Blue Ribbon Preview: Iowa
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Kirk Ferentz admitted he walked off the field that day last September wondering if Iowa would win another game after the Hawkeyes barely got past Northern Iowa in the season opener. He walked off the field after Iowa's last game with frozen Gatorade in his hair, the coach of the second 11-win team in school his-tory and the leader of a program with its biggest bowl victory in 51 years.
By the end of the season, Iowa had done enough to make most of its followers forget that 17-16 victory in the opener against the FCS Panthers. But not Ferentz. He was watching in March when Northern Iowa stunned top-seeded Kansas in the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. When the final horn sounded and the Panther party began, Ferentz took note of the despair on the faces of the Jayhawks and turned to his wife, Mary.
"That could've been us back in September," he said.
While many remember Iowa's 2009 season for its spectacular feats -- the first 9-0 start in school history, the victory against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl and the No. 7 finish in the Associated Press rankings -- Ferentz hasn't forgotten how the year nearly started with a stunning upset loss.
The Hawkeyes blocked two kicks in the final seven seconds to preserve victory. Ferentz isn't sure how Iowa's season would have unfolded had the Hawkeyes lost that day, but several of his players said it was a galvanizing win that helped the team along its path to the program's first win of a bowl of BCS ilk since 1959.
Along the way, Iowa became a regular high-wire act. The Hawkeyes won four games by three points or less. They rallied in the second half for wins at Penn State and Wisconsin. They won on a last-second touchdown pass against Michigan State, and they erased a two-touchdown deficit in the second half against Indiana, scoring four touchdowns in the fourth quarter in one of the wildest games in recent Iowa history.
The Hawkeyes were 9-0 and ranked fourth in the country in one poll on Nov. 7 when quarterback Ricky Stanzi got twisted around on a sack and went down with a severe ankle sprain in the first half against Northwestern. Iowa lost 17-10. With freshman James Vandenberg making his first start at quarterback the following week with the Big Ten title on the line at Ohio State, the Hawkeyes took the Buckeyes to overtime before losing 27-24. Stanzi didn't play again until the Orange Bowl.
Two discussions often popped up surrounding the Hawkeyes at the conclusion of last season: Where would Iowa have been had the Hawkeyes not lost their quarterback? And what is Iowa capable of in 2010 with so many talented players returning?
"We were really close to having a better season [than 11-2]," Ferentz said. "But we were equally as close to being right in the middle of the pack, and I think it's important to see both sides."
That Iowa could lose six NFL draft choices off last year's team -- the most for the program in 44 years -- and still be considered a Big Ten title contender indicates the amount of talent Ferentz has stockpiled. The Hawkeyes have 15 starters returning, highlighted by perhaps the best collection of skill play-ers Iowa has had since 2002 and the makings of its best defense since Ferentz took over 12 years ago and brought Norm Parker in to run his defense. Those are just a few of the reasons the Hawkeyes surfaced in several spring top 10 lists.
"My question is: Are we fifth in the country or fifth in the conference right now?" Ferentz said. "We're really close to being a middle-of-the-pack team right now in the Big Ten.
"If everybody keeps their focus where they need to and if we make progress like we're supposed to -- we have to stay healthy -- and really be doing a good job every week, we'll have a chance to be a good football team. We're hardly there, and I think our players are aware of that, and that's the key thing. They just need to understand for us to be in the upper half of the conference, we really have to be doing things well."
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (Connecticut '78)
Record at school: 81-55 (11 seasons)
Career record: 93-76 (14 seasons)
• 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) Recruiting Coordinator/Tight Ends
• Rick Kaczenski (Notre Dame '97) Defensive Line
• Reese Morgan (Wartburg '72) Offensive Line
• Phil Parker (Michigan State '86) Defensive Backs
• Darrell Wilson (Connecticut '81) Linebackers/Special Teams
Offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe handed out a homework assignment to Iowa's quarterbacks last winter. It was a far more time-consuming task than anyone associated with the Hawkeyes wished.
Iowa quarterbacks tossed 20 interceptions last season -- an inflated figure for an offense that tilts toward the run -- and O'Keefe asked each of Iowa's quarterbacks to assess the cause and how each of the picks could have been prevented.
"We've talked extensively and we went back and studied all the interceptions," O'Keefe said. "Every quarterback has graded all of them out themselves and handed me a sheet of paper why they thought they occurred. Most of it comes down to decision making, and we need to be better at making deci-sions with when to throw it away, when to make a play and when not to. We don't want a quarterback that's paralyzed by any means, but we need to be smart with what we're doing."
