Cade McNamara is cleared and consider No. 25 Iowa beyond ready for the light to go green on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes host Utah State at Kinnick Stadium and take a step out of the significant shadows cast by a trying offseason investigation around sports betting that engulfed multiple team sports in Iowa City.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz hasn't named all five players the NCAA highlighted for alleged wagering-related wrongdoing, but sixth-year defensive tackle Noah Shannon is appealing a season-long suspension, the coach said.
While his health status is not 100 percent clear, Ferentz did use the words "cleared" when discussing McNamara's chances of playing in the opener on Saturday. The Michigan transfer represents a fresh start for the Hawkeyes, who ranked 122nd in passing offense last season at 156.7 yards per game. Iowa had seven TD passes in 13 games.
"It's a strain, a muscle issue, a soft-tissue issue. He certainly started working at the end of last week, and he's been practicing," Ferentz said of McNamara. "I can't put a percentage on where he's at right now. He's been cleared medically; that's the good news.
"So the thing we have to judge as we go along is how effective can he be? Can he go out and perform in a way that is representative of the kind of player he is? Looked good in practice today. It's kind of day-by-day."
McNamara guided Michigan to the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff in 2021. On the depth chart, he's listed as the starter for Saturday, but Ferentz said how he responds physically over the next several days will determine a game-day call on his status.
Iowa has six starters back on defense, the unit that helped carry the Hawkeyes to an 8-5 record despite a handful of putrid offensive showings.
That includes Big Ten preseason player of the year Cooper DeJean, who is ranked as a top-50 2024 draft prospect by Field Level Media. The preseason All-American said his focus is on getting his team to Indianapolis in December for the conference championship game, not on individual notice.
"We brought some guys in that will help us out with that. Obviously, you talk about Cade (McNamara). Nick Jackson on the defensive side," DeJean said. "I think those are two great guys along with the other guys that we brought in and the guys that we still have."
Utah State has played in 10 bowl games in the past 12 years, including last season, despite a 6-7 final record. In 2021, head coach Blake Anderson guided the Aggies to a 26-23 upset at Washington State in the season opener. But Utah State is 6-65 all-time against teams ranked in the Top 25 and has the sixth-most new players on the roster from 2022 to 2023 with 59 (Colorado (88), Arizona State (79), Oklahoma State (63), Nebraska (62) and New Mexico State (62) have more; Colorado State also has 59).
Senior quarterback Cooper Legas is one of the four returnees for Utah State on offense, along with a trio of all-Mountain West performers in sophomore safety Ike Larsen, senior linebacker MJ Tafisi Jr. and senior wide receiver Terrell Vaughn. Vaughn had 56 receptions and five touchdowns last season.
Anderson said he stressed in the offseason the importance of success on first down to counteract the NCAA rule change to no longer stop the clock to move the chains.
"We overly emphasized to our offensive players, man, that every yard counts, moving the chains counts," he said. "You're just not going to get as many opportunities as you're used to."
Iowa is 20-2 in season openers since 2001. Ferentz needs two wins to reach 200 in his career.
—Field Level Media