Iowa Football

Iowa football look ahead: NFL will take a bite, but the chase begins for the 2019 Hawkeyes

On defense, you have A.J. Epenesa; the offense will have Nate Stanley and his 52 career TD passes

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa celebrates after forcing a Mississippi State fumble in Tuesday's Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa celebrates after forcing a Mississippi State fumble in Tuesday's Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

TAMPA, Fla. — The confetti stays in the air only so long.

The Outback Bowl trophy will go into the two-story case at the Hansen Center before the week is over. Vital seniors will say goodbye. A few juniors will enter the NFL draft and, whammo, it’ll be 2019.

First a little roll call.


Moments after the Hawkeyes’ 27-22 win over Mississippi State in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl, tight end T.J. Hockenson found his brother on the rail in the stands, peeled off his jersey and handed it to him.

The sentiment was “I couldn’t have done it without you.” In the postgame, the Chariton native’s eyes were red. He was a bit emotional. These weren’t the international signs of a returning senior.

Hockenson won the Mackey Award. He’s proven it. His NFL stock probably isn’t going to get any higher. If you write him in for 2019, do it in pencil.

“I have an idea of what I’m going to do,” Hockenson said. “I’m going to sit on it for a few days and not left anyone know. I think my parents may know, but I don’t even know if they do yet.”

This wasn’t the speech of a returning senior.

Safety Amani Hooker on the topic: “I’m not talking about it, I’m not ready to talk about it.” He did put in for an NFL evaluation. He won the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year award. His stock is probably not going to be any higher.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker played it close to the vest, but he also ran down the list of potential replacements for Hooker at the star safety/linebacker position in businesslike fashion and said, you bet, when asked if Hooker had what it takes to play in the NFL.

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Defensive end Anthony Nelson could enter a stacked defensive line draft or he could return to Iowa, take a shot at the big awards and perhaps build himself a first-round resume.

“I’ll figure it out in the next two weeks,” said Nelson, who had 2 1/2 tackles for loss and a tipped pass that resulted in an interception vs. MSU. Nelson also received a favorable draft grade from the NFL.

The deadline for underclassmen to enter the draft is Jan. 14.

If Iowa goes 1-for-3 here, it’d be a victory. And if it does, it’s probably going to be Nelson returning.

So now into the vast offseason and what the Hawkeyes (9-4) definitely have coming back.

A.J. Epenesa isn’t going anywhere. Not yet, anyway. He finished with 10.5 sacks, which might end up leading the Big Ten after the bowl games.

This is probably an overstatement and certainly Iowa wore the team defense thing on its chest against the Bulldogs, but Epenesa’s performance put a lot of fuel in the Hawkeyes’ tanks.

“We wanted to make them throw it,” said Epenesa, whose strip-sack turned into a TD and turned into the day’s theme for Iowa, with the defense causing three turnovers that the offense converted into 17 points. “We knew that wasn’t their strong suit. Whenever we could make them throw it, we knew were in the advantage.”

Fellow defensive end Chancey Golston had an interception and fumble recovery. Defensive end will be a strength. Defensive tackle will need some fortifying with seniors Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks graduating.

Without Hooker, safety Geno Stone is likely the most ready to assume a leadership/playmaker role in the secondary. Matt Hankins missed six weeks with injuries, but on the front end and back end of that he was Iowa’s best cornerback. The Hawkeyes are drenched in experienced cornerback depth.

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Front and center on offense is quarterback Nate Stanley. He threw three TDs and hit 26 for the season for the second consecutive year. He had lapses, including a bad ball that ended up turning into an MSU TD.

He’ll enter his senior season with 52 career TD passes, fourth on Iowa’s all-time list.

Quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe covered this topic well in December.

“Really, the only time he got himself into trouble was when he tried to push through something that he wasn’t seeing quite right and maybe put a ball where he really didn’t want it to go,” O’Keefe said. “That’s the thing you’ve got to fight. You have to resist the urge to try to do something that you know isn’t quite correct and just keep moving on from there.”

Iowa will return offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson. They’re a great start on the O-line. Freshman Tyler Linderbaum will have a say at center. Don’t judge guard Cole Banwart too harshly for the Outback Bowl. MSU defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons will be a top-10 pick in April. Still, there needs to be a vigorous competition for the inside OL positions.

With the signings of a pair of running backs (Tyler Goodson and Shadrick Byrd), the Hawkeyes will go into next fall with five on scholarship. There’s going to be sorting and jockeying.

There will be a rebuild at tight end, with junior Shaun Beyer perhaps literally ready to run into that void. Iowa will lose super-productive Nick Easley (103 receptions in two seasons), but Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette will be juniors and should be ready to carry a lot more weight.

The Outback trophy will be in the case by the end of the week. The chase, and all of its twists and turns, begins anew.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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