For senior stars like James Morris and B.J. Lowery, Iowa’s first game of 2014 will be their last for the Hawkeyes.
That’s why the preparation for the Outback Bowl against LSU is as much about Iowa’s youngsters as it is about the Tigers.
Though the Hawkeyes should be one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten next season, they’ll still have holes to fill. Iowa will need three new starting linebackers, a couple of defensive backs and a few starting offensive linemen among other needs.
For the Hawkeyes, finding replacements for those who helped key a resurgent 8-4 season has already begun. Iowa, like most teams, is using much of its practice time ahead of its bowl game to get its inexperienced players primed for bigger roles in 2014.
“There’s always an advantage of bowl practice because you get to work the young guys,” Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis said.
Iowa will return most of its skill positions players, linemen and quarterback Jake Rudock next season. But Davis pointed to freshman wide receiver Derrick Willies and running back LeShun Daniels Jr. as two players who’ve shined in practice over the past few weeks.
Willies, who is being redshirted this season, is a 6-foot-4 native of Rock Island, Ill. with a track background — and the Hawkeyes always seem to be on the lookout for more explosive players on the outside.
Iowa’s coaching staff didn’t wait long to take the redshirt off of Daniels this season, even though the Hawkeyes have three quality backs in juniors Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock and sophomore Jordan Canzeri.
Daniels has rushed for 142 yards on 35 carries. If Daniels keeps progressing like he has since arriving in Iowa City he might get a lot more carries in 2014.
“He’s a very good running back — and we’ve got a lot of them on this team,” Weisman said.
The Hawkeyes will be forced to start at least five new players in the back of their defense next season — including all three linebackers.
Iowa will lose Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens — who’ve formed one of the nation’s best linebacker trios — and junior Quinton Alston, sophomore Travis Perry and freshman Reggie Spearman will likely get the first crack at replacing them.
“It’s exciting for me to know that those guys have another whole offseason, another summer to continue to improve. So, I think the future is bright,” Morris said.
The secondary will also be a bit unsettled heading into the offseason with Lowery and safety Tanner Miller set to graduate.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker mentioned sophomore Sean Draper and redshirt freshman Maurice Fleming as among the young backs who’ve improved in recent weeks, adding that the coaching staff has toyed with playing sophomore Jordan Lomax at both cornerback and safety during bowl preparations.
Lomax was in line to start at cornerback this season. But Lomax got hurt and was soon overtaken by talented freshman Desmond King.
“What he does best is he works hard and he gives you 100 percent,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said of Lomax.