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.
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.
"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."
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.
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."