Blue Ribbon Preview: Iowa
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Everything had been sunny for Iowa football during the first seven months of 2010.
The Hawkeyes had ridden good health, good fortune and a good defense to a school-record 11 victories the previous season, and they spent the winter, spring and summer basking in the glow of a national spotlight brightened by a victory in the Orange Bowl. Iowa was tabbed by forecasters as a Big Ten title contender with a shot at a national championship run if the stars aligned.
Then the storm clouds started appearing on the horizon in early August. Running back Brandon Wegher left the Hawkeyes on the second day of training camp for personal reasons and his mysterious absence hung over the team for more than a month. Wegher never came back. The bizarre twists for Iowa football never went away.
The biggest questions before the season turned into assets by the end. The biggest strengths turned into liabilities.
Interception-prone quarterback Ricky Stanzi threw just six picks against 25 touchdowns and turned in one of the best passing seasons in school history. The rebuilt offensive line adeptly protected Stanzi, but the highly publicized defensive line finished in the middle of the Big Ten in sacks as opponents neutralized Iowa's pass rush with quick passes.
The Hawkeyes went from having a perceived surplus of talented running backs to barely having enough by the end of the year. Iowa uncharacteristically let games get away late, losing five times in contests the Hawkeyes either led or had tied with five minutes to play, and stumbled down the stretch, dropping three straight to finish the regular season after a 7-2 start.
In December, the school's all-time leading receiver, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, got booted from the team after his arrest on multiple drug-related charges. Later in the month, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced the suspension of Adam Robinson, the team's leading rusher the last two seasons, for the Insight Bowl. Robinson was cited for marijuana possession on the eve of Iowa's bowl game against Missouri and subsequently kicked off the team.
The Insight Bowl followed the season's strange script. Freshman Marcus Coker, the fourth running back on the depth chart in August, set a school bowl-record with 219 yards rushing. Cornerback Micah Hyde picked off Blaine Gabbert and returned the interception 72 yards for the go-ahead score, and the Hawkeyes, at last, held onto a late lead, winning 27-24.
The oddities didn't end there. In January, 13 players were hospitalized during the first week of off-season training after being diagnosed with rhadomyolysis, a condition that causes muscle fiber to break down and has possible effects that include kidney damage.
"We're not looking at what happened two years ago or a couple months ago," Hyde said in response to a question about the public relations hit the Hawkeyes have taken since last fall. "The things that happened, they're unfortunate. ... You make mistakes, but you move on in life and that's where we're at."
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (Connecticut '78)
Record at school: 89-60 (12 years)
Career record: 101-81 (15 years)
• Ken O'Keefe (John Carroll '75) offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
• Norm Parker (Eastern Michigan '65) defensive coordinator
• Erik Campbell (Michigan '88) receivers
• Lester Erb (Bucknell '90) running backs/special teams
• Eric Johnson (Vanderbilt '95) tight ends/recruiting coordinator
• Rick Kaczenski (Notre Dame '97) defensive line
• Reese Morgan (Wartburg '72) offensive line
• Phil Parker (Michigan State '86) secondary
• Darrell Wilson (Connecticut '81) linebackers/special teams
The Hawkeyes have only seen a small sample size of James Vandenberg (6-3, 212). But they've seen enough of the junior to make him the clear front-runner to replace Stanzi. In fact, Ferentz said in April that this might be the highest level of comfort his staff has ever had while breaking in a new quarterback.
Vandenberg appeared in three games as a sophomore, completing 5-of-8 passing for 45 yards and a touchdown. But the better barometer was 2009 when he played extensively in the last three games of the regular season after Stanzi went down with an ankle injury.
Vandenberg struggled in relief against Northwestern and steered the Hawkeyes to victory against Minnesota. In between, he completed 20-of-33 for 233 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime loss at Ohio State with the Big Ten title on the line.
"When I got thrown into that role two years ago, it was a crash course on how to play Big Ten football," he said. "Having that experience and taking it every day -- even as the backup last year -- really helped me."
Behind the scenes last season, Vandenberg impressed the Iowa coaches. They already knew about his arm strength and accuracy, but Vandenberg developed a better understanding of the system and a stronger rapport with his teammates. Offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe said Vandenberg is the type who won't leave the practice field if there's a correction that needs to be made.
