Iowa Football: 10 Key Position Battles in Spring Practice
Iowa Hawkeye spring practice began this past Saturday with the spring open scrimmage scheduled for April 14.
That means the new football cycle is upon us, which in turn means that players will begin competing for places on the depth chart.
Where one ends the spring on the depth chart is hardly indicative of where one eventually ends up.
For example, many remember the depth chart following spring practice in 2008.
Pat Angerer and Ricky Stanzi were relegated to second-string status, and Shonn Greene wasn't even on the team.
In effect, things can and will change between now and September 1, when Iowa heads to Chicago to take on Northern Illinois in its season opener.
Nonetheless, the real competition for playing time has now begun, and the 2012 Hawkeyes have begun to take shape.
Jake Rudock was lightly recruited heading into his senior season, and he committed to Iowa in July 2010.
Then he had a monster senior season—69.3 completion percentage, 2,784 YDS, 36 TD, 3 INT—which prompted at least one prestigious, local program to take note.
Rudock remained firm in his commitment to the Hawks and came to Iowa City last summer.
In all probability, due in large part to the promise Rudock immediately showed, former No. 2 quarterback A.J. Derby moved to linebacker, which prompted his transfer.
Rudock has completed his redshirt year and as the new No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart, is the new biggest fan favorite in Iowa City.
Meanwhile, with former No. 2 John Wienke's move to punter—more on that later—and James Vandenberg's senior status, a void was left at quarterback behind the top two.
Enter JUCO transfer and Des Moines native, Cody Sokol.
Sokol played his first two college seasons at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. Last season, he threw for 3,807 yards, 43 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, earning first team all-region, first team all-conference and second team all-America.
Sokol is and has been on campus since January and will compete with Rudock for the coveted No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
Obviously, No. 2 only carries so much playing time, but it does mean No. 2 reps in practice and a huge step up on the No. 1 spot in 2013.
Iowa's issues at running back have been well-documented. In effect, I won't rehash them.
Heading into spring practice, the Hawks will have a wide-open competition to see who will have a step-up on carries heading into the summer.
The three primary candidates are true sophomores Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock and third-year sophomore De'Andre Johnson.
All three gained carries last season, but when it was all said and done, Jordan Canzeri rose to the top for the Insight Bowl, getting the start and the most carries.
The new depth chart lists Canzeri as No. 1 with Bullock and Johnson sharing No. 2 status.
However, given Canzeri's listed weight of 180 pounds, even if he does wind up as the top guy, it is likely that at least one other back will get a good many carries.
Center James Ferentz is the only offensive lineman that one can write in ink on the depth chart.
The rest of the line will, in all probability, not solidify until the start of the Big Ten season.
The primary candidates for the four jobs are senior Matt Tobin, juniors Brett Van Sloten, Nolan MacMillan, Drew Clark and Conor Boffeli, sophomores Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, sophomore and JUCO transfer Eric Simmons and redshirt freshmen Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh.
Tobin grabbed ten starts last season with mixed results, though he did improve as the season wore on. Kirk Ferentz has said he could play guard or tackle, but he is likely slated for a guard position.
Van Sloten came off the bench for an ailing Markus Zusevics in the last year's Insight Bowl. MacMillan gained six starts in 2010 and fared well, but he has been injured ever since.
We don't know much about Clark, but despite limited playing time, the staff has repeatedly talked up Boffeli.
Scherff could be the next great Iowa offensive lineman. He apprenticed last year at guard, grabbing three starts. As of the pre-spring depth chart, he has moved to starting left tackle, which he will compete for against Donnal and MacMillan.
Finally, Simmons, Blythe and Walsh will also be in the competition.
This won't be settled for a while, no matter what the depth chart looks like for the open spring scrimmage.
No. 3 Tight End
C.J Fiedorowicz has the No. 1 tight end spot locked up.
For the time being, Zach Derby is the unquestioned No. 2.
However, Kirk Ferentz likes to have five tight ends available at all times, with three of them seeing regular playing time in various packages.
At this point, the key candidates for the No. 3 job are true sophomore Ray Hamilton and redshirt freshmen Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble.
Given Iowa's history of production at tight end, as well as last season's fall from grace, this will be a key position both for 2012 and the future.
No. 3 Receiver
Iowa is not Northwestern or Purdue as it concerns using multiple wide receivers, but Iowa's third receiver has historically received a good amount of playing time and receiving opportunities.
The No. 3 man in 2011—Kevonte Martin-Manley, this year's No. 2—caught 30 passes last season.
