IOWA CITY — The 2018 Iowa football team ended last season with three straight wins and a national ranking of 24th in the final Associated Press poll.
The AP preseason poll for 2019 is not out yet, but the Hawkeyes are ranked in several other polls, including starting at 19th in the coaches’ poll.
Iowa returns 42 letter winners and brings back 12 starters — six on offense, four on defense and two specialists — and they hope it’s enough to push for the Big Ten Conference West title.
“When it comes to polls, there’s usually five to eight teams you can pretty much say, yeah, these guys will probably be in the top 20,” Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz said at the team’s annual media day on Friday. “After that it’s a jump ball.
“I hope nobody is wasting too much time on it from our camp, and really what’s important right now is us working towards being a good football team.”
Having a three-year starter at quarterback back should help with expectations. So does having two bookend offensive tackles projected to be first-round NFL draft picks.
The defense also gets junior sack master A.J. Epenesa back and in the starting lineup for the first time. He’s a third player who is projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick next May.
Iowa went 9-4 and won the Outback Bowl last year.
“We are looking for guys to step up and fill in the positions we lost guys at,” Iowa Offensive Coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “We need to figure out the best way to attack a defense and make sure we are getting our best guys the ball.”
Kirk Ferentz begins his 21st season with three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley, who threw for 2,852 yards and 26 touchdowns last season.
His three biggest targets — T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant and Nick Easley — are all in NFL camps, but Ferentz expects juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette to take positive steps and redshirt freshmen Nico Ragani and Tyrone Tracy also gives Iowa some depth in 2019.
Smith had 28 catches for 361 yards and two touchdowns last year. Smith-Marsette had 361 receiving yards on 23 catches and three scores. He also averaged nearly 30 yards per kickoff return.
Sophomore Oliver Martin could be in the mix, too, but he is still waiting on a decision by the NCAA about his immediate eligibility appeal after transferring back home from Michigan.
The passing game took big steps for Iowa last season, but the running game was lacking overall. Junior tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson are back and junior Cole Banwart returns to one of the guard spots.
Freshman Tyler Linderbaum is expected to take over at center. The other guard spot will be played by either sophomore Mark Kallenberger or seniors Landan Paulsen or Levi Paulsen.
“We need to start fast. The linemen want to set the tempo, come off the ball and hit them in the mouth early in games,” Wirfs said. “That will help improve the running game.”
Replacing Hockensen and Fant will be senior Nate Wieting and junior Shaun Beyer. Senior Fullback Brady Ross also is back from injury this season.
Juniors Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin are all back at running back. Sargent led the Hawks with 745 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last year, while Young had 637 yards and five scores. Kelly-Martin dealt with injuries and finished with 341 rush yards and two TDs.
The top four tacklers from Iowa’s 2018 defense graduated, but Epenesa had 37 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as a reserve.
“I have taken leaps and bounds with all aspects of the game,” Epenesa said. “Mentally, I am so much better. Physically, it’s all about conditioning. I am not going to be just coming in on third downs anymore. I need to make sure I am in shape.”
Epenesa will start at defensive end for the first time as will junior Chauncey Golston, who had 35 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season.
The rest of the defensive line includes senior Cedrick Lattimore, sophomore Daviyon Nixon, senior Brady Reiff, junior Austin Schulte, redshirt freshman Noah Shannon or junior transfer Zach VanValkenburg.
“Even though we don’t have a bunch of experience, I really like what we have seen up front,” Iowa Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker said. “That might be the strength of our defense so far.”
The top returning tackler is sophomore Djimon Colbert, who had 52 tackles in his first year as a starter at linebacker. The other starting candidates at linebacker include juniors Kristian Welch (49 tackles) and Nick Niemann (43 tackles).
The 4-2-5 formation gets more secondary players on the field, and Iowa brings back junior Matt Hankins (48 tackles), senior Michael Ojemudia (39 tackles, three interceptions), junior Geno Stone (39 tackles and four interceptions) and sophomore Julius Brents.
Junior Barrington Wade is listed as a starter at linebacker on the preseason depth chart. So is sophomore Kaevon Merriweather at free safety.
Juniors Caleb Shudak and Keith Duncan are battling in camp to replace Miguel Recinos at starting kicker. The punter will be either returning starter Colten Rastetter or Arizona State graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton, an Australian who averaged 43 yards per punt last year.
Ferentz announced on Friday that sophomore punter Ryan Gersonde is out for the year after knee surgery.
The Hawkeyes open the 2019 season against Miami (Ohio) at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 31 inside Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.