No. 45: Iowa
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 25, 2012
The beat goes on and on and on for Iowa, with one running back replacing another due to injury, credit card fraud, academic difficulties and other mind-numbing violations of team rules. They arrive with high rankings, more often than not, and often fulfill those expectations before drifting out of sight, sometimes with a bang, always with head-shaking frequency. What are Iowa’s options? One is to recruit a different sort of athlete. Not bigger backs or faster backs, mind you, but rather class valedictorians and science fair champions. That’s not going to happen — this is Iowa, not the Ivy League, and the Hawkeyes will begin valuing off-field talents more heavily than on-field exploits on the same day the rest that the program’s rivals do the same; never, in short. No, all Iowa can do is hope that its next successful back — unknown, as of today — doesn’t follow the same trend. Maybe one of the Hawkeyes’ backs steps into a major role in 2012 and holds on to complete his career as the program’s first four-year back since Damian Sims. And if that doesn’t occur? Iowa will simply go back to the recruiting trail, find another gem and hope that the umpteenth time is the charm.
Big Ten, Legends
Iowa City, Iowa
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
vs. Northern Illinois (in Chicago)
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 13
at Michigan St.
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 23
Last year’s prediction
How could anyone think Iowa has what it takes to come out of nowhere and take home the Legends division? Because the Hawkeyes have been here before, under this same staff, so we’d be foolish not to at least consider the chance that Iowa turns out to be the surprise team in the Big Ten. I’m not saying Iowa’s going to challenge for the Big Ten crown: I’m just saying Iowa’s come in under the radar before under Ferentz, so just keep an eye on how a young, rather untested, pretty inexperienced team improves as the season turns to October and November. As of now, Iowa’s not built for a Rose Bowl run. But let’s see if the understudies are ready to take center stage.
In a nutshell A season of disappointments heaped on disappointments, beginning with a loss to old rival Iowa State and ending with a loss to new rival Nebraska. In between, the Hawkeyes tempered rock-solid victories, like one at home over Michigan to open November, with shield-your-eyes defeats, like one at Minnesota to end October. When did things go wrong? Try last winter, when the Hawkeyes lost three starters off its imposing defensive front. It turned out that replacing Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug was even more difficult than expected. The depleted defensive front led to Iowa’s worst performance against the run of Ferentz’s entire tenure, which in turn led to a fairly striking decline against the pass over the year’s first two months. The offense was there, even if a tad too inconsistent for Iowa’s tastes.
High point The 24-16 win over Michigan on Nov. 5. The Wolverines won 11 games on the season; Iowa’s five remaining F.B.S. conquests combined for 23 wins. In all, Iowa beat four bowl teams: Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern and Pittsburgh.
Low point Losses to the Cyclones and the Cornhuskers. Iowa State needed overtime to get past the Hawkeyes in Ames; Nebraska controlled the final outcome throughout. Seeing that the Iowa fan base had been hankering for a shot at Nebraska since it joined the Big Ten, I’d say that the Cornhuskers’ 20-7 victory stands as the Hawkeyes’ low point of the season.
Tidbit Iowa has a Big Ten-best 87 interceptions over the last five years. Next is Ohio State, with 82, followed by Wisconsin, 69, and Purdue, 68. Though the Hawkeyes tied for 73rd nationally with 10 picks last fall, they ranked among the top 11 in the F.B.S. from 2008-10: fourth in 2008 (23), tied for fifth in 2009 (21) and tied for 11th in 2010 (19).
Tidbit (Parker edition) Iowa’s defense didn’t start strong under Norm Parker, the Hawkeyes’ coordinator from 1999 through last season. Over his first two years running the show, Iowa allowed 30 or more points 11 times; overall, the Hawkeyes allowed an average of 29.3 points per game from 1999-2000. Over the last 11 years, however, Parker’s defense allowed more than 30 points in a game only 21 times: four times last fall, three times in 2001-2 and 2006, twice in 2004-5, 2007 and 2010, and not once in 2003 and 2008-9. In comparison, Parker’s last 11 defenses held 32 opponents to nine points or less – doing so five times in both 2008 and 2010.