The picks were the primary problem for starter Ricky Stanzi (6-4, 218) last season. He threw 15 of them in 11 games -- the most for an Iowa quarterback since 2004 -- including four that were returned for touchdowns.
Quarterback isn't a crisis area for the Hawkeyes. Interceptions aside, there weren't many flaws in Stanzi's game as a junior. He passed for 2,417 yards and 17 touchdowns, played coolly in pressure situations and, most important, continued to lead Iowa to victories.
The Hawkeyes came from behind in the second half for five victories last season, raising Stanzi's two-year record as the Iowa starter to 18-4. The apex of his clutch play came at Michigan State when he directed a 10-play, 70-yard drive in the final 1:32, culminating with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Marvin McNutt on the final play of a 15-13 win. The Hawkeyes grew so accustomed to Stanzi pulling them out of trouble that they seemingly couldn't function offensively when he went down with a severe ankle sprain early in the second quarter against Northwestern. At least not that week.
All of Iowa's close games last season prevented freshman backup James Vandenberg (6-3, 212) from getting snaps. He made his first start under the most daunting circumstances -- with the Big Ten title on the line at Ohio State. Vandenberg completed 20-of-33 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns that day.
Although the Hawkeyes ultimately lost in overtime, Vandenberg's play was a good sign for Iowa's long-term health at quarterback. Behind him, another sophomore, Jon Wienke (6-5, 220), was one of the players whose progress this spring caught the attention of Iowa's coaching staff.
There was one main question surrounding Iowa's running back situation at the start of spring practices: How were the Hawkeyes going to incorporate the skills of three proven sophomores in the same backfield?
There was one main question surrounding Iowa's running back situation at the conclusion of spring practices: Who's left to carry the football?
The Hawkeyes hoped to take inventory at running back during the spring, but injuries prevented that from happening. Adam Robinson (5-9, 205) underwent off-season shoulder surgery after rushing for an Iowa freshman-record 834 yards last season. Robinson was pressed into a key role last year when sophomore Jewel Hampton (5-9, 210) missed the season with a knee injury. Hampton rushed for 463 yards and set an Iowa freshman record with seven touchdown runs in 2008 as Shonn Greene's backup.
Then Brandon Wegher (5-11, 206) came along last year and erased Hampton's record, scoring eight touchdowns and rushing for 641 yards in a run-ning back timeshare with Robinson.
The three sophomores -- along with senior fullback Brett Morse (6-3, 238) -- give Iowa perhaps its deepest stable of running backs during on the Ferentz era. On paper, at least.
"They're three different types of guys," O'Keefe said. "If everybody shows up to camp in good health, it's going to be a great problem for us to have, to try to figure out what to do with all those guys and how to use them."
But when the Hawkeyes closed spring practices, Robinson was still recovering, Wegher was dealing with an injury that prevented him from participating in Iowa's final scrimmage and Hampton was held out of contact drills for precautionary purposes.
While all three are expected to be ready for the start of training camp, their injuries and a knee problem that kept senior Paki O'Meara (5-11, 211) out of the final scrimmage and the departures of Jeff Brinson and Josh Brown left the Hawkeyes scrambling for ball carriers late in the spring.
"We'd like to think we have a little depth there, and there are guys who have some playing experience, but they're all nursing different things," O'Keefe said. "So if somebody is saying there is depth, I guess I'm with you sort of, but at practice it doesn't look that way."
The marquee receiver has been something Iowa's offense has often been missing the last decade. The Hawkeyes haven't had a wideout selected in the NFL draft since 2001. But that trend could change during the next two years. Senior Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (6-1, 200) and junior Marvin McNutt (6-4, 215) provide the Hawkeyes with a luxury they haven't had in the past -- a pair of full-service receivers who catch passes in traffic, make big plays on the outside and wipe out defenders with their blocking.
Johnson-Koulianos caught 45 passes for 750 yards as a junior to become the third player in Iowa history to lead the team in receiving in three consecutive seasons. He needs 30 catches and 400 yards receiving to become the school's career leader in both categories.
McNutt was one of Iowa's biggest surprises last season in his first year as a full-time receiver. He was a quarterback until midway through his freshman season. Last year he caught 34 passes for 674 yards and led the Hawkeyes with eight touchdowns, including scores of 92 and 74 yards.
"The thing he surprised us with was how he finished plays," O'Keefe said. "The way he finished plays really caught a lot of us by surprise, just not him."
