Despite a relatively average 2011 season in which the Hawkeyes struggled at times to replace three starters on the defensive line and both starting safeties from 2010, Kirk Ferentz’s squad still managed to land a surprisingly high amount of players on the various All-Big Ten lists. Hype and seniority likely played a role in some of these selections but, win or lose, Ferentz’s knack for player development and using his various connections to boost his own players’ stature cannot be emphasized enough.
First, the no-brainer. Marvin McNutt was a unanimous first team selection at wide receiver after a record-breaking season which saw him haul in 78 receptions for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns. He shattered Iowa career marks for yardage and touchdowns while also setting the single-season high for touchdowns, overcoming Mo Brown’s previous best of 11. The stats only tell part of the story, however. McNutt was not only the most exciting player on the ’11 Hawkeyes but probably it’s most valuable based on what he meant to the passing offense.
Quarterback James Vandenberg had a nice statistical season due in large part to McNutt’s bevy of highlight-worthy catches and proclivity for breaking big plays (his longest touchdown this season was an 88-yarder). A particular play likely to stand out in Hawkeye fans’ minds was a sweet one-handed grab McNutt made in the Michigan State game — Vandenberg threw well behind McNutt, only to see number 7, he of the fly-paper hands, reach behind his body to snag it firmly in his left hand. It’s frightening to think of Vandenberg’s wayward throws ending up in the dirt instead of McNutt’s hands, and Keenan Davis has a long way to go to match such consistent production. McNutt’s three first-half touchdowns against Indiana at Kinnick, the day he broke the career touchdown record, stands out as a perfect representation of his career. Always prone to big plays, McNutt’s hands were never a question, but in a testament to his work ethic, he improved his below average speed each year to the point where speed actually became a strength his senior season. That drastic improvement each season (McNutt caught eight touchdowns in each of his first two seasons as a starter) in all phases of his game embodies McNutt’s legacy as well as anything else, and helped contribute to the best single season of an Iowa wide receiver ever for perhaps the best wide receiver all-time in Hawkeye lore. McNutt also earned the first annual Richter-Howard Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Award, an honor much deserved and never really in question until the unjustifiable snub on the Biletnikoff semi-finalist list for Illinois’ AJ Jenkins. Any honor that goes to the best receiver in the country should at least have McNutt in the final 10. Look for McNutt to be an early round NFL draft pick.
The only other unanimous first-team selection for a Hawkeye belonged to left tackle Riley Reiff, which was expected based on preseason chatter. Reiff grew from an undersized defensive end out of South Dakota into a monstrous 6 ft. 6, 300+ pound blindside protector for Ricky Stanzi and Vandenberg, showing an athleticism, mean streak, and poise usually present in all of Iowa’s great offensive linemen. Reiff was a stud from the moment he stepped in for an injured Bryan Bulaga as a redshirt freshman on the road against fifth-ranked Penn State in 2009, not only holding his own but dominating his man on the other end. He’s been a starter ever since and played his way onto the top of NFL draft boards — Mel Kiper Jr. recently predicted Reiff as the 10th overall pick. True left tackles are heavily sought in the NFL and Reiff seems to fit the bill because of his combination of size and athleticism. Reiff deserved the honor despite a 2011 season that wasn’t as dominate as many had hoped or predicted, but this likely signals the end of his Hawkeye career. Unless Reiff still has unfinished business in the win-loss column, it would be quite difficult to turn down guaranteed first-round NFL money. He should be gone.