Former players in the N.F.L.
42 LB Pat Angerer (Indianapolis), DT Jonathan Babineaux (Atlanta), DT Christian Ballard (Minnesota), CB Jordan Bernstein (Washington), C Rob Bruggeman (Kansas City), OT Bryan Bulaga (Green Bay), TE Scott Chandler (Buffalo), TE Dallas Clark (Tampa Bay), DE Adrian Clayborn (Tampa Bay), S Sean Considine (Baltimore), DE Mike Daniels (Green Bay), P Ryan Donahue (Detroit), LB A.J. Edds (Indianapolis), CB Bradley Fletcher (St. Louis), OG Robert Gallery (New England), OG Adam Gettis (Washington), S Charles Godfrey (Carolina), RB Shonn Greene (New York Jets), LB Chad Greenway (Minnesota), P Eric Guthrie (Tampa Bay), TE Brad Herman (New England), LB Jeremiha Hunter (New Orleans), K Nate Kaeding (San Diego), DT Mitch King (New Orleans), DT Karl Klug (Tennessee), DT Matt Kroul (New York Jets), OT Bryan Mattison (St. Louis), WR Marvin McNutt (Philadelphia), TE Tony Moeaki (Kansas City), TE Brandon Myers (Oakland), LB Tyler Nielsen (Minnesota), OG Seth Olsen (Indianapolis), CB Shaun Prater (Cincinnati), OT Riley Reiff (Detroit), TE Allen Reisner (Minnesota), S Tyler Sash (New York Giants), S Amari Spievey (Detroit), QB Ricky Stanzi (Kansas City), LB Jeff Tarpinian (New England), OG Julian Vandervelde (Philadelphia), OG Marshal Yanda (Baltimore), OT Markus Zusevics (New England).
Arbitrary top five list
Films starring Kevin Costner, 1987-91
1. “Dances With Wolves,” 1990.
2. ”Field of Dreams,” 1989.
3. “The Untouchables,” 1987.
4. “Bull Durham,” 1988.
5. “JFK,” 1991.
Kirk Ferentz (Connecticut ’78), 96-66 after 13 years with the Hawkeyes. It’s been a very good decade-plus for Ferentz and the program, though Iowa did struggle through a three-year lull from 2005-7. Ferentz has had the program back in Big Ten contention over much of the last decade, however, posting at least nine wins five times and at least six wins in each of the last 11 years. Iowa’s heyday under Ferentz came from 2002-4, when the Hawkeyes went a combined 31-7 and reached three consecutive January bowls. He was the national coach of the year in 2002, when the Hawkeyes went 11-2, and is a two-time Big Ten coach of the year (2002 and 2004). Ferentz is the second-longest tenured coach in Iowa football history, trailing only Hayden Fry, who led the Hawkeyes for 20 years (1978-98). Ferentz’s 96 wins places him second on the program’s career victory list, again behind only Fry, with 143 victories. It is fitting, given their close relationship in the team’s record book, that Ferentz replaced Fry in 1999. Their connection is also more tangible: Ferentz was Fry’s offensive line coach with the Hawkeyes from 1981-89. Following his nine-year stint as an Iowa assistant, Ferentz took the head coaching job at the University of Maine, where he compiled a three-year record of 12-21 from 1990-92. From there, Ferentz took his wares to the N.F.L., where he spent six years as the offensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns (1993-98). With his strong resume and connection to the Iowa program, Ferentz was a logical choice to replace Fry in Iowa City. It’s possible to call his tenure the most successful in program history, trumping Fry’s two-decade turn. At some point soon over the next decade, Ferentz will pass Fry in every single meaningful category to become the finest coach in Iowa’s history.