The No. 3 receiver job is up for grabs entering training camp. Senior Colin Sandeman (6-1, 200) has been beset by injuries throughout his career but caught 14 passes last season, including a touchdown grab in the Orange Bowl. Sophomore Keenan Davis (6-3, 215) is one of the most physically gifted receivers the Hawkeyes have had in recent years, and freshman Jordon Cotton (6-1, 185) impressed Iowa coaches during the spring.
The Hawkeyes must replace an NFL draft pick at tight end, but that's nothing new for Iowa. Tony Moeaki became the seventh straight starting tight end for the Hawkeyes to get drafted. Senior Allen Reisner (6-3, 248) caught 14 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown last year. Junior Brad Herman (6-5, 247) is listed as the No. 2 tight end on the depth chart and C.J. Fiedorowicz (6-7, 250), the crown jewel of Iowa's recruiting class, could factor into the immediate plans for the Hawkeyes.
"He's going to have to play his way into [a spot]," Ferentz said. "I thought Brad Herman had a good spring. He's clearly made some strides and he's clearly our No. 2 guy. After that, it's a little bit of a coin toss. If C.J. can get into that race, great. We're not counting on him, but that would be a nice supplement if that happens."
If there's an X-factor for the Hawkeyes going into the season, this is it. Iowa must replace four regulars on the offensive line who combined for 119 career starts.
Left tackle Bryan Bulaga, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year, bolted for the NFL after his junior season and Dace Richardson, who started at three different positions on the offensive line, opted not to apply for a medical hardship waiver after injuries sidelined him for part or all of four seasons.
The departures left Iowa with two players with significant game experience -- sophomore left tackle Riley Reiff (6-6, 300) and senior guard Julian Vandervelde (6-3, 300). The Hawkeyes discovered Reiff by accident last year when he was pressed into an emergency starting role after Bulaga was hospitalized with a thyroid condition. Reiff parlayed the opportunity into 10 starts, and Ferentz said the freshman was Iowa's most consistent offensive lineman by the end of the season.
Vandervelde has been a starter at some point in each of his three seasons.
After that, Iowa has a collection of rookies up front. Junior guard Adam Gettis (6-4, 280) has shown glimpses that excite the coaching staff about his potential. Junior Markus Zusevics (6-5, 295) has stepped to the front of the line at right tackle after Bulaga and three-year starter Kyle Calloway va-cated the No. 1 tackle spots on the depth chart. Ferentz called the race for the starting center job between his son, sophomore James Ferentz (6-2, 275), and senior Josh Koeppel (6-2, 273) "a dead heat."
"Those are the six guys who have settled in," Kirk Ferentz said. "I think Markus Zusevics and Adam Gettis both had a good spring. We're not there yet, but they had good springs and I'd say the same about our two centers. Those six guys have all made good progress and I think some of the other guys are coming along, but that's clearly an area where we really have to keep our foot on the gas."
Big Ten offensive lines beware. Norm Parker says he has a "very average" defensive line.
To comprehend that statement, you must first have some perspective on Iowa's oft-understated defensive coordinator. The Hawkeyes were 12 games into their 2008 season and on their way to posting numbers that rivaled some of the best defenses in Iowa history when Parker finally acknowledged he had "a decent defense."
So, yes, Parker's definition of very average might not be the same as the common man. Don't let his modesty fool you. Iowa is anything but ordinary up front on defense.
Senior defensive end Adrian Clayborn (6-4, 285) has drawn comparisons to former Nebraska star Ndamukong Suh after a dominating junior season in which he notched 20 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries, four fumble recoveries and topped off the year with the Orange Bowl MVP award.
The Hawkeyes rejoiced in December when Clayborn declared his intention to return for his senior season.
"I think Adrian should be in [discussions for national awards], assuming he keeps progressing and playing like he has, he'll be one of the best in the country," Ferentz said. Said Parker: "He should be better than he was last year. He's a year bigger, he's a year stronger, he's a year more mature."
Clayborn is the leader of a defensive line that has all four All-Big Ten starters and two of its top reserves back from last season. Senior defensive tack-les Karl Klug (6-4, 270) and Christian Ballard (6-5, 297) and junior defensive end Broderick Binns (6-2, 261) combined to register 32 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks and 14 passes batted down last season.
"I think Klug is a very good player," Parker said. "Maybe he doesn't get the notoriety that some of the other guys do, but he's as good a player as we have on our defense. When we think of Klug, we think of Matt Roth, we think of [Mitch] King and [Matt] Kroul. We have a great deal of respect for him and his work ethic and his toughness and everything he represents. You'd like to have a whole bunch of Klugs around."
