After arriving in Iowa City this summer, Coluzzi won the punter and kickoff specialist jobs and a scholarship.
Keith Duncan has won the first shot at Iowa’s field goal duties. The true freshman walk-on from North Carolina outdueled sophomores Miguel Recinos and Mick Ellis in camp. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said this week there’s a possibility Iowa could use a different kicker for long field goals, but praised Duncan’s steady hand. Or foot.
1. That whole expectations thing
There are a ton of Hawkeye people out there who are kind of wincing as the 2016 season, one in which the Hawkeyes are the favorite in the Big Ten West Division, jumps out of the starting blocks. The dread comes from the idea that Iowa doesn’t do so great when expectations are high. The 2014 is an example. The 2010 Hawkeyes are, perhaps, the prime example. Hey, the 2009 team had decent expectations and did win the Orange Bowl. Hang on to 2009 for an example of bucking the trend.
2. Lining up leaders
One element that’s aligned perfectly for this edition of the Hawkeyes is that the stars also happen to be the team’s best leaders. Quarterback C.J. Beathard? Second-team all-Big Ten last year and universally loved and respected among teammates. Cornerback Desmond King? Picked Iowa over the NFL last year, he’s back to graduate and will be a mentor for a total turnover at corner in 2017. Linebacker Josey Jewell? Also a second-team all-conference pick, he bounces around practice and radiates energy.
3. First day in the thick of it
Iowa did return a solid core of stars from last season, but it also lost 21 seniors. So, some profiles are going to blow up Saturday. Sophomore wide receiver Jay Scheel has earned his shot at real playing time. Weakside linebacker Bo Bower has earned his way back to the starting lineup. There are as many as 10 true freshmen who might see playing time. There will be some mistakes or, what coaches will call, teaching moments. This is when you want a true freshman dropping a TD pass, when you’re a 27.5-point favorite.
IOWA WILL WIN IF ... The Hawkeyes run the ball as expected and own the line of scrimmage also as expected.
MIAMI WILL WIN IF ... The RedHawks’ best chance is the offensive line showing the physical maturity coach Chuck Martin believes is there. That’s something you just don’t know until you see it.
PREDICTION: Iowa 37, Miami 7
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