Iowa Hawkeye Football: 5 Guys Who Need a Great Spring Performance
Iowa football spring practice is scheduled to begin March 24 with the culmination of the practices—the open-to-the-public spring scrimmage—scheduled for April 14.
A number of players will need to step up during that key block of the football program's schedule.
This is especially true of underclassmen and young players looking to make a name for themselves.
While upperclassmen and seniors get their feet wet, they are never the focus of spring ball. For example, Marvin McNutt missed 2011 spring practices, yet he still had a record-setting year in the season that followed.
Expect the same in 2012.
The spring is the time for young players—players the casual fan has often never heard of—to show the coaches what they can do and give themselves a step up for the new season.
C.J. Fiedorowicz: Junior Tight End
Statistically, 2012 was the worst showing ever by Iowa tight ends under Ferentz.
The year started with senior Brad Herman in the No. 1 role and junior Zach Derby at No. 2. As Herman struggled, Derby stepped up and became No. 1; however, Derby also had some issues.
This opened the door for uber-recruit Fiedorowicz, who started the final five games.
Hawkeye fans have been waiting on the Polish Hat since the No. 5 tight end in the country chose Iowa in 2010. Nonetheless, rumors concerning his inability to finish blocks hounded him, and, presumably, kept him out of the starting lineup.
Hopefully, he has left all of that behind him. He finished 2011 with 14 receptions—he had 16 on the season—in the final six games, including a career-high four catches in the bowl game.
With the graduation of Marvin McNutt, Fiedorowicz will be needed as a go-to pass catcher in 2012. There is no getting around the fact that no matter who the offensive coordinator is, Iowa's offense is and has been most successful when it has a dangerous receiving target at tight end.
Standing at 6'7", Fiedorowicz is a matchup nightmare, and could be better than erstwhile Hawkeye tight ends Dallas Clark and Tony Moeaki.
Next season, Iowa needs C.J. Fed to catch at least 40 passes.
That begins this spring.
Multiple Offensive Linemen
Specifically, senior Matt Tobin, juniors Brett Van Sloten and Nolan MacMillan, sophomores Brandon Scherff (pictured above) and Andrew Donnal and redshirt freshman Jordan Walsh.
About the only thing we know for sure concerning the Hawkeye offensive line in 2012 is that James Ferentz will be the starting center.
Other than that, every position will be up for grabs.
Matt Tobin started the majority of 2011 at left guard, with mixed results. Brandon Scherff earned three starts at left guard as well as a good deal of playing time otherwise, also with mixed results.
Nolan MacMillan started four games in 2010, and he played well, but he has been hampered by injuries since then. Finally, Brett Van Sloten subbed for injured right tackle Markus Zusevics in the 2011 Insight Bowl.
The heat will be on these players not only to get a leg up for a starting spot heading into summer camp, but also to impress new offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, who, according to former Hawkeye guard Adam Gettis, "likes to get after guys a little bit more" than former O-line coach Reese Morgan.
By the way, doesn't Brandon Scherff look a good deal like former Hawkeye Matt Roth? That must be a good sign.
Carl Davis and Darian Cooper: Sophomore and Redshirt Freshman Defensive Tackles
Last season, there were times when the Iowa defensive line was pushed all over the field. Do you remember the last time that happened?
That was with now-departed seniors Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns.
2012 projects to be worse unless some young players step up.
The two young players that could make the biggest difference are sophomore Carl Davis (No. 71, pictured above) and redshirt freshman Darian Cooper.
Both were highly-recruited big bodies. Davis weighs in at 310 pounds, while Cooper is listed at 280.
That might not seem like much for a defensive tackle, but the Hawks usually don't have bigger bodies to work with in that position. Colin Cole, who graduated in 2002, was the last starting Iowa defensive tackle that I can remember with a listed weight above 300 pounds.
Hopefully, new defensive line coach—former offensive line coach—Reese Morgan can work some magic with these two underclassmen.
If they can ascend the depth chart, and play anything approaching solid assignment football, that will free up the linebackers to make some plays, and the Hawkeyes might just have a quality rush defense.
In the end, this will be the biggest position to watch this spring and summer.
Nico Law: Sophomore Safety
Statistically, the top defenses in the Ferentz era were 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
All of those defenses had two things in common.
A great defensive line and a quality strong safety.
Regarding safety, the position was manned by Bob Sanders, Marcus Paschal and Tyler Sash, the former two who have gone on to become NFL starters and the latter was a Super Bowl champion in his rookie year.
Next season, strong safety looks to be the most open position on the team, and right now, Nico Law appears to be the front-runner.
In 2011, he played mostly on special teams, where he made a strong impression.
Law had the most tackles on the Hawks of any player that didn't start at least one game.
He is a heavy hitter and a big body, and will be needed to solidify the secondary and the run defense.
This spring, he has to cement his place as No. 1 on the depth chart.
Kirk Ferentz: Head Coach
It would be easy to put quarterback James Vandenberg or receiver Keenan Davis in this spot, but, as I mentioned, upperclassmen typically aren't the focus of spring practice.
On the other hand, Kirk Ferentz will be working with new coordinators for the first time in his tenure at Iowa. He will also have new offensive line, defensive line, quarterback and linebacker coaches.
The biggest issue he will have to face is confronting his team dynamic.
As all Hawkeye fans know, Kirk Ferentz is notoriously conservative. That means, among other things, that when assessing his team, he errs on the side of defense.
This leads to punts inside the opponent's 40-yard-line, squandering time at the end of the half and playing for field position and clock rather than points.
It is what it is, and despite many fans' protestations, it is a successful strategy when the Hawkeyes have the defense to pull it off.
The problem is this season, like last season, does not project to be one of those years.
In 2011, Iowa had the offensive firepower to win nine games. The problem was Ferentz erred on the side of a defense that wasn't up to the task.
The 2012 Hawkeye defense, at this point, doesn't look like it will be much, if at all, better than last season's bunch.
On the other hand, the offense, if James Vandenberg plays more consistently, can be one of the best in the conference.
If the 2012 Hawkeyes are to win as many games as they can, they will have to score a lot of points. This means Kirk Ferentz will have to be more of an offensive-minded coach than he is comfortable being.
This spring is the time for him to get comfortable with that.