"The number one way for a leader to get respect is to provide a great example for everybody else around them, and I think James does that in every aspect of his life," O'Keefe said. "And when you're able to do that, people gravitate toward you. They are going to be more willing to listen to what you have to say. He's an extremely positive guy, so he communicates well in that regard and he really cares about helping his teammates."
The battle for the backup job will continue into training camp. Junior John Wienke (6-5, 220) and freshman A.J. Derby (6-4, 225) finished the spring in a dead heat. Wienke has appeared in one game during his first two seasons but has yet to throw a pass.
Derby, an Iowa City native whose father, John, was an All-Big Ten linebacker for the Hawkeyes, was a prized recruit. His size, athleticism and pedigree have led some to believe he'll wind up making a position change before his career is complete, and Ferentz has even mentioned the coaches have thought about using Derby on special teams. But the Hawkeyes recruited Derby to play quarterback, and he demonstrated improved accuracy as a passer during the spring.
Iowa will add freshman Jake Rudock (6-3, 190) to the group this fall. Rudock posted big numbers as a senior (2,827 yards, 36 touchdowns, three interceptions, 64.9 completion percentage) at Florida power Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
This time a year ago the Hawkeyes were trying to figure out how to shoehorn three superb sophomores into the backfield. None of the three even made it to the season's finish line.
Brandon Wegher left the team in August and never came back. He transferred to Oklahoma and left the Sooners in the spring.
Jewel Hampton went down in September, tearing an ACL for the second consecutive season, and he parted ways with the Hawkeyes in December before landing at Southern Illinois.
Adam Robinson's star faded quickly. There was chatter about his Big Ten MVP candidacy in mid-October before his sophomore season fizzled in the second half. He missed two games with concussions, sat out the first quarter against Ohio State for an academic issue, and Ferentz hinted academics were at the root of the decision to suspend Robinson for the Insight Bowl. Robinson's last strike with the program came on Dec. 27 when he was cited for possession of marijuana in Des Moines. He was dismissed from the program in January.
Although Robinson remained enrolled at Iowa for the spring semester and held hopes of being reinstated to the team, Ferentz announced in May the door was closed on the running back.
Thus, a position where Iowa was set up with long-term depth became an area of concern for the Hawkeyes in five months.
But the Iowa staff likes sophomore Marcus Coker (6-0, 230). The star of the Insight Bowl rushed for 622 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry as a true freshman despite missing most of September after suffering a broken clavicle during the first week of training camp.
"I kind of learned on the job last season," Coker said. "Everything was a whirlwind for me."
There figures to be a lot of on-the-job training at running back for the Hawkeyes this season. Junior Jason White (5-10, 205) is a former walk-on who shuttled from running back to safety and back to running back during the last two seasons. He finished the spring second on the depth chart behind Coker.
During the spring, freshman De'Andre Johnson (5-8, 210) looked more like the player the Hawkeyes recruited. They thought enough of Johnson to accept his commitment and stop recruiting other tailbacks on their board, including James White, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season at Wisconsin. Johnson missed most of his senior season at Miami Monsignor Pace High School with a torn ACL and spent last season trying to get back to full speed.
"[He has] a long way to go in a lot of areas, but [it's] night and day from where he was during the preseason," O'Keefe said.
The Hawkeyes have help on the way, too. They signed four running backs in February and a couple could be asked to contribute this fall. Mika'il McCall (5-11, 215), the son of former heavyweight boxing champ Oliver McCall, backed out of a commitment to Michigan State and signed with Iowa.
The Hawkeyes stumbled upon a highlight DVD of Jordan Canzeri (5-9, 180) a couple weeks before signing day. Canzeri's size may have been a concern for some schools. But Iowa's staff passed years earlier on a 5-7 prep running back from Nebraska, and Ferentz said he didn't want to relive the Danny Woodhead story again. Iowa plucked Canzeri away from Villanova.
The Hawkeyes also signed Damon Bullock (6-0, 195), who rushed for 1,606 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior at Mansfield High School in Texas. But the prized recruit in the group will have to wait before he gets to Iowa. Rodney Coe, a 6-3, 230-pound bruiser who landed scholarship offers from the likes of Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon and USC, didn't qualify academically and will attend Iowa Western Community College. He still plans to eventually join the Hawkeyes, but it won't be this season.
Iowa spent the spring looking for a fullback after the graduation of three-year starter Brett Morse. Brad Rogers (5-10, 215) missed spring workouts after a heart condition sidelined him for the Insight Bowl. Ferentz expressed optimism at the conclusion of spring workouts that Rogers would be able to resume his career.
