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INDIANAPOLIS ― Coaches and players from six of Iowa’s 2021 Big Ten conference opponents took the podium on day one of Big Ten football media days.
Iowa is projected as the No. 2 team in the Big Ten West by Phil Steele’s preseason magazine. The schedule includes a Friday evening game at Maryland and back-to-back road games at Wisconsin and Northwestern in the back end of its season.
While for many, it was too soon to tell what’s in store for their games at Iowa, coaches could speak on what strengths they expect from their teams and how they’ve seen Iowa traditionally in the past.
Maryland head coach Mike Locksley adds three new coordinators – which includes new offensive coordinator Dan Enos from Cincinnati and former quarterbacks coach at Alabama, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, a former cornerbacks coach from Baylor, and Ron Zook as the special teams coordinator.
Maryland returns a veteran quarterback for the first time under Locksley’s tutelage in sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa and an experienced secondary headed by junior safety Jordan Mosley, who had the second-most tackles on the team last year (41).
Locksley said he sees Friday night as a high school football stage, but tried to make the most out of the precarious time slot against the Hawkeyes.
“I think Fridays are for high schools, but I think it affords us an opportunity to be the only show on TV that night to show who we are as a program,” Locksley said.
He, like other coaches, commends Iowa’s consistency over the years and believes it is their strength.
“Iowa is one of the most consistent teams in the Big Ten. They are who they are, run the ball, play their 4-3 front, twist inside with their D-tackles,” Locksley said. “I’ve played against their defense a lot of years and you play against them, you get to be a part of bowl games.”
Following a disappointing 4-5 season, James Franklin has brought on a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich from Texas, making it the third offensive coordinator he’s hired in three years.
“I don't think you'll see things a whole lot different than who Penn State has been really kind of over our entire time here, especially the times that we were back in this facility and won the Big Ten championship,” Franklin said. “We want people to defend 53 1/3 (yards wide), we want to be able to get our players in space, we want to be able to run with power and authority and I know Mike feels the same way.”
Iowa defeated Penn State 41-21 in 2020 after losing at Kinnick the year before in a heavy field-goal battle 17-12. Franklin returns most of his defense and despite the tradeoff between Will Levis and Sean Clifford last year, has named Clifford as the starter. Iowa faced both quarterbacks in last year’s game with Clifford taking over for Levis and leading the offensive production in the competition in the second half, completing 13 of 22 passes for two touchdowns. Iowa also had a pair of interceptions against him.
“I'm not sure how the scheduling works, but we play them every single year as our cross-conference opponent, so I don’t know how that works,” Franklin said. “We know what we're going to get from them if you put on the film last year or you put on the film five years ago. And I don't mean that as a knock. I think that's a strength of an identity.”
The Wildcats were one of Iowa’s two losses to kick off last year’s season. Northwestern went on to win the Big Ten West title before losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship. While Northwestern and Iowa stood atop the standings last year, Wisconsin could overtake both.
“Iowa is usually in the conversation (for the Big Ten West), is basically what happens,” Fitzgerald said. “You can set your watch on Coach (Kirk) Ferentz’s teams, they rarely beat themselves. Last year, that was not your typical Northwestern-Iowa game, we made a bunch of mistakes in the first half, took a shower, woke up, and they made a bunch of mistakes in the second half. It’s typically the other way around, a clean-played, hard, physical game and then typically the last possession wins. I expect them to be at the top of the West as long as Kirk is there.”
Northwestern loses its starting quarterback, Peyton Ramsey, and will let South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski, Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson and junior Andrew Marty, who led the team to victory against Illinois last year, battle for the spot.
“We’ll finalize that decision sometime during camp, but all three guys had solid spring practices and we have got younger guys behind them too,” Fitzgerald said.
Head coach PJ Fleck said that people seem to have forgotten his team’s 11-win season in 2019, its first since 1904.
The team’s offense is led by junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who was the Big Ten Running Back of the Year last year after recording a school-record eight straight games of 100 yards or more, including in a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Fleck noted that the team has depth at the position, saying it’s important to have a “pair and a spare,” naming sophomore Bryce Williams and redshirt freshmen Cam Wiley and Trey Potts.
“He’s (Ibrahim) kind of like a bowling ball going down hill with razor blades on it,” Fleck said. “He's not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy, not the fastest guy, but he is one of the toughest guys, I think, in the country, and I'm glad he's on our team.“
In addition, the Gophers return a veteran quarterback in Tanner Morgan, who despite a breakout year in 2019, passing for 3,253 yards on a 66% completion percentage, fell to a 58% completion percentage through the team’s 3-4 season. Fleck called Morgan the “heartbeat,” of his team.
The team does return 10 starters on offense and 10 on defense. Defensively, the Gophers return junior defensive end Boye Mafe, who tallied 4.5 sacks last year and was the team’s fifth-leading tackler (27).
“We were picked sixth in the West when we tied for first in the West in 2019,” Fleck said. “That's why they call it the wild, wild west. You just never know.”
Bret Bielema knows the Tigerhawk tattoo is a target on his back when it comes to recruiting, but he acknowledged that his 19-year-old self didn’t know where he’d be headed.
“I didn't go to college to going to be a coach,” Bielema said. “I was gonna either return to the farm and work for my dad or, once I got into high school, I actually went into college pre-law. How funny is that?”
But what he learned from coaches like Kirk Ferentz, he said, was how to play to his strengths and minimize weaknesses.
“I think it's important to realize that that is a big part of where I am today,” Bielema said.
In his return to college football, Bielema takes over a program that went 2-6 last year.
He commended the maturity of his team, including senior left tackle Vederian Lowe, sixth-year senior center Doug Kramer and senior linebackder Owen Carney Jr., who elected to stay after entering the transfer portal this offseason.
The team has 40 seniors, including 22 using an extra year of eligibility, which leads the nation. He also moved redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams to wide receiver, with Michigan graduate transfer Brandon Peters assuming his role at quarterback.
Scott Frost said he is the most excited he’s ever been about a team at Nebraska, even noting that he doesn’t believe he needs a “mantra” to motivate his players.
The Cornhuskers lost five of their eight games by eight or fewer points, finishing the season at 3-5. On the heels of his fourth year as head coach, Frost believes he’s bringing the program back to the level of competition that’s on par with the rest of the conference.
“I think it’s a tight gap,” Frost said. “I have a ton of respect for those teams, the job that Pat (Fitzgerald) did last year; the consistency of the Iowa program; the years that Wisconsin has had. They’re established, that being said: we’ve played some really close games with those guys.”
Frost noted he’s most excited about his offensive line, which despite losing three starters, returns top recruits to the position, including 6-foot-6, 300-pound freshman Turner Corcoran, who have been put through his system to aid USC transfer running back Markese Stepp.
“We have recruited well on the offensive line, but it's hard in this league to come in as an 18, 19-year-old and be dominant as physical as the Big Ten is,” Frost said. “I expect that to be one of our strengths this year and looking forward to those guys playing on the field.”
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