Big Ten: Sean Welsh

State of the program: Iowa Hawkeyes

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
4:00
PM ET
With spring practice near in the Big Ten, we're taking a snapshot of every program. We'll examine recent performance, win-loss trends, coaching, current personnel and recruiting.

Iowa is up next:

2014 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten, fourth in West Division)

Three-year record: 19-19

Coaching situation: Kirk Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten football coaches, heading toward his 17th season in Iowa City -- four years short of the Hayden Fry reign. Ferentz built a stable foundation, raised Iowa to a level that arguably exceeded Fry’s best years and has watched the Hawkeyes slide over the past five seasons. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been with Ferentz since the beginning, and offensive coordinator Greg Davis is a veteran in the business who has been criticized at multiple stops for doing less with more than some of his peers. The head coach’s son, Brian Ferentz, recently promoted to run game coordinator, is considered an innovative coach, and LeVar Woods, newly moved to coach tight ends, did nice work with the linebackers.

Roster situation: It’s not awash in talent. The Hawkeyes have developed linebackers and offensive linemen well. And the trend figures to continue with youngsters like Bo Bower and Josey Jewell on the defensive side and Ike Boettger, Boone Myers and Sean Welsh on offense. Iowa loses talented offensive tackles Andrew Donnal and Brandon Scherff (a consensus All-American); receivers Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell; running back Mark Weisman; defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat; and linebacker Quinton Alston. That’s a lot to replace. Defensive end Drew Ott is a budding star, and cornerback Desmond King is already there. Iowa needs C.J. Beathard or Jake Rudock to take charge at quarterback.

Recruiting situation: The Hawkeyes signed a 21-man class this month that ranked 57th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten, one spot ahead of Indiana and also ahead of Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois. It’s never been about rankings, though, for Iowa, which signed the No. 49 class a year ago. If the Hawkeyes find the right fits, they’re doing well. For instance, Iowa badly needs a running back to break its stretch of oddly poor luck at the position over the past several years. It had a solid candidate in Karan Higdon out of Florida, but he flipped to Michigan at the 11th hour. Iowa will always find a few hidden gems. It found a promising legacy at home in 27th-rated athlete Drew Cook and pulled the nation’s No. 5-rated center, James Daniels, out of Ohio. Still, the Hawkeyes need more high-end talent to keep up with fellow West Division contenders Wisconsin and Nebraska, against which Iowa is 1-4 over the past three years.

Trajectory: After the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Hawkeyes’ three-year record was 19-19. Same this year. Is Iowa stuck in neutral? Sure looks like it. As recently as 2010, it's three-year record was 28-11. Go back to 2004, it was 32-7. The last time Iowa had a three-year record under .500 was 2001 after Ferentz’s third season, and the program was clearly trending up. What now? Well, at best, Iowa is treading water, though a solid showing in 2015 could put it back on track. Worst case, its troubling finish to 2014, followed by the loss of a strong senior class, more uncertainty at quarterback and a sluggish recruiting class could spell doom for this regime.
Certain position groups define certain leagues, and in the Big Ten, offensive line always will be one of those groups. The big uglies are typically a beautiful sight for many Big Ten fan bases, so we figured we would kick off our preseason position previews with the offensive line. Taking a page from our friends on the ACC blog, we are changing up the preview format so it's not so exhaustive (no more 14-team lists).

Let's get started, shall we?

Best of the best: Wisconsin

It's close between rivals Wisconsin and Iowa for the top spot, and though the Hawkeyes boast the league's best individual lineman in left tackle Brandon Scherff, the Badgers get the nod for their overall group. If healthy, Wisconsin's 2014 line should start resembling the more dominant units for which the program is famous. There should be better depth than in recent years as five players with at least five starts are back, led by veteran right tackle Rob Havenstein. Kyle Costigan, Dallas Lewallen and Tyler Marz add experience, and Wisconsin has two talented young centers in sophomore Dan Voltz and freshman Michael Deiter.

Next up: Iowa

There is no minimizing Scherff's return as he would have been a top 20 pick in the NFL draft, according to coach Kirk Ferentz, if he elected to skip his senior season. The freakishly strong senior anchors Iowa's line, which returns two other starters in center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh. Right tackle Andrew Donnal has plenty of experience as a reserve. The other guard spot remains competitive, although Sean Welsh emerged from the spring as the starter. Iowa's overall depth is a bit shaky, but if the top line holds up, it should have little trouble pounding the ball with Mark Weisman and co., and protecting quarterback Jake Rudock.