Converted tight end Jonathan Gimm (6-3, 240) emerged in the spring as the leading candidate to replace Morse.
This is the renovation project for Iowa's offense. The Hawkeyes lost Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, the school's all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, talented tight end Allen Reisner, slot receivers Colin Sandeman and Paul Chaney and reserve Don Nordmann. It could've been worse, though.
Marvin McNutt (6-4, 215) passed on the NFL to return for his senior season. The former quarterback led Iowa in catches (53) and receiving yards (861) as a junior and demonstrated a more-refined skill set in his second full season at the position.
McNutt sat out this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. He spent practice time mentoring some of the young players the Hawkeyes are counting on to take the spots filled last year by veterans.
Junior Keenan Davis (6-3, 215) emerged as one of the spring stars for the Hawkeyes. The former blue-chip recruit caught 15 passes for 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns during his first two seasons at Iowa. He made a pair of acrobatic catches during the team's last scrimmage of the spring and looked like a more consistent version of the player who showed glimmers of brilliance in the early stages of his career.
"It's his time," Ferentz said. "He needs to play like a starter, [and] he's certainly more than capable."
Junior Steven Staggs (6-3, 195), who joined the program as a walk-on and has yet to appear in a game at Iowa, played his way onto the depth chart during the spring. The Hawkeyes are banking on contributions from a cast of underclassmen. Sophomore Jordan Cotton (6-1, 195), freshmen Kevonte Martin-Manley (6-0, 190) and Don Shumpert (6-3, 185) and incoming recruits Marcus Grant (6-2, 190) and Jacob Hillyer (6-4, 190) could factor into the equation.
There's more clarity at tight end. Reisner was a dependable target in the passing game throughout his career at Iowa, but the Hawkeyes have seemingly developed an assembly line at the position. Senior Brad Herman (6-5, 247) has an opportunity to start after playing behind Reisner and NFL tight ends Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki. Herman caught nine passes for 154 yards last season while playing primarily in sets Iowa uses multiple tight ends.
The Hawkeyes plan to integrate junior Zach Derby (6-3, 235) and sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz (6-7, 250) into their offense. Fiedorowicz, one of the crown jewels in Iowa's 2010 recruiting class, was known more for his pass-catching skills when he joined the Hawkeyes, but he has become more adept as a blocker and Ferentz said the sophomore was one of the team's spring standouts.
The grading scale has changed for the Iowa offensive line in the past year. The Hawkeyes might have been graded on a curve last year when they broke in three new starters, the youngest position group on a veteran team.
But this is no longer the biggest question for the Hawkeyes. Now the offensive line is viewed as the answer for Iowa football.
"We expect that from ourselves, too," said junior center James Ferentz (6-2, 275). "Now that we have more experience, you have to raise the bar, and every year the bar should be raised. Now that we have more experience, our expectations need to raise and we need to perform better and be a better foundation for this football team."
It became clear at the conclusion of spring practices that the bar is set high for the offensive line. James Ferentz said the Hawkeyes allowed too many sacks last season -- they surrendered 20, but only 11 in the last 10 games -- and his father was fixated on holding penalties and breakdowns in pass protection after Iowa's last spring scrimmage.
"I'm not sure we [have enough quarterbacks to] get through September with the way we protected sometimes," Kirk Ferentz said. "Everybody better get a little more in tune to our pick-ups."
But the Iowa coach also acknowledged the upside of the group.
Junior left tackle Riley Reiff (6-6, 300) is entering his third year as a starter and has been listed on some early 2012 mock drafts as a potential first-round choice if he opts to leave school early. Senior Markus Zusevics (6-5, 295) started all 13 games last season at right tackle.
Senior Adam Gettis (6-4, 280) and sophomore Nolan MacMillan (6-6, 288) split time last season at guard. Freshman guard Brandon Scherff (6-5, 310) worked extensively with the first team during the spring when MacMillan was sidelined with what Ferentz said was an "orthopedic" injury.
"[Reiff, James Ferentz and Zusevics] are all capable of getting better," Ferentz said. "If we're going to have a good football team, we're going to need that to happen."
Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug left a crater-sized hole of production to replace when they departed for the NFL. The trio combined for 484 career tackles, 90 behind the line of scrimmage, 41 sacks and 102 games started. With that, Iowa is facing its biggest overhaul on the defensive line since all four starters graduated from a dominant front in 2004.
