By Michael Briggs @MichaelSBriggs on May 24, 2014
An eight-win campaign last season could catapult Iowa into the Big Ten championship game in 2014 if everything goes to plan. The Hawkeyes will feature one of the conference's best defenses led by a standout defensive line, but will the offense be able to keep pace? Here are five intriguing players who should factor into Iowa's offensive success in their inaugural Big Ten West season.
Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith are the Hawkeyes' top receivers, but Willies will be the big play threat that could be the difference between Iowa winning the West and finishing second or third. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman hauled in 142 yards and a 42-yard touchdown in the spring game, earning the former high school state champion sprinter the "spring sensation" label. Willies looks like a contributor now and a future star.
Another receiver to keep an eye on will be true sophomore Matt VandeBerg, who offers the versatility to play more than one wideout position. With plenty of other capable pass-catchers around him, VandeBerg will get a little lost in the mix, which could be an issue for opposing defenses and an asset for QB Jake Rudock.
Iowa has stockpiled nine scholarship ball carriers, which is unfortunately almost a necessity given the injuries the Hawkeyes have experienced with its backs in recent seasons. The position should be a strength for Iowa this year, however. Three players could get significant playing time, which should hopefully keep former fullback Mark Weisman healthy and punishing defenses. Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock are two other guys to watch.
As you can tell, second-year starter Jake Rudock is going to have more than enough support around him, but the redshirt junior will still need to progress if Iowa is going to win the West. Last season, Rudock and Iowa went 8-0 when he had a completion percentage over 60, and 0-5 when he completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Efficiency is all the Hawkeyes need to complement their battering ram of running backs.
The question mark and x-factor for Iowa could be Rudock's fellow QB C.J. Beathard. A strong arm and impressive spring game has prompted coaches to consider special packages to get him on the field, but will that be an issue for Rudock? If the duo keep their respective roles, Beathard will give Iowa yet another option, but as the age-old saying goes, if you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have none.
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