The Hawkeyes have developed more depth on the defensive line than they've had in recent years. Juniors Lebron Daniel (6-2, 250) and Mike Daniels (6-1, 275) impressed Parker during the spring and could give Iowa the luxury of a six-man rotation.
There was one downside to the level of play Iowa got from Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds during the past two seasons -- they left playing time in short supply for the Hawkeyes' reserve linebackers.
Angerer and Edds were productive and durable, and Iowa rarely ran up the score last season, which left the Hawkeyes little time to get their next wave of linebackers on the field.
Iowa lost three starters from a defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally in five categories. Two of them were linebackers. Moreover, Angerer and Edds were Iowa's defensive captains, All-Big Ten selections and early-round picks in the NFL draft.
You get the feeling, though, Ferentz isn't overly concerned about their replacements.
"We lost two outstanding players, but the good thing is we have a very veteran group," he said. "We've got guys who are a little bit older, they've been in the program, they're all smart guys and they work hard, so I think we're going to be OK."
Senior Jeremiha Hunter (6-2, 235) is a two-year starter who notched 89 tackles last season. Parker said Hunter "probably had his best time since he's been here in [terms of] being consistent" this spring.
Had it not been for Angerer and Edds, senior Jeff Tarpinian (6-3, 238) would've been a starter the last two seasons. Tarpinian is the leading contender to slide into the middle linebacker spot formerly occupied by Angerer.
Parker thinks Tarpinian has the requisite characteristics to fill that role. The rest of the unit could include junior Tyler Nielsen (6-4, 235), who spent the last two seasons serving as the apprentice to Edds at the outside linebacker position in Iowa's 4-3 scheme.
Senior Troy Johnson (6-2, 235) and junior Bruce Davis (6-0, 232) filled in at the inside linebacker spots at times last year and are listed with the second team on the depth chart. Johnson made the most out of a one-game cameo last year when Hunter and Tarpinian were injured and earned Big Ten defensive player-of-the-week honors against Minnesota.
The Hawkeyes featured one of the nation's stingiest pass defenses last season. Iowa ranked third in the country in pass efficiency defense, fourth in pass defense and fifth in interceptions, and three starters return in the secondary. The only problem for the Hawkeyes is that the fourth, their best cover corner last year, turned pro early. All-Big Ten corner Amari Spievey entered the draft after his junior season and the Detroit Lions selected him in the third round. While All-Big Ten safeties Tyler Sash (6-1, 200) and Brett Greenwood (6-0, 200) are back for their third season as a starting tandem, and junior Shaun Prater (5-11, 180) returns at one corner, the focal point in Iowa's secondary is the spot formerly occupied by Spievey.
Sophomore Micah Hyde (6-1, 185) finished the spring with the first-team defense, ahead of juniors Jordan Bernstine (5-11, 205) and William Lowe (5-10, 172). Hyde was a regular contributor on special teams last season and played a limited role in nickel- and dime packages. Bernstine was ex-pected to challenge Prater for a starting job until he suffered a broken ankle during the first week of training camp and missed the season.
"Micah Hyde has done a good job in there at corner," Parker said. "I think Prater is a little bit better, a little more confident than he was last year. Then there are a couple young corners. Bernstine is coming off that ankle. He still seems to have some good days, some bad days where sometimes it seems like there's a lot of hope there and some days you wonder if that ankle is 100 percent yet. I think during the summer all that stuff should im-prove."
The other concern in the secondary is Iowa's depth at safety. Sash and Greenwood missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgeries and David Cato, a special teams standout and reserve safety, left the program in January. Walk-ons Tom Donatell (6-2, 205), a junior, and sophomore Nick Nielsen (6-3, 210) are expected to back up Sash and Greenwood.
The kicking game was a huge weapon for the Hawkeyes during a three-year stretch beginning in 2002 when Iowa was strong in all facets on special teams and regularly came up with a kick, a blocked punt or a return that flipped a game in its favor.
The Hawkeyes haven't been able to get back to that level on special teams since, but Iowa upgraded its overall play in the kicking game last year. Adrian Clayborn blocked a punt and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown that helped the Hawkeyes seize control at Penn State. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos averaged 31.5 yards on kickoff returns and notched Iowa's first kickoff return for a touchdown in nearly seven years when his 99-yard score in the fourth quarter against Ohio State helped the Hawkeyes recover from a two-touchdown deficit.
Sandeman averaged 9.0 yards per punt return, although injuries limited him to 12 attempts. Donahue and Iowa's coverage units regularly helped the Hawkeyes gain an advantage in field position.