Senior cornerback Shaun Prater was a first-team selection by the coaches, which led to a series of guffaws and snorts from the majority of Hawkeye faithful. Prater has been a starter since 2009 and tested the NFL draft waters after the 2010 season before deciding to come back in 2011, primarily for a shot at his hometown Nebraska Cornhuskers. Prater is a high-energy player with undeniable speed, confidence, and leadership qualities, but he has always been overrated as a cover corner and the fact that he even thought about leaving for the NFL early left many with a puzzled expression. Overall, Prater did a solid job of locking his man down this season and, most importantly in the Hawkeyes’ conservative schemes, tackling his man after the catch. He is a great athlete with NFL speed, if not NFL size. However, he recorded only one interception for 2011, which can be chalked up either to great coverage or an inability to make plays. Also, Prater was burned numerous occasions on deep routes, giving up more big plays than a man who sometimes calls himself “Prater Island” should. This may have been a result of newbie Tanner Miller taking over the safety position from Tyler Sash, a three-year starter Prater was undeniably comfortable with, but as a senior it’s up to Prater to bridge that communication gap. Although Prater has always been a bit overvalued, he did improve as the season went on and he has always been a fast, physical corner. He’s just suffered one too many miscues to justify a first-team nod based on anything other than name recognition.
Running back Marcus Coker was a unanimous second-team pick, while right guard Adam Gettis earned a second-team nod from the coaches. Coker had an exhausting season for Iowa, garnering an alarmingly hefty portion of the carries on his way to 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns. The weariness on his face toward season’s end was obvious, but Ferentz’s refusal to find him a suitable backup likely earned the big, hairy-armed back a spot on this list. It would have been difficult to justify placing Coker above Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, who is on pace to break Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing touchdown record, or Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead, who carries more name recognition and played on a higher profile team. But Coker is a ground-and-pound stalwart in the vein of Ron Dayne and his physical style led to one of the better seasons for a Hawkeye running back in recent memory. That is pretty impressive considering he was never 100 percent healthy all season after battling lingering injuries in training camp, and rest was difficult to come by as the season churned forward. Churned is a good way to describe the way Coker shouldered the rushing burden in 2011 without complaint or help. Gettis deserved a nod after finally staying healthy for his senior season and doing a solid job run blocking for Coker.
For the defense, senior Mike Daniels landed a second-team spot from the coaches, while Broderick Binns and Micah Hyde earned second-team honors from the media. Daniels battled an ankle injury for much of the season yet still acted as Iowa’s most disruptive pass rushing threat from the defensive line. His lack of sacks likely contributed to his place on the second team and not the first. His story at Iowa is a good one, battling the label of “undersized” and the lack of any other Division 1 scholarship offers to emerge as a two-year starter on the defensive line. Binns overcame a difficult 2010 to lead the Iowa defense in 2011, his senior year. His freakishly long arms have always made him a terror at batting passes down at the line, and he single-handedly stifled Michigan’s quarterbacks in Iowa’s biggest win of the season with three deflected passes and a sack. Hyde didn’t have any plays in 2011 quite like the pick-six against Missouri in the 2010 Insight Bowl or the pitch-and-run for a touchdown against Michigan State last season, but the junior cornerback still showed more moxie in contesting passes and skying for interceptions (he had three on the season) than anyone else on the roster. Hyde needs to improve his tackling after the catch, which appeared soft this season. The second team seems like an appropriate place for Iowa’s defenders, who lacked talent but improved with effort as the season progressed.
The only notable snub may be James Vandenberg, who despite passing for 2,806 yards with a 23/6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, failed to garner even honorable mention. Perhaps the voters only watched his dismal performances on the road against Penn State and Nebraska, where he failed to throw any touchdowns and made completing a pass look like disarming a bomb with 300-pound tackles draped over you.
Finally, in the realm of former Hawkeyes, mid-2000s Hawkeye playmaker Jovon Johnson was named the CFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, the first defensive back to receive such an honor north of the border. Meanwhile, New York Jets running back Shonn Greene, a Doak Walker Award winner at Iowa as the nation’s best rusher, ran for three touchdowns as the Jets beat the Washington Redskins Sunday, and former Hawkeye linebackers Pat Angerer (Indianapolis Colts) and Chad Greenway (Minnesota Vikings) each rank in the league’s top-five in total tackles. Congratulations to them and all other former Hawkeyes making news in the NFL.