The bad news is that the Iowa Hawkeyes went 4-8 this year. The good news is that, barring transfers, injuries, academic casualties, etc., they should return eight starters on defense, seven on offense and both kicking specialists.
Moreover, the offensive line, defensive tackles and defensive secondary rotated a good deal last year, so there will be a number of returning, experienced non-starters.
Time will tell if head coach Kirk Ferentz can turn this experience into wins, but unlike 2012, youth will not be an issue.
The following slides list players from least to greatest need. It is based on graduated starters, returning experience and talent, as well as expectations for the inexperienced players currently on the roster.
The players with an asterisk (*) next to their names started at least four games in 2012. The players with a dollar sign ($) next to their names didn't start four or more games, but are experienced.
The player's year is listed in parentheses and reflects what their standing will be in 2013.
True freshmen—i.e. incoming recruits—were not considered, as they will not be Hawkeyes until signing day.
Departed: Micah Hyde*, Greg Castillo*
Returning: B.J. Lowery (Jr.)*, Jordan Lomax (So.), Sean Draper (So.), Kevin Buford (So.), Torrey Campbell (So.), Anthony Gair (RFr.)
Despite losing 2012 Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year Micah Hyde to graduation, the Hawkeyes are in good shape at cornerback.
Nevertheless, somebody will have to step up for the departed senior.
Lowery is a returning starter that had an up-and-down 2012, but has displayed the tools to indicate he can be a better cornerback than Hyde.
Lomax would have contended for a nickelback position, if not a starting position, had a preseason injury (per the Cedar Rapids Gazette) not forced him to redshirt.
Lomax's loss opened the door for Draper and Buford, who saw substantial minutes in nickel and dime packages, as well as on special teams.
Departed: Micah Hyde*
Returning: Iowa doesn't have one player on the roster who has returned a collegiate punt.
Statistically, Hyde was a decent punt returner. In two years on the job, he finished with 7.76 yards-per-return average on 29 attempts.
However, Hawkeye fans know that Hyde's issue was letting far too many balls bounce right by him, thereby costing Iowa a good deal of hidden yardage.
Nevertheless, after years of watching Ferentz's team, it is evident that the head man doesn't want or need a game-breaker returning punts. He wants a safe return man that can be trusted not to drop the ball.
In effect, what could be a source of yardage will likely be a source of security. It is for that reason that a position that would seem to be a big hole on the roster is probably not as big a deal as it might be for other teams.
In the end, one of the defensive backs or more probably one of the receivers will take the job. He won't be exciting to watch, but there also won't be any worries about him putting the ball on the turf.
Departed: James Ferentz*
Returning: Austin Blythe (So.)*, Connor Boffeli (Sr.)$, Eric Simmons (So.)
As with the cornerbacks, Iowa has stockpiled a good group on the line—specifically at center.
Nonetheless, James Ferentz had a quietly solid season, and center will be one of the big battles through the spring and summer.
Blythe earned nine starts (per Phil Steele) at right guard in 2012, and he played about like one would expect a redshirt freshman to play. Despite this, he has the tools to be a good lineman and has the highest ceiling of all the potential centers. The question is whether he will stay at guard or move to the middle.
Boffeli is a system player that popped up on the depth chart for two years. In 2012, he finally earned playing time, grabbing three starts at left guard. He also spent most of the year as the No. 2 center.
Simmons came to Iowa via the JUCO route and wound up redshirting in 2012 (why would Kirk Ferentz pull in JUCO players for the deepest position group on the field? I have no idea.). He will also vie for the starting job.
Departed: Keenan Davis*, Steven Staggs
Returning: Kevonte Martin-Manley (Jr.)*, Jordan Cotton (Sr.)$, Don Shumpert (Sr.), Jacob Hillyer (So.), Tevaun Smith (So.), Greg Mabin (RFr.), Cameron Wilson (RFr.), Maurice Fleming (RFr.)
Iowa has a good amount of returning experience at receiver. The problem was the receivers were lackluster in 2012 and played a large part in the Hawks' offensive woes.
Martin-Manley led the team with 52 catches and two touchdowns (yes, two touchdowns was the team lead) and tied for the most yards receiving with 571. He is too slow to be an ideal receiver for offensive coordinator Greg Davis, but as HawkCentral pointed out, he "accepts the possession wide receiver label."
Nonetheless, Iowa will need a burner or two if the Davis offense is to work.
As of now, the most likely candidate is Cotton, who caught 12 for 172 yards and was on the receiving end of the Iowa offensive highlight of the year (there was one).
Smith is also in the mix. He received a good deal of playing time at the end of the season, finishing with three catches for 31 yards. According to Rivals, he runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, which fits Davis' need for speedy receivers on the outside, as Scott Dochterman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported last summer.