But it's also worth noting the Hawkeyes have seemingly always been able to field a presentable defensive line, no matter how much repair work it required. Iowa has ranked 57th or better nationally in rushing defense every year since 2002, but even that stat is deceiving. The Hawkeyes have finished 29th twice and 34th once. The other years: fifth, eighth, fifth, 10th and sixth.
Iowa isn't starting from scratch here. In fact, the Hawkeyes could have four senior starters, two with All-Big Ten honors on their resumes. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels (6-1, 275) emerged last season as one of Iowa's most disruptive defensive linemen, ranking second on the team with 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in his first season as a starter.
Broderick Binns (6-2, 261) started all 13 games in 2009 at defensive end, collecting 10 tackles for loss, six sacks and batting down nine passes. Binns' production tailed off last season when Daniels played his way into a starting role and Iowa shifted Ballard from tackle to end. The Hawkeyes are banking on a bounce back from Binns, who accounted for only one tackle behind the line of scrimmage as a junior.
Ferentz indicated in March that Iowa could be leaning toward a rotation that could include seven or eight defensive linemen. Senior Lebron Daniel (6-2, 250) appears to be in line for a starting job after playing in spot duty at defensive end last season. Senior Thomas Nardo (6-3, 277) and freshman Carl Davis (6-5, 295) are candidates at the other defensive tackle spot.
Sophomore Dominic Alvis (6-4, 240), junior Steve Bigach (6-3, 272) and freshman Mike Hardy (6-5, 270) are expected to factor into the equation, and perhaps so will incoming freshmen Darian Cooper (6-1, 280) and John Raymon (6-5, 250).
Midway through the second quarter of the Big Ten opener, injuries had already whittled Iowa's depth chart at middle linebacker down to a fourth-string true freshman.
"Nobody was left," said James Morris (6-2, 225), who stood nearby as linebackers coach Darrell Wilson informed Ferentz of the situation and saw the bewildered look on the Iowa coach's face before he called a timeout.
Morris could've held baseballs in each hand as he described how big his eyes must have been at that moment during a nationally televised prime-time game against Penn State. But it didn't take him long to get a handle on the job. He started six games, ranked fourth on the team with 70 tackles and broke up four passes.
The Hawkeyes figured Morris would be a quick study. His father, Greg, is Iowa's longtime equipment manager. James committed to Iowa during his sophomore year in high school. His prep team won 41 consecutive games, three straight state titles, and Morris was named Iowa's Gatorade high school player of the year as a junior and senior.
"He's sort of the All-American boy," defensive coordinator Norm Parker said. "I mean, he works hard. He studies hard. He just does everything right."
Morris won't turn 20 until August, yet he's already one of the veterans of Iowa's defense. He'll probably be playing alongside another second-year sophomore, either Christian Kirksey (6-2, 215) or Anthony Hitchens (6-1, 215), a pair Parker describes as "really talented guys."
The key to the group could be the health of senior Tyler Nielsen (6-4, 235). Nielsen has the size to take on tight ends at the line of scrimmage and cover receivers in space, the requisite skills for playing the outside linebacker spot in Iowa's 4-3 scheme. But he missed the last five games of the season after sustaining a broken neck, and the Hawkeyes struggled to find a suitable replacement.
Iowa is trying to replenish its depth at the position after graduating three seniors who started at least five games last season, and the return of senior Bruce Davis (6-0, 232) and sophomore Shane DiBona (6-2, 230) should help. Davis started the opener last year at middle linebacker before an ACL tear ended his season in September, and DiBona made two starts last season.
The second week of January turned out to be a good news-bad news time for Iowa football. All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater (5-11, 180) announced he was returning for his senior season. A day later, All-Big Ten safety Tyler Sash declared he was skipping his last year with the Hawkeyes to turn pro.
Prater's decision was certainly welcomed news. He picked off four passes as a junior and broke up six others. But Sash's announcement and the graduation of Brett Greenwood leaves Iowa with a monumental task of replacing a pair of safeties who combined for 82 starts and 25 interceptions.
Iowa experimented during the spring, shifting cornerback Micah Hyde (6-1, 185) to free safety. The Hawkeyes aren't ready to write Hyde's name in permanent ink at safety. The move was made, in part, because the only safety with any real game experience, second-year sophomore Tanner Miller (6-2, 195) missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery.
"I think [playing safety is] really helping me out as a football player because I know what other people are doing around me instead of just my own position," Hyde said. "It's a big responsibility."
