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Leistikow: The 10 players Iowa football can least afford to lose in 2021

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Their academic requirements complete for the spring semester and summer conditioning program not starting until June 7, Iowa football players are currently enjoying one of their few opportunities to exhale amid a demanding calendar.

For many Hawkeyes, this is a time to recover. At least 20 scholarship players were sidelined from the final spring practice May 1, and 23rd-year head coach Kirk Ferentz noted that bad injury luck emerged as one of the top spring storylines.

With that in mind — and considering Thursday will mark 100 days out from Iowa’s Sept. 4 season opener against Indiana — let’s revisit an offseason topic I’ve written about in the past: The 10 players Iowa can least afford to lose for the upcoming season.

This exercise is more about framing expected stars and where Iowa might be limited in depth. If I had written this column a year ago, I probably wouldn’t have put Daviyon Nixon No. 1. But the way the defensive tackle played last fall, he was arguably the Hawkeyes’ most indispensable player of 2020.

Without further delay, let’s count down from 10 to 1 for the 2021 Hawkeyes … and I’ll finish with some guys who almost made the top 10.

No. 10: Dane Belton, defensive back

Arguably Iowa’s deepest position is defensive backs, so why does Belton (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) crack the list? Because he’s plain and simple an excellent football player who offers defensive coordinator Phil Parker an extreme amount of flexibility.

More: Iowa football: Hawkeyes' secondary loaded with experience, ready to embrace defensive spotlight

The third-year junior was Iowa’s “cash” player in the Hawkeyes’ 4-2-5 last season, but he can slide to strong safety when Parker wants to go 4-3. Belton is a heady and steady player who I think is capable of replicating the type of year Amani Hooker had for the Hawkeyes in 2018. If you need reminding, Hooker was the Big Ten defensive back of the year as a true junior while floating between the cash and safety positions. That is the exact role Belton playing in Parker's 2021 defense.

No. 9: Tory Taylor, punter

When fans (inevitably) are cleared for a return to Kinnick Stadium, one of the first things they’ll notice in pregame warmups is just how uniquely the football explodes off Taylor’s foot. The height, distance and accuracy Taylor routinely delivers can be mesmerizing.

Taylor’s dynamic leg alone is worth multiple first downs per game. So yes, the punter from Down Under is worthy of a top-10 mention. Taylor (6-4, 225) was the Big Ten’s punter of the year as a 23-year-old freshman while averaging 44.1 yards; and opponents managed a total of 31 return yards on Taylor's 40 punts, thanks to his hang time and directional savvy. Given what we’ve observed behind the Australian, there would be a big drop-off if Taylor was sidelined. With an earlier start to the season (and better weather), here’s predicting 46½ yards a punt as a 24-year-old sophomore.

No. 8: Riley Moss, cornerback

There’s a reason that Moss, as a true freshman at Minnesota in 2018, was trusted by Parker to make an emergency start when the Hawkeyes were down two starting cornerbacks. Moss made two interceptions that day in a 17-point rivalry road win. And that same confidence in Moss, now entering his fourth year in the program, has only grown for 2021.

More: Riley Moss, Lukas Van Ness top highlights from Iowa football's open practice

Moss (6-1, 191) has elite track speed and is a gamer. It’s time for fans to forget about that 2018 Saturday in West Lafayette, Indiana. Ferentz noted that Moss, as a defender, had his hands on so many footballs this spring that he was reminiscent of Jovon Johnson in the mid-2000s. While Iowa has good corner depth, Moss is one of the team’s best football players. Watch his 54-yard interception-return touchdown last year against Michigan State if you need a reminder.

Iowa football: Hawkeyes quarterback Spencer Petras on Mac Jones
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras spoke with the media on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.
Ben Yoder, Hawk Central

No. 7: Spencer Petras, quarterback

If a team’s QB1 doesn’t make this type of top-10 list, that’d be a red flag. After his first full spring as the starter and a six-game winning streak to finish last season, Petras (6-5, 231) has earned the confidence of his coaching staff. Petras’ recent work with a QB coach in New Jersey accentuates his desire to get better.

More: Leistikow: With a desire to be great, Iowa's Spencer Petras hires QB guru in New Jersey

Given Iowa has two stiff tests to open the 2021 schedule (Indiana and Iowa State), it’d be a shocker if Petras isn’t the Hawkeyes’ Week 1 starter. But given Petras’ inconsistency and underwhelming completion percentage last fall, he still has to answer questions about whether he’s the best choice to take Iowa to the top of the Big Ten West. There is justified optimism about backup Alex Padilla, who showed good zip and accuracy in two open spring practices. If Petras produces like his coaches think he can, he deserves to be higher on this list. For now, No. 7 (same as his jersey number) feels about right.

Iowa football: Hawkeyes wide receiver Tyrone Tracy more concerned about winning than stats
Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy answers questions from the media on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.
Ben Yoder, Hawk Central

No. 6: Tyrone Tracy Jr., wide receiver

I admittedly moved Tracy up a few spots on my initial list after Kelton Copeland’s appearance Wednesday on our Hawk Central radio show. While we already knew Tracy (5-11, 203) was tracking to be the No. 1 receiver for the Hawkeyes this season, it’s now more clear just how significantly his presence impacts how diverse (and perhaps how explosive) this Hawkeye offense can be.

Because Tracy knows all four wide-receiver positions (the X, Z, F and seldom-used Y) and has elite skills in space, that gives offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz a lot of flexibility with personnel groupings. If Tracy is coming onto the field, a defense has no idea where he might line up. Put simply, a wide-receiver group minus Tracy makes the offense much less versatile.