But either Daniel Murray or Trent Mossbrucker must develop into a reliable kicker for the Hawkeyes to get back to an elite level on special teams.
The Hawkeyes hoped 15 practices during the spring would shed light on their competition at kicker. It may have made the situation even cloudier.
Neither senior incumbent Daniel Murray (5-10, 185) nor sophomore Trent Mossbrucker (6-0, 204) established himself as the front-runner. Murray handled all of the kicking responsibilities last season while Mossbrucker red-shirted after they split the duties in 2008.
Murray converted 19-of-26 field goal tries last season, but he slumped late, missing 3-of-5 at one point, including a 22-yard try in an overtime loss to Ohio State.
Mossbrucker temporarily gained a leg up on Murray two years ago when he made 13-of-15. But Murray appeared to wrestle the job away after kicking the game-winner in Iowa's 24-23 win against then-No. 3 Penn State.
Now the Hawkeyes are back to square one.
"It's kind of been underwhelming this spring, quite frankly," Ferentz said. "We've been very inconsistent. We've flashed, but we haven't been consistent. I'm not sure what's the cause of that, but we're not really consistent like we need to be at this point at that position."
Senior Ryan Donahue (6-3, 190) might finally punt his way onto the Big Ten's first team now that Zoltan Mesko has graduated from Michigan and moved onto the NFL. Donahue has been better than most punters in college football the last two years, but he's had to settle for the second-team spot when the All-Big Ten team was released.
Donahue averaged 40.9 yards per punt as a junior, but that figure is misleading. In 61 attempts, he boomed 12 punts longer than 50 yards, had 27 downed inside the 20, allowed just 131 return yards and opposing punt returners called 19 fair catches.
The Hawkeyes changed their philosophy on true freshmen after the 2006 season when Ferentz felt Iowa had several first-year players who could have given the team's lusterless special teams a lift.
The following year the Hawkeyes used 11 true freshmen -- the most for a Ferentz-coached team. But hasn't had many areas that needed immediate help during the past two seasons and there might not be a lot of opportunities for freshmen this season. C.J. Fiedorowicz, considered one of the nation's top high school tight end prospects last year, could help the Hawkeyes offset the loss of Tony Moeaki.
Iowa has only used three true freshmen on the offensive line under Ferentz. Thus, the Hawkeyes aren't counting on an immediate contribution from Ohio blue-chip tackle prospect Andrew Donnal (6-7, 285).
The defense and special teams are where Iowa might look for rookie help, especially to fortify the safety position behind Sash and Greenwood. The Hawkeyes brought in three safety prospects -- Don Shumpert (6-2, 185), Anthony Hitchens (6-1, 195) and Tanner Miller (6-2, 200).
The last scholarship player in the class is a 22-year-old punter from Australia. Johny Mullings (6-4, 202) caught the attention of Iowa's coaches with a leg that once boomed an 83-yard punt in a junior varsity game and had a 100-yard punt in practice during his time as a foreign exchange student in Ottumwa, Iowa. Mullings plans to compete for Iowa's kickoff job this fall.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
While the Hawkeyes were racking up a school-record 11 victories last season, their fans were pointing to 2010 as the season when Iowa could reach peak levels for the program.
The Hawkeyes have a lot of the requisite pieces to challenge for the Big Ten title and get back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1991. This might be Iowa's best collection of skill players since its 2002 Big Ten championship team. It might be Iowa's best defense since the Hawkeyes claimed the 2004 conference crown. Iowa also has the benefit of playing Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin in Kinnick Stadium this season.
The Hawkeyes' title hopes appear to hinge on two critical factors -- the development of a largely untested offensive line and good fortune on the injury front. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, Ferentz's specialty is the offensive line, and Iowa has regularly been strong up front when medical misfortune hasn't gotten in the way. But there's not a lot of time for on-the-job-training before Penn State rolls into town for the Oct. 2 Big Ten opener.
The other part of the equation is health. While the Hawkeyes have built a collection of talent that appears to be one of the best rosters since Ferentz has been at the school, Iowa isn't blessed with an assembly line of all-conference players at every position.
The Hawkeyes will always wonder where they would have wound up last season if quarterback Ricky Stanzi hadn't gone down with an ankle injury when Iowa was 9-0 and leading Northwestern. But if the Hawkeyes stay healthy in a few critical areas and the offensive line comes together, Iowa could be match last season's accomplishments and threaten to break Ohio State's grip on the conference title trophy.
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