So far, 15 key players on the Iowa football roster have publicly declared their departure.
While more change is left to come, here’s an offseason check-in at who plans to chase their NFL dreams, transfer to a different program or hang their cleats up for good.
The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to fall athletes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but so far most Hawkeyes are moving on. In the past month, Iowa junior Daviyon Nixon, seniors Chauncey Golston, Shaun Beyer, Alaric Jackson, Cole Banwart, Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Mekhi Sargent, Keith Duncan, Nick Niemann, and graduate transfers Jack Heflin and Coy Cronk have declared for the NFL Draft. Senior linebacker Barrington Wade, who amassed 12 tackles through eight games this year, will also be moving on.
Seniors Zach VanValkenburg and more recently, Matt Hankins, announced their plans to stay for another year.
While not the first to announce his departure, defensive tackle Nixon is atop the list of Hawkeyes expected to find his future home in the 2021 NFL Draft. According to College Football Reference, Nixon led the Big Ten with 13 1/2 tackles for loss and was No. 2 in sacks with 5 1/2 in 2020. In addition, the 2020 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year’s 71-yard pick-6 to solidify Iowa’s 41-21 victory over Penn State also put him at No. 6 in the Big Ten for interception return yards.
It was one of only two interceptions returned for a touchdown in the Big Ten this year, an unlikely feat for a defensive tackle. The other? Teammate Riley Moss, who did it against Michigan State.
“This year, there’s not a ton of defensive interior lineman out there, that’s what makes his stock all the more valuable,” Ourlads general manager and national scout Dan Shonka said in a telephone interview last week. “There are a few guys out there, but Alabama’s (Christian) Barmore came out today because teams need defensive linemen.”
As the second anchor of the defensive line which aided in Iowa’s No. 2 defense in the Big Ten, Golston joins Nixon as one of the top prospects opting for the NFL Draft. The two tied for the second-most sacks in the Big Ten this season. Golston was eighth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (eight).
“(Golston) wasn’t the biggest guy. Tall, but not the biggest guy physically,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said in a news conference on Dec. 12. “It starts with the player, the player having that desire, more importantly, the focus and discipline to do all the things you have to do over the course of five years to become a really good college player.”
Golston’s work ethic was apparent, earning the 2018 Team Hustle award, but he grew to be a recognized player across the conference, earning All-Big Ten first-team honors.
“Last year I thought he was good, but this year he really elevated his game,” Shonka said. “He could play in a four-man front, he could rush the passer on one side or anchor the run coming his way. He could play in a three-man front, being one of those anchor pillars.
“We’ve got him right now in the fourth round.”
Niemann was another key leader on the Hawkeyes’ defense, earning third-team All-Big Ten honors this year and leading the team with 69 tackles, No. 5 in the Big Ten.
The Niemann name is no stranger to the NFL. His brother, Ben, is a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, but Ben had to work his way up after being an undrafted free agent in 2018, moving to the 53-man roster after training camp.
Shonka believes, unlike his brother, a team might take Nick in the sixth or seventh round.
“He’s very instinctive,” Shonka said. “He’s a blue blood football guy and he’s always around football. He’s been that way his whole life and a lot of the NFL people will like that.”
One of the most curious products of the Hawkeye defense is small-town defensive lineman Heflin. Heflin joined Iowa as a graduate transfer following a three-year career at Northern Illinois where his three forced fumbles were No. 2 in the MAC and No. 16 nationally in 2019.
“He should be in one of those football movies,” Ferentz told reporters on Nov. 17. “He’s brought good life to our team and he’s a pretty tough, hard-minded guy.”
Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith
On offense, Iowa loses three linemen, a tight end and two wide receivers.
Veteran wide receivers Smith-Marsette and Smith hope to be the first Hawkeye wide receivers drafted since Marvin McNutt in 2012. Smith-Marsette spent five years with the Hawkeyes, finishing the 2020 season with 25 catches for 345 yards through his seven-game appearances. He earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors despite missing the game against Michigan State because of a suspension for an OWI arrest following the loss to Northwestern in October.