Tidbit (coaching edition) For the first time since 2008, Ferentz made changes to his coaching staff. One coach, longtime defensive coordinator Norm Parker, announced his retirement in December. A second defensive assistant, line coach Rick Kaczenski, left for the same position at Nebraska – immediately ingratiating himself to the red-clad faithful by mentioning how excited he was to finally wear “a name brand” on his chest. In early February, Ferentz lost Ken O’Keefe, the only offensive coordinator he’s had at Iowa, to the Miami Dolphins.
Here goes. Ferentz’s new offensive line coach is his son, Brian, who spent last season as the tight ends coach with the New England Patriots. Iowa’s new defensive line will be former offensive line coach Reese Morgan. The new defensive coordinator will be former defensive backs coach Phil Parker – the Hawkeyes’ administrative staff won’t even have to remove the name tag from Norm Parker’s head set, theoretically. The new defensive backs coach is former linebackers coach Darrell Wilson; the new linebackers coach, Levar Woods, was an administrative assistant from 2008-11. And the new offensive coordinator? That would be former Texas coordinator Greg Davis, who has one thing very much in common with his predecessor: Davis and O’Keefe were both the most unpopular coach in town at their previous stops – Davis in Austin, O’Keefe in Iowa City.
Players to watch
Davis has always been flexible – this is his greatest strength as a coordinator. While at Texas, he led the Longhorns’ offense through three different incarnations, to up-and-down results: run-heavy, run-based spread and the pass-based spread. In a sense, given how he’s always been able to tailor his attack to fit a team’s personnel, Davis should fit nicely into Iowa’s plans. Don’t let his final three or four teams at U.T. fool you – and don’t let his last offense, the putrid, incompetent mess of 2010, color your perception of his ability as a coordinator: Davis will maintain Iowa’s vision on offense, placing an emphasis on the run, while adding a few Austin-era wrinkles to Iowa’s passing game.
Iowa’s biggest issue is a lack of speed at wide receiver – something Davis saw, and noted, very early into spring practice. The Hawkeyes’ top target, senior Keenan Davis (50 receptions for 713 yards), seems to encapsulate the receiver corps as a whole: he’s bigger, not exactly fleet afoot, not terribly consistent when it comes to catching the football and more than a little disappointing, even if he did have his moments a season ago. What Davis will be asked to do in 2012 is carry the receiver corps on his back, now that the Hawkeyes can no longer rely solely on Marvin McNutt, and he must be up to the challenge.
It’s going to be hard for Greg Davis to implement a true multiple-receiver set. What Iowa has is a clear top two, with sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley (30 catches for 323 yards) joining Keenan Davis, but the passing game will sputter if one of four or five secondary receivers don’t provide some depth along the second level – let alone allow Iowa to come out with four receivers with any regularity. For now, this group includes senior Steven Staggs and junior Don Shumpert and Jordan Cotton; come August, the Hawkeyes will add a quartet of true freshmen into the mix. Until Iowa can develop some adequate depth, look for the passing game to run straight through Davis, Martin-Manley and junior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (16 for 167).
Iowa has issues at running back – you know this already. Marcus Coker, last year’s leading rusher, left the program in January. Would-be sophomore Mika’il McCall did the same. Sophomore Jordan Canzeri (114 yards), the team’s leading returning rusher, tore his A.C.L. during the spring. Greg Garmon, one of the gems of Iowa’s recruiting class, was arrested on charges of misdemeanor drug possession in June, leaving his future with the program in some doubt. When the Hawkeyes take the field in August, it may be with only three scholarship backs: sophomore De’Andre Johnson and Damon Bullock and true freshman Barkley Hill.
The Hawkeyes could use Garmon, obviously. But the situation isn’t terrible; this is just par for the course, and you’d be worried if not for the fact that this happens ever year yet Iowa still manages to cobble together a bruising running game. Bullock and Johnson were impressive during the spring, taking full advantage of the opportunity for playing time, and I have little doubt that one or both will be successful as the centerpiece of Iowa’s offense – whether both make through this season and next, however, remains unknown.
