IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on Thursday identified defensive line and tight end as the team's biggest concerns heading into the offseason.
The Hawkeyes, who finished 9-4 and ranked 25th after beating Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl, lost a program-high four players who left school early for the NFL. Tight end was by far the hardest hit, with redshirt sophomore T.J. Hockenson and junior Noah Fant both projected to be high picks after declaring themselves eligible for the draft.
"When you're a good football team, you going to lose good players," Ferentz said during his annual season-ending news conference. "It's another trend in college football that we'll learn to adjust and deal with."
Iowa's defensive line was so deep in 2018 that it could afford to use A.J. Epenesa, the Big Ten's sack leader with 10.5, largely as a third-down specialist. Epenesa might need to play every down in 2019.
The Hawkeyes lost Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks to graduation, and Anthony Nelson bolted for the NFL after starting 27 games at defensive end. Iowa also moved promising lineman Tyler Linderbaum to center, where he could start as soon as next season.
The Hawkeyes could be without junior college transfer Daviyon Nixon as well. Nixon sat out last season in hopes of being ready to help Iowa in 2019 and beyond, but Ferentz was vague about his future with the Hawkeyes.
"He's considering his options right now," said Ferentz of Nixon, who is enrolled in classes but has also submitted his name to the NCAA's transfer portal. "We'll see where it goes."
The Hawkeyes weren't surprised to see Fant leave for the pros after he had a huge season as a sophomore in 2017. But Hockenson's rise from a supporting role to winning the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end took everyone by surprise.
Iowa might have to re-adjust their playbook next fall to accommodate losing the best tight end duo in America.
The Hawkeyes will likely lean more heavily on wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, two juniors who improved in 2018. Iowa might also see another tight end or two emerge from a group that includes junior Shaun Beyer and senior Nate Wieting.
Senior Drew Cook, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound former quarterback, moved to tight end in the spring of 2017. Cook's father Marv was an All-American tight end for Iowa in 1988 before playing in the NFL.
"Offensively, we could play with three wideouts and running back," Ferentz said. But "we feel like we have tight ends on the roster that can play well. We'll just have to look at every possibility."