But where Smith-Marsette stands out is on kickoff returns, where he was No. 10 in the Big Ten in 2020 for return yards (176) and led the Big Ten in 2018 with 707 yards, No. 9 in the NCAA.
“You get the cherry on top of the whipped cream with him because he’s a return guy,” Shonka said. “I could see him being like Antonio Brown; he was only a sixth-round draft choice out of Central Michigan. I see Smith-Marsette built the same way in his explosiveness and elusiveness, able to slip tackles.”
Smith’s skill set is rooted in power, rather than speed. He’s able to play in the H-back position whether in a blocking or slot target role, but could also create separation on the outside. Smith finished this season with 23 receptions for 231 yards through seven games. In 2019, he tallied 37 receptions for 439 yards through nine games, missing four full games with an ankle injury.
Injuries are often a reason to move on to NFL sooner rather than later — and the story for many of Iowa’s offensive players leaving the roster. Rated the fourth-highest graded tight end in the nation by Pro Football Focus, Beyer set his eyes on the draft following his breakout season this year. He missed the final four games of the 2018 season and the 2019 Outback Bowl because of injury before enjoying a productive final two seasons on the roster.
He earned All Big-Ten honorable mention honors, catching 11 passes for 158 yards in what was considered his breakout season. Shonka believes if afforded an invite to the NFL Combine, his draft stock will “skyrocket.”
Alaric Jackson and Cole Banwart
The Hawkeyes lose two key pieces of their offensive line in Jackson and Banwart. Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Tristan Wirfs at No. 13 overall, but the last time the Hawkeyes had more than one offensive lineman selected in the draft was in 2015 with Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal.
All three current prospects dealt with injuries over the past few years, but Jackson and Banwart received All-Big Ten recognition for the 2020 season. Jackson missed three games due to injury in 2019, but bounced back to earn first-team honors at tackle this season.“What he’s done this year, it’s probably what he would have been doing last year or at least close to it,” Ferentz said on Nov. 17. “He’s using everything he’s got right now and doing it better than he has since he got here.”
Banwart received second-team honors at guard in 2020, rebounding from an injury that ended his 2019 season after five games.
Of the group, Shonka said Jackson will be drafted the highest, expecting his selection to come in the third or fourth round.
“He can play on the left side, which is very valuable,” Shonka said. “He can play the guard, or he can play tackle, so that’s going to help his stock.”
While second at running back to sophomore Tyler Goodson, Iowa loses a two-year veteran and leader in Sargent on offense. Sargent finished 2020 with 76 carries for 432 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and receiving All-Big Ten honorable mention honors.
He was No. 6 in rushing yards per attempt and No. 7 in touchdowns in the Big Ten.
“All teams like to have a third-down change of pace kind of guy and that’s what Sargent is,” Shonka said. “I would see him being more of a priority type free agent.”
Free agency also is a possibility for Duncan, who inscribed his name into conference and NCAA record books during his kicking career at Iowa. Duncan received his scholarship following a 48-yard game-winning field goal against Nebraska in 2019, setting the Big Ten single-season record of 29 field goals, which also ranked No. 1 in the NCAA, and sixth all-time.
This year, with fewer games on the schedule, Duncan tallied 14 field goals through eight games, claiming his spot as No. 1 in the Big Ten for the second year in a row.
“The NFL added four players to the practice squad (in 2020), so a lot of teams keep an extra kicker,” Shonka said. “I think he’ll be a free agent, but he’ll go to camp with somebody and be able to compete.”
Sophomore defensive back Julius Brents announced on Tuesday his intention to transfer to Kansas State after playing the majority of this season as a backup or special teams player. He will have two years of eligibility left.
On Friday, junior linebacker Djimon Colbert told Hawkeye Nation he is walking away from the game of football, saying he had conflicting feelings about continuing.
Students and staff will return to campus on Jan. 25 and, as some new Hawkeyes set foot on campus, more will decide the future of their career on the field.
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