Iowa’s rebuilding project up front trumps any the program’s has undergone since the 2007 season. The Hawkeyes must replace three starters – left tackle Riley Reiff, right guard Adam Gettis and right tackle Markus Zusevics – and do so with an extremely young and unproven cast of options. All you can see with certainty is that senior James Ferentz, one of the best interior linemen in the Big Ten, will serve as the line’s anchor at center. Everything else? Well, Iowa needs to find some answers in August.
The only other returning linemen with any starting experience is senior Matt Tobin, who will retain his starting role at left guard. Redshirt freshman Austin Blythe holds the edge at right guard, ahead of juniors Conor Boffeli and Drew Clark – with Boffeli, thanks to his ability to play center, likely Iowa’s top interior reserve. Junior Brandon Scherff will replace Riley Reiff at left tackle after making three midseason starts at left guard a season ago; given the option of moving outside, Scherff didn’t hesitate. On the right side, Iowa can go with either junior Brett Van Sloten, junior Nolan MacMillan or sophomore Andrew Donnal – the latter is currently on the left side, but Iowa typically plays its five best linemen. One interesting note: Ferentz and Ferentz – Kirk and Brian – could start five Iowans up front.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Big Ten was loaded with pocket passers like James Vandenberg, Iowa’s senior starter. Today, Vandenberg is the outlier: Big Ten quarterback play is now defined by dual-threat options like Denard Robinson, Braxton Miller and the like, and Vandenberg’s pocket-passer style seems antiquated, if no less successful than it was less than a decade ago. Clearly, Vandenberg is the Big Ten’s best passing quarterback – that just doesn’t mean as much as it once did.
Vandenberg can shoulder the load offensively, if push came to shove. He did so early last fall, when Iowa implemented a no-huddle, pass-heavy system late in the win over Pittsburgh and again in a lopsided victory over Louisiana-Monroe. But that idea died a painful death against Penn State, indicating to Ferentz and his staff that when it comes to conference play, it pays to run the offense through the ground game. The numbers bear this out: Iowa went 3-5 when Vandenberg made 28 or more attempts. While the offense can score points with an emphasis on the pass – and Vandenberg is clearly good enough to be the focal point – Iowa isn’t the same without some degree of offensive balance.
So what should you expect from Vandenberg in 2012? Look for the senior to continue doing a nice job protecting the football; he threw only seven picks in 404 attempts last fall. Vandenberg’s completion percentage, a 58.7 percent clip last fall, should also rise as he gains more experience. His ability to spread the football to his receivers will be useful as Davis implements more varied formations. More than anything – and the Iowa community seems hesitant to embrace this fact – Vandenberg is eons better than the team’s other options at the position. Want to embrace change? Then throw the reins to the backup, who will remain the most popular guy in town until he crumbles. Vandenberg is Iowa’s quarterback, and Iowa could do much worse at the position.
Parker replaces Parker. Little will change. The biggest difference, in fact, is in how Iowa will now delegate positional responsibilities: Phil Parker will devote himself fully to the coordinator job, with Wilson stepping over to defensive backs and Woods moving up to linebackers. That’s a slight concern, seeing that Iowa’s back seven must be rock-solid to offset some major personnel issues up front, but unlike on offense, Iowa is not undergoing any major transition – Parker to Parker, and the latter will simply follow his predecessor’s blueprint, albeit with some alterations in coverage schemes, in an effort to maintain Iowa’s defensive success.
It won’t be that easy. For starters, and as I’ll touch on below, Iowa’s defensive line is in shambles. In addition, while Iowa’s back seven is in solid shape – particularly at linebacker – the Hawkeyes cannot afford to suffer any significant injuries. When it comes to the second level, all eyes will be on junior James Morris (110 tackles, 3.5 for loss), who will be used at middle linebacker after spending the second half of last season on the weak side. Morris is made for the middle; while injuries played a role, he was a liability in coverage when used at outside linebacker.