Don Shumpert began 2012 as the slot receiver, but quickly fell out of favor after a bevy of drops. He will have one final year to make a splash.
Finally, Hillyer and JUCO commit Damond Powell fill out the pool of players with the best shots of having the biggest impact next year.
Departed: Tom Donatell*, Collin Sleeper$, Jack Swanson
Returning: Tanner Miller (Sr.)*, Nico Law (Jr.)*, John Lowdermilk (Jr.)$, Ruben Lile (RFr.)
Over final few games of the 2012 season, five different Iowa safeties rotated into and out of the game. The revolving door was because none of them played well.
The poor play of the safeties was no more evident than in the Michigan game, during which they got juked out of their cleats (see the 23-second mark of the attached video) and let receivers get behind them on multiple occasions (0:42 and 2:32).
Donatell started the first eight games, but Law became the starter for the final four, thereby marking the second year in a row in which Ferentz has inexplicably missed what was evident to every Hawkeye fan watching—the best strong safety was not on the field to start the season. In 2011, it was Collin Sleeper over Jordan Bernstine, and in 2012, it was Donatell over Law.
In 2013, Law will have the inside track to take over.
Meanwhile, Miller is a three-year starter, but one wouldn't know it based on his play in 2012. Hopefully, he can put it together for a big senior season.
Overall, Iowa has recruited poorly for the safety position over the last few years. That came home to roost in 2012. Even though Iowa has had great success with walk-on safeties—Sean Considine and Derek Pagel, specifically—in the 14th year of the program, there is no reason that most of the safeties on the roster were walk-ons.
Departed: James Vandenberg*, John Wienke
Returning: Jake Rudock (So.), Cody Sokol (Jr.), C.J. Beathard (RFr.)
With the graduation of JVB and Wienke, there is not a quarterback on Iowa's roster that has taken a snap at the FBS level.
Given that Vandenberg finished the season with a 107.72 efficiency rating—amongst the bottom 10 in the country—one is left to wonder if the backup quarterback—Rudock—was so bad that Ferentz still felt that JVB, per Hawkeyenation, gave Iowa its "best chance to win." After all, if statistics are any indication, Rudock couldn't have done much worse.
Based on empirical knowledge of Ferentz, it probably had less to do with Rudock and more to do with Ferentz's stubbornness, especially where it concerns the quarterback.
Nevertheless, Iowa fans know very little about their signal-caller heading into next year.
Rudock, as previously mentioned, spent the entire year as the backup, but he never took a snap. He came to Iowa as a 3-star prospect (per Rivals) from one of the more competitive high school football conferences in the country.
Sokol was a JUCO transfer in 2012. He may have been JVB's true backup, due to which Ferentz opted not to play him in order to redshirt him. As Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported, the Des Moines native transferred from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College where he broke multiple passing records.
Finally, Beathard originally committed to Ole Miss, but, as Morehouse reported, switched when the Rebs fired their coach.
This one is wide open and could be wide open past 2013 opening day.
Departed: Joe Gaglione*, Steve Bigach*
Returning: Dominic Alvis (Sr.)*, Riley McMinn (So.), Melvin "Bud" Spears (So.), Drew Ott (So.), Mike Hardy (Jr.), a number of experienced defensive tackles that could transition to strong-side end.
Even though Iowa returns one of its starters, both the weak-side and strong-side ends are priority No. 1 for the Hawkeyes.
Having observed Kirk Ferentz's teams for 14 years, it is almost at a point where I'm beyond hoping Ferentz will adjust to his personnel. There has to be acceptance that he will run the defense he will run and sometimes—in fact more often than not—unlike the offense, it works out.
However, if it is to work out, it needs quick, athletic defensive ends, something that was in short supply last year and doesn't look promising heading into next season.
Alvis will return for his senior year. He is smart and disciplined, but hasn't demonstrated an ability to both contain and rush the passer at the same time. Between 2011-2012, he started 21 games and only had 4.5 sacks to go with 8.5 tackles for loss. For comparison's sake, Adrian Clayborn almost had the same numbers in 2010 (13 starts), and the former Hawkeye/current Tampa Bay Buccaneer didn't have a strong 2010.
Alvis may explode his senior year, but it is unlikely.
That leaves the strong-side spot and whatever end rotation there is up to a bunch of inexperienced sophomores about whom there is little to say.
In the end, given Ferentz's penchant for putting his best four up front, the Hawks may move one of their defensive tackles to the outside. Sophomore Darian Cooper seems the most likely, as he started (per Phil Steele) the final game of the year at strong-side end and was one of the only linemen that regularly displayed an ability to pressure the quarterback.
The 2013 defense will be better than the 2012 version, but just how much better will depend in large part on the ends.