Iowa's depth at cornerback could make the move stick. Sophomore B.J. Lowery (5-11, 180) was one of the team's spring standouts. Junior Greg Castillo (5-11, 180) made starts at corner the last two seasons and played regularly in nickel and dime situations.
Senior Jordan Bernstine (5-11, 205) was listed ahead of Prater on the depth chart two years ago before sustaining a dislocated ankle during camp. Incoming freshmen Torrey Campbell (5-11, 180) and Jordan Lomax (5-10, 185) are also corner candidates.
Safety depth is more of an issue. Junior Collin Sleeper (6-2, 200) was listed during the spring as the No. 1 strong safety. He's a walk-on who has yet to appear in a game at Iowa. Senior Tom Donatell (6-2, 205), junior Nick Nielsen (6-3, 210), Bernstine and incoming freshmen Nico Law (6-3, 195) and Cole Fisher (6-3, 190) are in the safety pool.
Iowa's special teams were a mess at times last season, and those mistakes were costly. Arizona blocked a punt and an extra point and returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a 34-28 win. Wisconsin's 31-30 victory at Iowa tipped in favor of the Badgers on a fourth-quarter fake punt, but the Hawkeyes also botched a snap on a field goal and had a PAT blocked.
The special teams struggles seemed to surface at the most inopportune times, and Ferentz has said this is an area Iowa must repair. The Hawkeyes will have to do so without two of their top return men. Johnson-Koulianos returned two kickoffs for touchdowns at Iowa and Sandeman was annually near the top of the Big Ten in punt returns.
Mike Meyer's leg strength was his ticket to training camp last summer. The Iowa coaches thought Meyer (6-2, 175), a walk-on, might help the team by handling the kickoff duties, and the freshman latched onto that job before the Hawkeyes teed it up in the season opener. They handed him all of the placekicking duties in late September, and Meyer converted 14-of-17 tries on field goals.
The Hawkeyes still have Trent Mossbrucker (6-0, 204) on scholarship. The junior hit 13 of his 15 field goal opportunities in 2008 as a true freshman before redshirting in 2009 and sitting behind Meyer last season. But Ferentz said Meyer maintained a leg up on Mossbrucker at the end of spring practices.
Eric Guthrie (6-6, 245) has perhaps been noticed more for his size than stature to this point in his punting career at Iowa. The fifth-year senior spent the last four years watching Ryan Donahue handle all but one punt for the Hawkeyes. Guthrie's lone opportunity was a 32-yard punt last season in mop up time against Iowa State.
Donahue is gone and Guthrie has his chance at a full-time job. He held an edge at the end of the spring over Australian Jonny Mullings (6-3, 210) in the battle for the spot.
It's not in Ferentz's nature to single out freshmen who will contribute before they step on campus, but it's not hard to figure out where the Hawkeyes are likely to use some rookies. There's help wanted at running back behind Coker. The defensive line and safety positions are spots where Iowa could get immediate help, and the Hawkeyes will probably call upon a few others to bolster the special teams, either in the return game or on coverage units.
Ferentz has changed his philosophy on using true freshmen in recent years. He's been more open to using rookies if only for spot playing time because he thinks it accelerates a freshman's development if he can get regular practice work with the two-deep. The Hawkeyes have used 30 true freshmen in the last four seasons after playing 30 in Ferentz's first eight years.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The Insight Bowl victory was a tonic for the Hawkeyes during a stretch of five defeats and a series of public relations bruises. But when the season ended, Iowa was still faced the task of replacing 26 seniors, including several high-profile performers.
Nonetheless, the Hawkeyes are in a position where they often seem most dangerous -- under the radar and out of the preseason title discussions.
The offensive line could develop into one of the better units in the Ferentz era, and past groups at the position have set that bar high. The Hawkeyes will need to lean on the group with a first-year starter at quarterback and a defense that has to fill holes at every level.
Ferentz has likened this team to his 2008 group. The Hawkeyes started that season unsettled at several positions, including quarterback and middle linebacker. Stanzi and Pat Angerer emerged at those spots during the first month and became key players for a team that finished 9-4 and won the Outback Bowl.
"This is a different kind of challenge [than 2010] because we've got a little bit younger team and we've got some guys who don't have a lot of experience, but it's an interesting group of guys right now," Ferentz said. "I think we've got an interesting class of freshmen from last year [and] I think we've got an interesting group of seniors and you've got players who have been waiting behind good players."
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