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An early preview of the Iowa players who may be prominent in the 2020 NFL draft
As part of Hogs Haven’s pre-draft coverage, I am going to preview one team per week throughout the college football season.
This weekend, Iowa will host 9-0 Minnesota, who is coming off an impressive victory against Penn State, and are now in prime position to win the Big Ten West. Meanwhile, after losing last weekend to Wisconsin, Iowa sits at just 6-3. Looking at their rosters, we might see an upset, as Iowa is a talented and well coached team.
Having been at Iowa since 1999, head coach Kirk Ferentz is currently the longest tenured FBS coach with one program. For the past decades, Iowa has been know for producing NFL caliber offensive lineman, including Riley Reiff, Bryan Buluga, James Daniels, Marshal Yanda, Austin Blythe, and Washington’s own Brandon Scherff.
More recently, their history of producing Tight Ends (Scott Chandler, Tony Moeaki, C.J. Fiedorowicz, George Kittle, Noah Fant, TJ Hockenson) has been ascending, with it’s apex coming in 2019 when Hockenson and Fant became the first college team ever to sent two Tight Ends to the NFL in the same draft class.
Despite the Hawkeyes’ success, from the outside, they appear to resemble all those pre-Joe Burrow LSU teams we have seen over the past ten years. After nine games, Iowa has averaged just 24.1 points per game, which ranks 97th nationally in scoring offense.
The Athletic appears to support to my thinking with this great piece: Until Iowa overhauls its offense, inconsistency will continue to hold it back.
With the help of BTN Football in 60, the Big Ten Network’s condensed games, I watched Iowa play Miami of Ohio, Iowa State, Michigan, Penn State, and bits and pieces of Wisconsin this year.
Here are some of the Hawkeyes’ prospects that Redskins’ fans should pay attention to.
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND PROSPECTS
#94 A.J. Epenesa (Jr) DE 6-5, 278
It’s rare that Iowa gets five-star talent out of high school, making Epenesa one of their most-hyped recruit in recent memory. His father played there, and AJ grew up a fan. During his freshman season, he was used primarily as a pass-rush specialist and responded with 4.5 sacks and a team-leading eight quarterback hurries.
While still listed as a back-up, Epensa was excellent in 2018, recording 10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, four passes batted, 16.5 tackles for a loss and 37 tackles.
A.J. Epenesa was a nightmare for opposing QBs last season and is a name to watch for this year. pic.twitter.com/pQVILvU13Q
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 13, 2019
Now firmly entrenched as a starter, and leader of the defense, perhaps too much was expected of Epenesa in 2019. While he has been very good, and the focal point of blocking schemes, he hasn’t necessarily had the look of the top-10 NFL Draft pick that he was predicted to become.
#74 Tristan Wirfs (Jr.) 6-5 322
A 4-star HS recruit, Wirfs became the first true freshman to start at tackle in Kirk Ferentz’s 20 years Iowa tenure, and followed up with a very good sophomore campaign.
Over the summer, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler went as far to list Wirfs as the top tackle in the possible draft class of 2020. He also ranked first in Bruce Feldman’s annual Freaks List. Feldman points out Wirf’s 35 inch vertical this off-season would be the second-highest jump by an O-lineman at the NFL Scouting Combine in the past seven years. His 9’5” Broad Jump is also impressive.
Here he is going against Montez Sweat, when Iowa played Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl.
Personally, I was not completely sold that Wirfs would remain at OT in the NFL. While most of the draft media preferred Wirfs, I preferred their LT Alaric Jackson.
While Wirf normally mans the Hawkeyes’ RT position, he became an emergency fill-in at LT when Jackson was injured in Iowa’s opener and performed admirably. This caught the eye of long time NFL/CFL scout and draft media contributor Russ Lande, who on Matt Waldman’s RSP Podcast praised Wirfs to the point of saying he felt he could be a Pro Bowl player at all five of the offensive line positions.
