NCF Nation: Shane DiBona

Notes from Hawkeye Country

April, 8, 2011
4/08/11
6:00
PM ET
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Greetings from the press box at Kinnick Stadium. Am I early for kickoff?

Unfortunately, football season is about five months away, but Iowa is gearing up for the 2011 campaign in spring practice. I had a chance to visit with head coach Kirk Ferentz and several players earlier today. Most of my Iowa coverage will appear early next week, but there were several interesting nuggets from today.

QUARTERBACK SITUATION


No surprise here, but James Vandenberg has established himself as Iowa's No. 1 option. The junior's experience filling in for Ricky Stanzi in 2009 certainly helps, but he has continued to make progress this spring after a strong pre-bowl session.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
Reese Strickland/US PresswireAs expected, James Vandenberg has taken the lead in the race to replace quarterback Ricky Stanzi.
"James has separated himself from the other two guys," Ferentz said. "And after that, it's a pretty good competition between John [Wienke] and A.J. [Derby]."

Vandenberg's teammates expressed complete confidence in him at the start of the spring, and nothing has changed. Barring a significant change between now and Sept. 3, Vandenberg will start the season for the Hawkeyes.

"James is one of those guys, he's not not going to leave the door open too much," Ferentz said. "He really gives himself a chance to be a good player."

LATEST ON RHABDO FALLOUT

Ferentz confirmed that defensive back Willie Lowe, one of 13 Iowa players hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis in January, is not with the team. Lowe and Ferentz last spoke in March before Iowa's spring break, and Lowe's situation with the team is "clearly unresolved," Ferentz said.

Although the school has granted Lowe his release, Ferentz echoed AD Gary Barta in saying he hopes Lowe remains with the team.

The other 12 players remain with the team. There have been non-rhabdo-related injuries within the group that have limited players, but the expectation is all will remain on the squad.

"Everybody's out working, and nobody else has asked for a release," Ferentz said.

Ferentz reiterated his support for head strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle and Iowa's strength program, which drew criticism after the rhabdo situation.

"Chris Doyle is the top guy I've been around in that realm, and he's widely recognized," Ferentz said. "Chris' name is very highly regarded in the NFL circles, he's had a lot of opportunities to go that route. Fortunately, he's stayed here and I'm very appreciative of that. ... There's no question in my mind he's a huge part of any success we've experienced."

INJURIES

Ferentz mentioned Iowa has 6-8 players who would normally be in the two-deep who aren't practicing this spring because of injuries. Defensive lineman Steve Bigach is out following offseason surgery, and defensive lineman Tom Nardo has been out with a foot injury.

"Those are two older guys we'll have back in the fall," Ferentz said.

Wide receiver Marvin McNutt, linebacker Shane DiBona and safety Tanner Miller all are missing the spring with injuries. McNutt looked good walking around the complex Friday and should be fine for preseason camp.

PERSONNEL NUGGETS

  • It will take some time for Iowa to figure out the secondary for 2011. Micah Hyde, who has played the past two seasons at cornerback, is seeing time at safety this spring, and Jordan Bernstine is being used at both safety and cornerback. Shaun Prater has the left cornerback spot essentially locked down. "If he gets beat out, there's something wrong," Ferentz said. "He's practicing well and performing well." Up to eight players are in the mix for the other three spots.
  • Ferentz has been pleased with sophomore running back Marcus Coker, who is building off of his superb performance in the Insight Bowl. You never know how success affects young players, but Coker seems to be approaching it the right way. Ferentz noted that if Coker hadn't fractured his collarbone in preseason camp, he could have played a much bigger role in the run game last season. "He showed us a lot about his mental makeup, just how he caught up," Ferentz said. "He did remarkably well from a mental standpoint for all the time that he missed. He's got the potential to be a lot better football player as he moves along."
  • Ferentz also seems pleased with the spring progress of older defenders like linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns, linebacker Tyler Nielsen and Prater. The offensive line returns three starters and Ferentz noted that Adam Gettis, who would have been a starter if not for injuries last season, has had a good spring.
  • A final thought from Ferentz on the team: "We're a young team, but we have a good core of seniors that are good players, good leaders and good team guys. We've been pretty enthusiastic about the last couple groups of recruits we've brought on campus. Some of those guys have played and other guys have not played but we feel good about [them]. But I like what I see about the way guys are working. We're not a real good team right now, but I like what I see with the potential they have."
The high point in Iowa's 2010 season marked the end point for one of the Hawkeyes' most improved players.

Tyler Nielsen seemed to be settling into a groove for the Hawkeyes, providing a much-needed presence in an injury-depleted linebacker corps. He started the first eight games, recording 42 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and an interception.

[+] EnlargeTyler Nielsen
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Hawkeyes will count on Tyler Nielsen to lead a young group of Iowa linebackers.
But he hurt his neck while tackling Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in an Oct. 16 game, and though he played the next week against Wisconsin and recorded a career-best 10 tackles, the injury caught up with him Oct. 30 against Michigan State. Nielsen played most of the first half in Iowa's 37-6 rout before shutting things down. He had suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck, and his season was over.

"We still had a chance to win the Big Ten title at that point," Nielsen told ESPN.com this week. "It was definitely hard to be sitting on the couch at home watching those last four games."

Iowa missed Nielsen as it dropped three of its final four regular-season contests. The Hawkeyes got very young at linebacker and it showed late in the season.

Now recovered from the injury, Nielsen is participating in most of spring practice. Doctors cleared him for full contact in late February, and he's doing all drills but live scrimmaging, just as a precaution.

"I feel like I'm pretty much back," Nielsen said. "Still a little rusty, obviously, because we've had just a few pad practices. But once we get that first hit in, I feel fine. There's no pain in my neck."

Iowa is counting on Nielsen's leadership this fall, specifically for the linebackers but also for the entire defense. Nielsen said himself, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater are taking the lead for a unit that loses a lot up front and at the safety spots.

Several young linebackers should benefit from being thrown into the fire last fall. Sophomore James Morris entered the spring as Iowa's starting middle linebacker, while sophomores Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens are competing for the starting weakside spot. Sophomore Shane DiBona also is in the mix.

Nielsen will start at strong-side linebacker, if healthy. He hopes to build on an encouraging 2010 campaign.

"I got some experience," he said. "When you're out there in the game, you never know what can happen. It's structured in practice, you've got certain plays you're running. I was just excited to be able to get out there and try to make some things happen."

This fall, he'll get that chance again.

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