More: Leistikow: A window into the Xs, Zs and Fs of Iowa football's wide-receiver position

Iowa LB Jack Campbell reviews spring practice, sees room for growth
The insider linebacker arrived at Iowa at 215 pounds; now he's up to 245.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

No. 5: Jack Campbell, linebacker

It took some restraint to not push Campbell even higher on this list, just because I think he’s about to introduce himself to the Big Ten in a resounding way. Campbell’s walloping size (6-5, 243) does not take away from his fast closing speed. We only got to see Campbell for five part-time appearances last fall, considering mononucleosis kept him out of the first three games and he rotated at middle linebacker with Seth Benson while reacclimating.

But there’s been excitement for a long time within the coaching staff about what's possible with Campbell at the center of this defense, regardless if he's the middle or weak-side linebacker. Not convinced? Turn on last year’s Nebraska game to get a preview of what Campbell can offer in his first full season as a Hawkeye staple.

Zach VanValkenburg charts spring progress on Iowa's defensive line
Back for a sixth year, Zach VanValkenburg is the unquestioned leader of the Iowa defensive line.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

No. 4: Zach VanValkenburg, defensive end

We may not ultimately talk about VanValkenburg the way we did Anthony Nelson, A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston … but we might. The sixth-year senior is unquestionably Iowa’s No. 1 pass-rush option coming off a second-team all-Big Ten campaign. Based on what coaches said and what was obvious in two open practices, VanValkenburg (6-4, 270) seems poised for a central role on this defense.

Defensive line remains perhaps Iowa’s biggest question mark of 2021, as it must replace three high-value starters with mostly young, unproven commodities. Take away that one returning starter in VanValkenburg, and the D-line could be a serious problem. Now in his third year in the program, VanValkenburg’s presence can take pressure off less experienced players around him.

Star Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum never considered entering NFL Draft
Tyler Linderbaum takes questions from Iowa media for the first time since last football season.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

No. 3: Tyler Linderbaum, center

In my mind, the top three players on this list reside in their own tier. An argument could be made for any of them to be the most indispensable Hawkeye of 2021. So, to put perhaps the best center of the Kirk Ferentz era at No. 3 should not be seen as a slight to the physical force that Linderbaum (6-3, 289) has become.

More: Iowa football's ultra-competitive Tyler Linderbaum stiff-arms NFL plans, media attention

Linderbaum is a bona fide mauler and the leader of Iowa's offensive line. His presence was a big reason that Iowa's running game took a big leap forward in 2020. Linderbaum is the only offensive lineman to make the top 10, which is a testament to the depth the Hawkeyes have amassed up front. One of Iowa's many salty interior linemen is senior Kyler Schott, who could capably slide into the center spot if anything should happen to Linderbaum. Still, Iowa doesn’t want to go a single snap without the Solon product until he is playing on Sundays.

Iowa's Sam LaPorta talks development, being No. 1 at 'Tight End U.'
Sam LaPorta looks to have all the makings of the next great tight end at Iowa, and he enters Year 3 as the unquestioned starter.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

No. 2: Sam LaPorta, tight end

For Iowa to maintain its reputation as “Tight End U.,” it needs a top-flight tight end. And LaPorta is showing encouraging signs that he could produce a similar type of third season on campus as T.J. Hockenson did in 2018 on his way to becoming a top-10 NFL Draft pick. LaPorta (6-4, 249) has the size and reliable hands Iowa loves to have at tight end, and he has improved as a blocker and with his mastery of the offense.

What makes LaPorta so valuable is that Brian Ferentz’s offense relies on an every-down tight end, and there are a lot of question marks surrounding what’s behind LaPorta. Freshman Luke Lachey seems to have the inside track at No. 2, but to lean heavily on anybody except LaPorta as the No. 1 is not yet a tenable situation.

More: After emerging in shortened 2020 season, Sam LaPorta aims to be Iowa's 'next great tight end'

No. 1: Tyler Goodson, running back

Generally, I subscribe to the NFL mindset that running backs can be more easily replaced — and often are, because of the injury risk — than other more premium positions. However, I’ve also watched Iowa football for four decades and understand that running backs like Goodson (5-10, 200) haven’t come around that often.

The junior from Georgia this week was tabbed as the No. 4 running-back prospect for the 2022 NFL Draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. That’s just validation of what we have seen from Goodson's 1½ seasons as an Iowa starter. We don’t know how far along presumed backup Ivory Kelly-Martin will be coming off ACL surgery, and Iowa’s other freshmen running backs (Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams) are untested. What separates Goodson from anyone else in Iowa’s backfield is his burst through the line of scrimmage and his pass-catching ability. Goodson can line up anywhere (including as Wildcat quarterback) and score from anywhere. Conservatively assuming 20 touches a game, a healthy Goodson would have the football in his hands roughly 260 times this fall. If you’re Iowa, you like the possibility of what could happen on those 260 snaps. He’s a game-changer.

Players who just missed the list?

A case could be made for placekicker Caleb Shudak (5-8, 178), who quite possibly could be the difference between a last-minute win or loss. … Cody Ince (6-4, 285) is valuable with the ability to play all five offensive-line positions. But he and Schott (6-2, 293) have capable backup, too. … Cornerback Matt Hankins (6-0, 185) and free safety Jack Koerner (6-0, 205) have been longtime steady contributors and deserve top-10 mention but, again, Iowa is very deep with position flexibility in the secondary.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.