Noted offensive line guru, Brandon Thorn tweeted “The fact this tape is from a 19-year true soph. is remarkable to me. I just don’t see OL w/his size (frame/build/length), AA, & power very often if at all. All over his ‘18 tape too.”
As I’ve been studying this Iowa offense in 2018, I can’t help but notice RT Tristan Wirfs. True junior in 2019. His size, power, and hand usage are outstanding: pic.twitter.com/NRGN17luUQ
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) April 27, 2019
According to Pro Football Focus’ charting, over Iowa’s first eight games this season, he had only allowed six pressures on 304 pass-blocking snaps this season and “has gotten markedly better from a grading perspective every year of his career.”
One theory, has the Dolphins taking the left-handed Tagovailoa #1 overall, followed by RT Wirfs with their 2nd of three first round picks. If the Redskins’ are committed to Dwayne Haskins’ development, Wirfs is a player who should be high on their list.
However, it should be noted that draft insider/analyst Tony Pauline has mentioned on several occasions that Wirfs has strongly leaning toward returning to school for his final season of eligibility.
POSSIBLE DAY TWO (ROUNDS 2-3) PROSPECTS
#77 Alaric Jackson (rJr.) 6-6 320
After red-shirting in 2016, Jackson was named a first team freshman All-America by FWAA in 2017. In 2018, he started 12 games, becoming one of the top offensive lineman in the country.
Alaric Jackson was solid in every facet for Iowa last season. pic.twitter.com/t3USt0KwJf
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 2, 2019
My preseason #2 OT, Jackson was injured in Iowa’s 2019 opener and missed the following three contests before returning for the Michigan game. The results were not pretty.
In Anne Arbor, the Wolverines sacked quarterback Nate Stanley eight times, and created numerous other hits and hurries. While most of the pressure appeared to come from the inside, both Wirfs and Jackson struggled with the speed of Michigan’s linebacker blitzes and the mature game of true sophomore DE Aidan Hutchinson (#97).
Pro Football Focus explains: “We’ll give Jackson the caveat that it was his first game back from injury, but it wasn’t pretty no matter how you slice it. Michigan’s defensive line is always a great litmus test for college offensive linemen, as they stunt, slant and attack gaps as much as any in the country. Jackson’s foot speed was noticeably lacking on a number of different plays, as he allowed a sack and three hurries on the day.”
The following week, it was more of the same, with Jackson having to man up vs Penn State’s potential first rounder, DE Yerur Gross-Matos. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed four pressures and had four more losses in pass pro that didn’t go down as pressure vs PSU.
I am still a fan of Jackson, but he is not having a first round worthy season thus far.
LIKELY DAY THREE (ROUNDS 4-7) PROSPECTS
#4 Nathan Stanley (Sr.) QB 6-4 243
Stanley first came to national prominence as a sophomore, by throwing five touchdowns in Iowa’s 55-24 upset victory over then #6 ranked Ohio State in 2017.
Unfortunately, the following week, Iowa lost to Wisconsin 38-14, with Stanley completing just 8-of-24 passes (33%) for a mere 41 yards. Two seasons later, and not much has changed, as Stanley continues to have impressive moments followed by some of the worst football you have ever seen.
Stanley was Todd McShay’s QB2 entering the 2018 season, and while that may seem laughable now, there were reasons to go out on a limb after that promising sophomore season. Physically, he is more talented than former Hawkeyes’ QB CJ Beathard, who was a surprise third round pick back in 2017. Clearly, Stanley did not show the progression that McShay and others expected, and this season the Iowa offense is minus the services of TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant.
Last weekend, Stanley almost completed the comeback against Wisconsin. After completing just six of his first 12 passes, he completed 11 of his final 16 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns. The Hawkeyes were within a two-point conversion away from tying the game up, but Stanley was stopped just short of the goal line on Iowa’s final play.
