Iowa’s football program prides itself on being a developmental operation, building players through the sweat and time they put into their craft.
The growth that transpires from the time players step onto campus until they compete in their final games at the collegiate level has provided 170 Hawkeyes with the opportunity to take their game to the next level in the two decades Kirk Ferentz has led the Iowa program.
Of those, 66 Hawkeyes were drafted by NFL teams and another 104 received free-agent opportunities.
Changing times are challenging the developmental aspects of the Iowa operation.
Those fifth-year “stories’’ that coach Kirk Ferentz references, players who come into their own during the final seasons of their eligibility, continue to be there but the seasoned veterans who found success after finding their way onto the field early in their collegiate careers are on the move.
Four Hawkeyes are among a record 132 underclassmen who declared themselves eligible for this year’s NFL draft.
The decisions of Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson to skip their final seasons of eligibility and cash in at the next level makes them among six Iowa players in two years to leave early.
Including James Daniels and Josh Jackson from a year ago, a program that had not had a single player leave early for the draft since Riley Reiff in 2011 will now work to fill more than half of the spots from its starting lineup in the regular-season finale against Nebraska.
Five players on offense and seven on defense who started against the Cornhuskers – eight seniors and four underclassmen – won’t be with the Hawkeyes when spring practices begin.
That kind of roster turnover presents challenges and opportunities for Iowa as it begins work toward the 2019 season in the weight room this month.
The Hawkeyes’ entire starting front four on defense from the Outback Bowl – Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson at the end positions and Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks at tackle – must be replaced.
A.J. Epenesa, an all-Big Ten performer as a sophomore reserve last season, and emerging Chauncey Golston, provide defensive line coaches Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell with a starting point at the end positions as they work to rebuild what developed into an effective rotation last season.
Tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff return for their senior seasons as well, factoring into a spring mix that will give players such as Daviyon Nixon, John Waggoner, Jack Kallenberger, Noah Shannon and Levi Duwa a chance to see expanded roles.
There are openings at middle linebacker and at a pair of safety spots as well, although Geno Stone, Michael Ojemudia and D.J. Johnson, who has been training at the hybrid safety/outside linebacker spot Hooker filled, will provide Phil Parker with a starting point.
Kristian Welch and Amani Jones return with experience at middle linebacker, a position group where junior college all-American Willie O’Hara of Iowa Western joined the program as a preferred walk-on this week.
On offense, there are two interior positions to fill on the line including center where Tyler Linderbaum shifted during bowl practices as Iowa looks for a replacement for the consistency provided by Keegan Render last season.
At tight end, the departure of Fant and Hockenson leaves Iowa in a spot where it must replace two players who combined for 88 receptions, 1,279 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
Growth by receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette will provide part of the solution there, providing alternatives to two tight-end sets in the passing game.
Nate Wieting is now the most experienced returning tight end, utilized primarily for his blocking last fall but with two catches for 51 yards on his 2018 resume.
Drew Cook and Shaun Beyer, the latter coming off a knee injury, have taken snaps at a position where incoming freshmen Sam LaPorta, Logan Lee and Josiah Miamen could find themselves with early opportunities.
Iowa coaches continue to explore other possibilities as well.
“I think you would be foolish not to consider everything,’’ Ferentz said. “If it gives you a chance to help your football team, you have to consider that.’’
That includes the potential addition of graduate transfers or other players looking for a new program, areas where possibilities exist.
Zach Abercrumbia, a 6-foot-2, 282-pound defensive tackle who had 55 tackles, six quarterback hurries and recovered two fumbles last season for Rice, lists Iowa among the programs he is considering as a graduate transfer.
The Hawkeyes are also looking at a possible graduate transfer punter in Michael Sleep-Dalton, who averaged 43.8 yards on 59 punts last season for Arizona State, placing 19 inside the 20 and booting 10 for 50 yards or more.
Ferentz, whose program benefited from the abilities of graduate transfer James Butler at running back in 2017, said finding the right fit remains the critical factor to making that work.
“It’s a little like online shopping. I can pick stuff out online, but my daughter or someone has to punch all that stuff in and then it comes in the box and it’s not quite what you thought it was,’’ Ferentz said. “We’ve all experienced that and you don’t want to be just doing that. … You don’t just want to take someone off the internet.’’