TAMPA, Fla. — As Iowa makes room in its trophy case for the 60-pound crystal football it earned by winning Tuesday’s Outback Bowl, one chapter ends and another begins for the Hawkeye program.
Quarterback Nate Stanley and defensive end A.J. Epenesa will find themselves as leaders of the 2019 Iowa team as the Hawkeyes replace the nine seniors who started for Iowa in its 27-22 victory over 18th-rated Mississippi State.
Even more lineup replacements may be needed as underclassmen T.J. Hockenson, Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson contemplate following Noah Fant’s earlier decision to make himself eligible for the NFL Draft.
All three said they plan to take time over the next few days to review their situations with family members and then make a decision about their futures before the Jan. 14 deadline that underclassmen face if they choose to enter the draft.
That’s one day before second-semester classes begin at Iowa, the day when offseason work typically begins for Hawkeye players.
“We didn’t have a large senior class this year, but one of the things we spent a lot of time on was making sure that the younger guys are ready to take that next step,’’ senior free safety Jake Gervase said. “There were guys who did that for us when we were younger. It’s the Iowa way.’’
On its way to a 9-4 season that ended with the first victory of the year over a rated opponent, the Hawkeyes started fast and then struggled to find ways to finish before ultimately figuring that all out to earn a walk-off win over Nebraska and claim the program’s second straight bowl victory.
Along the way, there were some lessons learned.
Leads in the final minute vanished against Wisconsin and Purdue, a costly interception cost Iowa a chance to win at Penn State and Northwestern frustrated Iowa among others on its way to a title in the Big Ten West.
“We turned that around the last few games and demonstrated that we weren’t going to let those frustrations continue,’’ senior offensive lineman Keegan Render said. “I think part of this team’s legacy is that we came ready to work and get better every single day.’’
Coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t dispute that.
On multiple occasions, he has praised the leadership shown by Iowa’s 14-player senior class dating to the tone they set during offseason work and spring ball even before the start of fall camp.
“This group of seniors has really showed us how to play Iowa football and be an Iowa football player. We all look up to them and this offseason is going to be awesome,’’ Hockenson said. “One of the reasons I love these guys is when we face adversity, we come back from it. That shows the character of what this program is about.’’
Those are the traits Iowa seniors hope have been passed on to younger players who will step into expanded roles during a 2019 season that includes a return of Michigan to the schedule among road games that include visits to Iowa State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska.
Render and Ross Reynolds on the line and Austin Kelly at fullback were Iowa’s only offensive starters against Mississippi State. Sam Brincks, Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse on the line, Jack Hockaday at linebacker, Gervase at free safety and kicker Miguel Recinos also made their final collegiate starts in the Outback Bowl.
Returning all three of the running backs who rotated this season as well as seeing welcomed growth from receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, Iowa must also replace bowl MVP Nick Easley at a receiver spot.
Quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe looks for Stanley to show continued growth after throwing 26 touchdown passes for a second consecutive season.
“The only time he got himself in trouble was when he tried to push through something that he wasn’t quite right and maybe put a ball where he really didn’t want to go,’’ O’Keefe said. “That’s the thing you’ve got to fight.’’
On defense, Epenesa led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and was fourth in the Big Ten with 16.5 tackles for a loss during his junior season.
He is one of five underclassmen who were among eight players who rotated on Iowa’s defensive front this season.
Injuries led to playing time for five linebackers who return and Gervase is the lone senior the Hawkeyes will need to replace in the secondary.
“We played a lot of young guys this year and not only have they been productive for us this season, they’ve gained experience that will benefit us down the road,’’ defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.
“We’ve had a good year on defense, could have been better, should be better, but the leaders have shown them how to work every day. And, every game out our guys have played hard, have given us great effort.’’
It’s the type of effort Epenesa believes the Hawkeyes can build on.
“We’ll be better next year because of the experiences we’ve been through this year,’’ Epenesa said. “This group, the seniors taught us to never settle. There’s always a way to be better and that’s where 2019 starts, working to get better.’’