Overall, this looks like the fastest crop of linebackers Iowa has used under Ferentz. Morris can move downhill, which helps him fill lanes against the run. His partners on the outside, juniors Christian Kirksey (110 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and Anthony Hitchens (25 tackles), have enough quickness and agility to help Iowa defend Big Ten quarterbacks like Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez. The two went toe-to-toe for a starting job last fall, with Kirksey winning out, but Hitchens played extensively in eight games, missing five due to injury. This is a solid group: strong in the middle, quick on the outside.
Iowa’s plan of starting Micah Hyde (72 tackles, 3 interceptions) at safety last all of two games; after getting gouged by Iowa State, the Hawkeyes wisely moved Hyde back to cornerback, where he started the year’s final 11 games en route to earning second-team all-Big Ten honors. With Shaun Prater gone, Hyde must continue to play at an all-conference level as Iowa’s stopper at cornerback. He’ll be joined at cornerback by B.J. Lowery, a junior, and Lowry must be ready to take on every team’s best shot – because you know that opposing quarterbacks are going to shy away from Hyde’s side of the field.
Iowa also returns senior Greg Castillo, who was the starter at cornerback in September before Iowa moved Hyde back to the position. At worst, he’ll provide some experienced depth. At best, the way things turned sour last season will motivate Castillo to new heights, perhaps pushing him ahead of Lowery and into a starting role. For now, however, Lowery is in the driver’s seat.
There’s every reason to think that Iowa will land improved safety play even without Jordan Bernstein, an 11-game starter at strong safety as a senior. Most of the optimism stems from the idea that after getting his feet wet last fall, junior Tanner Miller (76 tackles, 3 interceptions) is ready to challenge for all-Big Ten honors. Miller was a bit unsteady last fall, particularly early, but his growth during Big Ten play led Iowa’s pass defense to really step forward over the season’s final month – after allowing 238.7 yards per game through October, the Hawkeyes gave up only 197.8 yards per game over the year’s final five games.
Miller’s another key figure on this defense. He’s already shown a willingness to stick his nose in against the run; now, especially with Prater gone, he must supply even greater stability in coverage. He’ll be joined at strong safety by sophomore Nico Law, who maintained his lead over a pair of seniors with a strong spring. The secondary should be pretty good, even if the Hawkeyes’ lack of a proven pass rush is a concern.
Junior Mike Meyer will handle kicking duties, hoping to put an end to the late meltdown that defined his sophomore season. Iowa will break in a new punter in converted quarterback John Wienke, who replaces Eric Guthrie – and continues Iowa’s tradition of having one of the tallest punters in college football. I’m curious as to what direction the Hawkeyes go in the return game: Martin-Manley is next in line on kickoffs, but Iowa would be in trouble if he went down due to injury; likewise with Hyde on punt returns.
Position battle(s) to watch
Defensive line This group needs work. It also needs a healthy Dominic Alvis (30 tackles, 3.5 for loss), who started six games at end before suffering a knee injury in the win over Michigan. With his recovery is on schedule – everyone’s recovery is always on schedule, it seems – Alvis could be back at or near 100 percent in time for the season opener against Northern Illinois. The trickle-down effect this could have on the line as a whole can’t be overestimated: Alvis, a junior, would lend some stability to a troublesome situation at end.
The first scenario: Alvis is ready by September. In this case, Alvis and senior Joe Gaglione would start at end. Inside, the Hawkeyes would go with a three-man rotation of senior Steve Bigach, sophomore Louis Trinca-Pasat and redshirt freshman Darian Cooper. Another option would be to play Bigach – who is valuable due to flexibility – inside on passing downs but at end on first and second down; this would give Iowa a bit more strength against the run and greater athleticism when bringing pressure on the quarterback.
That alone is not a good situation: Iowa is still young and unproven even with Alvis at 100 percent. The second scenario, of course, is that Alvis is not ready for the season opener. In that case, Bigach would have to move outside, joining Gaglione at end, and the situation at tackle turns from troubling to dire. The bottom line? Barring the rapid development of underclassmen – those mentioned above, as well as ends Melvin Spears and Riley McMinn – Iowa’s defensive line will be one of the weakest in the Big Ten. Morgan will have his hands full.