Stanley seems like the kind of quarterback that NFL front offices appreciate more than NFL (or college) fans. Reportedly, Peyton Manning continually praised Stanley’s footwork when dropping back at the Manning Passing Academy. Once free from the antiquated Hawkeyes’ offense, he also seems like the type who may get a boost if he is able to impress during Senior Bowl week. He will likely be one of the few quarterbacks there that have played an extensive amount under center. In the end, I expect him to be a borderline top-100 pick.
#9 Geno Stone (Jr.) Safety 5-10 210
Stone saw his first meaningful action in 2018, receiving eight starts at strong safety. That season, he recorded 39 tackles and one forced fumble to go with four interceptions for 24 yards and a touchdown. Draft analyst, Tony Pauline gave him just a 6th round grade this past summer.
Since the days of Bob Sanders, Iowa also has a long tradition of producing physical defensive backs. Stone follows in the footsteps of Charles Godfrey (2008), Amari Spievey (2010), Micah Hyde (2013), Desmond King (2017), and Amani Hooker (2019) as the next Iowa defensive back who should have a long NFL career, but whose size/speed metrics will likely prevent him from being selected in the top-100.
At Iowa, Stone is also a punt returner, but that is unlikely to be a role he will fill at the NFL level.
#57 Chauncey Gholston (rJr.) DE 6-5 270
After red-shirting during the 2016 season, Gholston has been a back-up the past two seasons, before earning a starting job opposite Epenesa in 2019.
Gholston has been pretty impressive in the games I have watched. In fact there have been times, I felt he was more consistently disruptive than Epenesa.
Statistically, he outpaces Epenesa in total tackles (35-22), solo tackles (22-13), and tackles for loss (7.5-4.5), while Epenesa has him beat when it comes to sacks (4.5-2.0) and QB hurries (8-6).
This ranking might be too low for him.
#8 Matt Hankins (Jr.) CB 6-0 185
In 2018, Hankins started in all eight games in which he played, While he missed five games due to injury, Hankins finished with 48 tackles and three pass break-ups.
While he was given a third round grade by Tony Pauline over the summer, I have not really been able to study Hankins much, but will get a chance against Minnesota’s wide receiver combo of Tyler Johnson (#6) and Rashod Bateman (#13), each of whom are legitimate NFL draft prospects. The duo has combined for 88 receptions for 1,577 yards and 15 touchdowns this season.
#91 Bradley Reiff (rSr.) DT 6-3 277
In addition to his football prowess, Reiff was also a two-time South Dakota high school wresting champion.
#42 Shaun Beyer (rJr.) TE 6-5 244
With Iowa’s recent Tight End pedigree, it is wise to see who might be next up. While true freshman tight end Sam LaPorta has emerged, he won’t be draft eligible for a couple of years, making Beyer, a converted wideout, the most likely target for NFL teams.
#10 Mekhi Sargent (Jr.) RB 5-9 212
Sargent is the lead back in Iowa’s somewhat underwhelming running game. While also effective as a receiver out of the backfield, I don’t expect him to declare with a resume.
While not entirely his fault, this year tracks as the worst running campaign for Iowa since 2012. Over the last five games, Iowa’s average yards per rush is 2.45.
He currently leads the Hawkeyes with 102 carries for 464 yards with four rushing touchdowns, while also contributing 13 catches.
#12 Brandon Smith (Jr.) WR 6-2 218
This year’s receiving corps boasts the most receptions of at least 25 yards (21) of any Iowa group since 2009, which combined for 23.
After seeing little playing time as a freshman, Smith broke out, by starting all 12 games in which he played, and finishing with 28 receptions for 361 yards and two touchdowns.
For the third straight game, the Hawkeyes will be without starting receiver Brandon Smith, who went down with a leg injury during the fourth quarter of Iowa’s game against Purdue.
Know for his ability to make the contested catch in the air, Smith won the state championship in high jump (Mississippi) as a senior after placing second as a junior.