Possible sleeper: Indiana

If you read the blog regularly, and especially this post, you won't be surprised by this selection. I strongly considered the Hoosiers for one of the top two spots, but want to see how guard Dan Feeney looks after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Feeney, a freshman All-American in 2012, rejoins a group that includes veterans Jason Spriggs, Bernard Taylor and Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who now has 24 starts at center and guard. After an injury-plagued 2013 season, Indiana's line could take another big step and possibly become the Big Ten's most complete unit.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

The bad news is Ohio State loses four starters from the Big Ten's best line in 2013. The good news is Ohio State typically reloads up front and boasts one of the nation's top line coaches in Ed Warinner. No matter your outlook, the Buckeyes' line will be a position to watch when camp kicks off. Ohio State can't afford to lose senior quarterback Braxton Miller, who has taken a beating at times the past two years. Junior Taylor Decker moves from right tackle to the left side and will lead the group. Guard Pat Eflein showed promise filling in for Marcus Hall late last season and will occupy a starting spot. Darryl Baldwin and Antonio Underwood have been with the program longer than any other linemen, but are only now positioned to start. The Buckeyes helped their depth by adding Alabama graduate transfer Chad Lindsay at center.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The tempo trend sweeping through college football has, for the most part, skipped over the Iowa Hawkeyes.

While teams such as Oregon and Baylor operate at a breakneck pace, Iowa continues to shape its offense around power and play-action, ball control and sustained drives. Huddling is still encouraged.

In 2012, the Hawkeyes ran fewer offensive plays than any Big Ten team. In 2011, an Indiana team that played 12 games ran more plays (870) than an Iowa team that played 13 (866). In 2010, Iowa ran 136 fewer plays than Big Ten-leader Northwestern in the same number of games.

But a shift began taking place last season. Iowa eclipsed 900 plays in 13 games. The offense ramped up the tempo late against LSU in the Outback Bowl, leading some to question whether the Tigers were faking injuries to slow down the Hawkeyes. Process that for a minute: LSU's defense trying to slow down Iowa's offense.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock and Iowa are joining the trend toward a faster tempo on offense.
But tempo at Iowa is here to stay. In fact, it's getting ramped up even more this spring.

"We would like to be able to play fast with any group, be it two backs, two tight ends, three tight ends, three wide receivers," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "We played at a faster tempo last year than the year before, and we're playing at a faster tempo this spring than last year."

Iowa isn't going to turn into Auburn by Aug. 30. That's not Davis' intent. He recognizes the perils of pushing the tempo. At times, he wants his quarterbacks to have enough time to survey the defense before the ball is snapped.

More than anything, however, he wants defenses to be unsure about Iowa's pace.

"We're just trying to kick it up another notch," tackle Brandon Scherff said. "Once we get used to it, it'll be a good advantage for us."

Davis' ultimate goal is more explosion plays. Iowa averaged only 5.3 yards per play and 6.8 yards per pass play last season, ranking 10th in the league in both categories. There were some flashes, such as Tevaun Smith's spectacular catch and run for a 55-yard touchdown against Michigan.

But the Hawkeyes need more and could have the personnel to get it done. There are more options at receiver with veteran Kevonte Martin-Manley, Smith and Jacob Hillyer, along with Damond Powell, who averaged 24.3 yards per reception in limited action in 2013. Several redshirt freshmen are emerging this spring, including 6-foot-4, 210-pound Derrick Willies.

"If you don't have explosive plays, it's tougher to get the win at the end of the day," quarterback Jake Rudock said. "Every team needs to have those, whether it's running or whether it's passing."

Although running back will be a strength -- bruiser Mark Weisman returns alongside Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock and exciting sophomores LeShun Daniels and Barkley Hill -- the pass game should be enhanced this fall. Iowa returns two quarterbacks with game experience (Rudock and C.J. Beathard), depth at receiver and tight ends Jake Duzey and Ray Hamilton. Iowa will miss tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz's blocking, but Duzey is a superior athlete with a higher ceiling as a pass-catcher, as he showed with 138 receiving yards against Ohio State last fall.

"The ball's going to be in our hands more. I feel like they're going to call our number," Martin-Manley said. "A few more plays downfield, and we've also been adding new plays to get us open and use the tools we have at receiver."

After starting every game last season, Rudock has done nothing to harm his standing this spring, showing greater comfort with the scheme, the signals and a leadership position. But that coaches also like Beathard, who should have a role even if Rudock tightens his grip on the starting spot.

"He has a little more lateral quickness than Jake," Davis said, "so the discussion [among coaches] could carve out a package for him, a little more zone-read. At the same time, he can really spin the football."

The skill position depth is there, especially if the receivers keep making strides. Scherff's return to the line is huge, and Davis likes the starting five, which includes veterans Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh and Andrew Donnal. Sean Welsh has emerged this spring as the starting left guard.

Line depth is a significant concern, Davis said, but beyond that there's a lot to like about an offense that will operate faster and should put more points on the board.

"The first year, new system, last year, new quarterback," Davis said. "We have more than we have in the past. I feel better about this spring than I have in any spring. We have the opportunity to be the best offense we've been in the three years I've been here."

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