2010's No. 3, Colin Sandeman caught 21 passes.
2009's No. 3, Trey Stross had 31 grabs.
In short, despite Iowa's reputation for tight end and fullback-heavy sets, the Hawks have been known to go three wide and could add more three-wide sets with new offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
This season, the third wide receiver spot is wide open.
The current depth chart lists junior Don Shumpert, redshirt freshman Jacob Hillyer and senior and former walk-on Steven Staggs as the top candidates.
Fourth-year junior Jordan Cotton will also be in the mix.
The four of them have a combined six career catches for 49 yards and zero touchdowns. Staggs has five of the catches with Cotton chipping in the sixth.
Junior Christian Kirksey will be the starting weak-side linebacker.
Junior James Morris will be either the starting middle or strong-side linebacker.
That leaves the third spot open.
The pre-spring depth chart lists Morris in the middle with junior Anthony Hitchens on the outside.
This makes sense, as Morris was the starting middle linebacker for much of his freshman and sophomore years. Also, Hitchens, who is not physically adept for middle linebacker, is arguably the most experienced and ready third linebacker.
The issue is Morris switched to strong-side linebacker midway through 2011, and he was unquestionably more adept on the outside than in the middle.
This opens another option of moving Morris back to the strong side and starting true sophomore Quinton Alston in the middle.
Alston is less experienced than Hitchens or weak-side reserve Shane DiBona; nevertheless, he is a more natural fit for the middle than almost anybody else on the Iowa roster.
As previously mentioned, former backup quarterback John Wienke is now listed as the No. 1 punter with Australian transplant Jonny Mullings as his backup.
Mullings was the heir apparent to former Iowa and current Detroit Lions punter, Ryan Donahue.
Nonetheless, his inability to shorten his punting motion led to Eric Guthrie's ascendance last season.
Guthrie has exhausted his eligibility and Mullings is back to compete for the job.
Meanwhile, if Wienke wins the punting job, one is left to ask how many college football programs can say they have Elite 11 quarterbacks as their starting punters?
Whoever leaves spring with the No. 1 spot will compete for the job in the summer with true freshman Connor Kornbrath.
Last season, Iowa ranked sixth in Big Ten punt returns with a 7.93 YPC average.
That is not bad, but consider that the Hawks had the fourth-fewest returns in the conference. The only teams with fewer returns were Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern—let's face it, when did those defenses ever force a punt?
On the other hand, Iowa had so few returns because most punts were either fair caught or left for the opposition to down.
In fact, Hawkeye opponents had the best punting average in the conference.
Cornerback Micah Hyde was the punt returner last season, and he is currently listed as the No. 1 man on the spring depth chart.
He is dangerous with the ball in his hands, as has been evidenced by multiple interceptions that he has returned for touchdowns.
However, he has not been decisive enough to warrant keeping back there on punts.
Hyde is the only current Hawkeye with collegiate punt return experience, but count me as one who hopes Ferentz goes another direction next season.
True sophomore Nico Law is listed as the starting strong safety.
He spent most of last season making a name for himself on special teams. He had the most tackles—11—of any Hawkeye that didn't start at least one game.
Meanwhile, the co-No. 2's are seniors Tom Donatell and Collin Sleeper.
Sleeper is a former walk-on who began the 2011 season as the starting safety. He started the first two games before Jordan Bernstine supplanted him.
Donatell spent three seasons as a safety before moving to linebacker last year. He earned a good deal of playing time, including two starts, but has moved back to his more natural position.
In 2010, Iowa graduated three starting defensive linemen. All of them went on to get drafted.
In 2011, the Hawks graduated another three starting linemen.
Attrition over the last few years has hurt the Hawks, especially at running back and defensive line. This is the year that the bill for that attrition comes due on the line.
The current depth chart has three redshirt freshmen starting.
The starting ends—Riley McMinn and Dean Tsopanides—are listed at 245 and 240 pounds respectively.
Senior Steve Bigach is one of the starting defensive tackles with redshirt freshman Darian Cooper joining him.
Junior and returning starter Dominic Alvis will be available for summer practices but will miss spring while he continues to recover from a torn ACL.
Sophomore defensive tackle Carl Davis is also missing the spring with an injury.
Otherwise, there will be a host of redshirt freshmen and sophomores competing for playing time. None of them have distinguished themselves in any way; in effect, it is pointless naming them or listing their accomplishments.
Heading into 2012, I don't expect any miracles from the defensive line. The front four will likely be fluid and get pushed around more than any Iowa defensive line in a long while.