The top 10 Iowa football players you need to know for 2016. Get to know the key Hawkeye stars to watch out for.
1. CB Desmond King, Sr.
The Thorpe Award winning for the best defensive back in college football was more than just a big-time playmaker when the ball was in the air. He could tackle a bit with 72 stops – doing a great job in the open field – and was an all-star return man averaging 14.18 yards per punt return and 24.41 yards per kickoff. But it was his work, especially early on, making big play after big play with two key interceptions against Wisconsin, two against Pitt, and one in three straight games that all but sealed the deal before mid-November.
At 5-11 and 200 pounds, the Detroit native is built like a tough safety, and he can hit like one when he has to. Compact and ultra-quick, he’s a sprinter who can cut on a dime with a great break on the ball and tremendous instincts and smarts to always be around the play. As steady as any tackling defensive back in the Big Ten over the last three seasons, he has 205 career stops and 26 defended passes, but he took his game up several notches last year. He could’ve turned pro early and been a top 50 overall pick, but now he’ll return as the nation’s most dangerous defensive back.
2. QB C.J. Beathard, Sr.
The Tennessee native survived a quarterback battle, emerged from the fray as the main man over Jake Rudock, saw Rudock leave for Michigan, and then led the team to within one defensive stop of the College Football Playoff. Now it’s his job to be even better, turning into one of college football’s top all-around quarterbacks – he has the skills to do it.
The 6-2, 209-pounder is a good runner with a nice arm, smarts, and the talent to start taking more chances. He completed 62% of his passes for 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns with five picks, while running for 237 yards and six touchdowns. The caretaker of the offense, his job was to not make mistakes and hit his third down passes. Able to do that, can he start taking more shots down the field? He’s good for 200 yards a game – cranking up it up ten times last year – and he threw just three interceptions before throwing one in each of the last two games. He can afford more errors, as long as he’s able to make up for it with more downfield passes and scores.
3. LB Josey Jewell, Jr.
One of the Big Ten’s better tacklers last season and a key leader for the strong Iowa defensive front, the 6-2, 230-pound veteran earned all-star honors on the field and in the classroom. After starting out his career with a nice 51 tackle season, he did it all last year with 126 tackles – coming up with 40 over a three-game November span – with 2.5 sacks and four picks with six broken up passes. Built for the middle, he’s got the range and the athleticism to move straight line and to get around the ball, and he’s quick enough to seamlessly drop into pass coverage.
4. LB Ben Niemann, Jr.
A rangy 6-3, 225-pound outside defender, he’s a good special teamer and a rock-solid starter able to play strongside or do what’s needed in space on the weakside. While he didn’t come up with a ton of big plays, he made 45 stops with three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss, doing enough to earn Honorable Mention All-Ten honors. More steady than sensational, he has the upside to be more of a pass rusher – once he comes back from an ankle problem – and let Josey Jewell handle everything inside.
5. OG/C Sean Welsh, Jr.
Is he going to stick at guard or will he move over to center? The versatile 6-3, 288-pound veteran blocker earned all-star honors at left guard, but he can move to tackle if needed – even on the left side with the frame and feet to be a good-enough pass blocker – while likely to be solid in the middle. He might not be a massive banger, but he’s a technician who was considered by the coaching staff to be one of the best players on the team last year. He might be the one guy – outside of QB C.J. Beathard – the team can least afford to lose.
6. DT Jaleel Johnson, Sr.
A good part of the rotation up front, Johnson is the veteran presence with 6-4, 310-pound size and defensive end quickness. An All-Big Ten performer, he wasn’t quite as celebrated as some of the other key players up front, but he did his part holding his own with 45 tackles and 3.5 sacks with 5.5 tackles for loss. An anchor, he has no problems mixing it up in the interior and hold his own to occupy the double team. He’s not going to have to do it all – again, Iowa has a good rotation – but he’s the best of the lot.
7. RB LeShun Daniels, Sr.
The 6-0, 225-pounder started out the season hot with 123 yards against Illinois State, but he got banged up in the middle of the season with an ankle injury and struggled up until he ripped off 195 yards and three scores against Minnesota. He was dinged again, and finished with 646 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging just 4.46 yards per try, but if he’s okay and can stay in one piece – something he hasn’t been able to do so far – he’s got the upside to be a 100-yard threat every time out with breakaway speed to go along with his power.
8. WR Matt VandeBerg, Jr.
The Hawkeyes lose most of the key targets, but they get back their leading receiver. The 6-1, 185-pounder from South Dakota didn’t do too much over his first two years, with just 22 catches, but last season he was more of a midrange playmaker catching 65 passes for 703 yards and four scores. While he’s got good speed, he’s not a blazer and he didn’t hit too many home runs with just two touchdowns over the last 12 games of the season. But he’s C.J. Beathard’s go-to guy, good enough for around four catches a game.
9. OT Cole Croston, Jr.
Versatile, the 6-5, 295-pounder can line up either at left or right tackle, likely starting out the year on the left side. Athletic and with a good frame, he’s got the feet to be okay in pass protection after a decent year, but with his experience and his quickness, he can be a technician. He might not be a mauler, but there are others on the line for that.
10. CB Greg Mabin, Sr.
At 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s got excellent size for a safety with the speed to play corner after starting out his career at receiver. A power defender with deep speed, he came up with 53 tackles with a pick and five broken up passes in 2014, and followed it up with eight breakups and two interceptions and 54 tackles. He’ll get plenty of chances with everyone trying to stay away from Desmond King, he’s a strong veteran who could quickly turn into a statistical superstar.