Next up in the Rant Sports 100 teams in 100 days leading up to college football season, we get an in-depth look at our No. 48 team, the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz, the longest-tenured head coach in the Big Ten, preps for his 14th season without his two most trusted assistant coaches while looking for a starting running back and re-building both the offensive and defensive lines.
It should be an interesting year in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes are returning 11 starters, five on offense, five on defense and one on special teams. Along with the inexperience on the field, two long-time assistant coaches, Ken O’Keefe and Norm Parker, are gone as the former is now the wide receivers coach for the Miami Dolphins and the latter has retired. Both started with Ferentz at Iowa, leaving the head coach without his right-hand men.
In 2011, the Hawkeyes went 4-4 in the Big Ten (7-6 overall) to finish fourth in the Legends division.
Quarterback James Vandenberg, (3,002 yards, 25 touchdowns) is an efficient and productive starter, just entering his second season, who should work well with new offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ hybrid West Coast scheme.
Many feel that Vandenberg will count on tight end, C.J. Fiedorowicz, as much as any skill player. The big man (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) had a great spring and could become a crucial weapon for the Iowa offense. He’s primed for a breakout year.
Last year’s leading rusher, Marcus Coker, has transferred out after off-the-field problems made it difficult to return. With Coker gone, the backfield is thin as the favorite to start, Jordan Canzeri, tore an ACL in his knee during spring football and rehabilitating with the hopes of returning to practice in September. The staff likes sophomore De’Andre Johnson, who will compete with fellow soph Brandon Bullock and maybe even freshman Barkley Hill.
Look for Keenan Davis to take the No. 1 wide receiver job after an impressive 2011 (50 receptions, 713 yards, 4 touchdowns) as the No. 2 now that Marvin McNutt (Philadelphia Eagles) is has moved on, while sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley, should start on the other side.
Three new starters will be on the offensive line in 2012, including both tackle positions. Sophomore Brandon Scherff is expected to pick up where Riley Reiff (Detroit Lions) left off at left tackle. The coach’s son, James Ferentz, holds down the fort at center and senior Matt Tobin returns at guard.
While the defensive line is in flux, the Hawkeye defense is led by stellar cornerback Micah Hyde (72 tackles, 3 interceptions, 8 passes defensed) and linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey, who each notched 110 tackles last year.
Hyde will be joined by experienced junior B.J. Lowrey at the other corner spot with Tanner Miller returns at free safety and Nico Law takes over at the strong safety position. Hyde also returns kicks but the Hawkeyes are on the lookout for a new punt returner.
New D-coordinator Phil Parker is not expected to change much of the Iowa 4-3 set, but will struggle to build a defensive line that returns just one starter, Dominic Alvis, who was hurt in spring ball but is expected to be ready for the regular season. Look for defensive tackle Steve Brigach to also make an impact as a starter.
Regardless of the starting 11, the overall defense has two key areas of improvement ahead: 1) Cut down on opponent scoring, and 2) Reduce third-down conversions.
Iowa has a manageable slate to kick off the season, with non-conference games against Northern Illinois, Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Central Michigan before starting the Big Ten schedule at home against the Minnesota Gophers. A 4-1 start before the Week Seven break is not out of the question, though the tough road ahead could keep the Hawkeyes to another 7-5 season and another minor bowl appearance, though a surprise win here and there could move them up into second place in the Legends division by the end of the season.