Game(s) to watch
Iowa should not be satisfied with anything less than a 4-1 start. The Hawkeyes’ opening month provides the opportunity for a fast climb back into the national picture; while Northern Illinois is solid and Iowa State always a threat, Iowa should have at least four wins before entering October. That would be nice, at least. The schedule takes a turn beginning with Michigan State on Oct. 13: Penn State’s next, followed by Northwestern – always a thorn in Iowa’s side – followed by Indiana and Purdue. Then comes Michigan and Nebraska, and there are easier ways to end the regular season. The bad news: Iowa gets the Spartans and Wolverines on the road and Nebraska late, as will always be the case in this newly christened rivalry. The Cornhuskers have made a habit of closing strong under Bo Pelini.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Things change in the Big Ten. Philosophies change. Recruiting styles change. Coaches change. One thing remains the same: The league’s best teams control the line of scrimmage – see Wisconsin as the most recent example. Looking at this team, I can’t see how Iowa hopes to control the point of attack with one of its most unproven offensive lines in recent memory and one of the youngest, least experienced defensive lines in the entire conference. That’s a major concern for the Hawkeyes, and one that must be addressed before entering the heart of Big Ten play on the first Saturday of October. Prior to that point, Iowa has the coaching and experience to slide through the season’s first month with at least four wins, essentially ensuring yet another seven-win regular season. But what will Iowa do once it encounters those teams with a pulse – Michigan State, Northwestern, Michigan and Nebraska?
It’s going to be tough sledding for a team with several question marks still unanswered. One is running back, of course, though that’s an overblown concern; despite its losses, Iowa always lands competent production from its running backs. Another is a dearth of speed, athleticism and depth at receiver. A third are these lines, as noted: Iowa is in very big trouble on defense, especially if Alvis doesn’t make a full recovery. Yet another is the back seven on defense, in a way; the Hawkeyes are set in the starting lineup yet can’t afford any significant injuries. What I see in Iowa is a team locked into fourth place in the Legends division – a team that’s better than Northwestern and Minnesota but a clear peg below the Wolverines, Spartans and Cornhuskers. Now, Iowa has surprised before, and the team’s leadership at quarterback, linebacker and cornerback bodes well for its chances to be a surprise team in the Big Ten. But from top to bottom, this is a solid team with some potentially crippling flaws.
Dream season Iowa opens 5-0, as expected, and then kicks into high gear with wins over Michigan State and Penn State to open October. Losses to Northwestern and Michigan bring the Hawkeyes back down a notch, but they head into a major bowl at 10-2, 6-2 in the Big Ten.
Nightmare season Iowa starts 0-2, losing another heartbreaker to Iowa State, and loses the following Big Ten games by 10 or more points: Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes fail to win at least six games for the first time since 2000.
In case you were wondering
Where do Iowa fans congregate? For message boards, visit The Hawks Nest, Hawkeye Nation and Hawkeye Report. For additional coverage, check out Black Heart Gold Pants and the Web site of The Quad-City Times. Continue with the Web site of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and its blog from the man on the ground, Marc Morehouse.
Iowa’s all-name nominee K Trent Mossbrucker.
Through 80 teams 314,876.
Who is No. 44? Tomorrow’s program holds a combined career record of 39-36 against the 10 teams that reached B.C.S. play last season, including a 3-1 mark against the two teams that played for the national title.
Tags: Big Ten, Brian Ferentz, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Christian Kirksey, Damon Bullock, Dominic Alvis, Greg Davis, Greg Garmon, Iowa, James Ferentz, James Morris, James Vandenberg, Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Kirk Ferentz, Matt Tobin, Micah Hyde, Mike Meyer, Nico Law, Phil Parker, Steve Bigach, Tanner Miller
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