The Iowa Hawkeyes didn't fare so well in 2012, but they were young.
This year, they return eight on both sides of the ball plus both specialists and a number of experienced non-starters. In effect, the 2013 Hawks will be more experienced, and should be more talented than in 2012.
The following will look at who that talent is and where it will wind up on the depth chart on opening day, when the Hawks take on the MAC champion Northern Illinois Huskies.
The starters in question are listed first, with the backups listed following the backslash (/).
Players with an asterisk (*) next to their name are returning starters. A "returning starter," for my purposes, started at least four games in 2012.
The player's year is listed in parentheses next to his name. The year reflects what said player will be during the 2013 football season.
This is an opening-day depth chart projection. Consequently, when players are listed with an "OR" between their names, the position battle will be ongoing. As Hawkeye fans know, this is not uncommon with head coach Kirk Ferentz.
No true freshmen who have yet to sign a letter of intent were considered.
Finally, I have no inside knowledge—or at least no more than anybody else that keeps his ear to the ground—of anything that goes on within the walls of Fort Kinnick. These prognostications are based on previous play, potential based on others' opinions as well as empirical evidence based on what I've seen and how I feel an individual's talents fit within what the Hawkeyes are trying to do.
Place-kicker: Mike Meyer (Sr.)*/ Marshall Koehn (So.)
Kickoffs: Mike Meyer (Sr.)*/ Marshall Koehn (So.)
Punter: Connor Kornbrath (So.)*/ OPEN
Long Snapper: Casey Kreiter (Sr.)*/ Ryan Kolka (So.)
Others in the Mix: Punter Jonny Mullings (Jr.)
Meyer began 2011 by hitting 12 of his first 14 field-goal attempts. He then went on a cold streak and finished the year 2-for-6. In 2012, he hit 14 of his first 15 before hitting a wall and going 3-for-6.
It's hard to say if a pattern has emerged, but Meyer will be Iowa's best kicker since Nate Kaeding if he learns to finish the year as well as he begins it.
Kornbrath had a rough freshman year coming in second-to-last in Big Ten punting average. Iowa fans like to joke that "punting is winning" according to Ferentz, but the punter does play a key role in Ferentz's gameplan. With that in mind, Kornbrath needs to settle down in his sophomore year.
Kreiter has been a solid long snapper for two years and will continue to be one in 2013.
Kick Returner: Jordan Cotton (Sr.)*/ Damon Bullock (Jr.)
Punt Returner: Jordan Cotton (Sr.)/ Kevonte Martin-Manley (Jr.)
Others in the Mix: All receivers and any cornerbacks or running backs that have proven they can be trusted not to fumble the ball
Cotton was one of the few success stories for the Hawks in 2012. He not only grew as a receiver, but he became one of the Big Ten's most dangerous kickoff returners, leading the conference by a wide margin.
Look for him to take on expanded duties in 2013 as both the kick and punt returner.
Bullock also has experience—he returned two kickoffs in 2011—and the coaches will hopefully find ways to get him on the field.
Martin-Manley hasn't returned any collegiate punts, but neither has anybody else on the Hawkeye roster. Furthermore, Ferentz prefers receivers handle punt-return duties. Cornerback Micah Hyde was the punt returner over the last two years, but that was an anomaly.
Before Hyde the top punt returners were receiver Colin Sandeman (2009-2010), receiver Andy Brodell (2007-2008), receiver Dominique Douglas (2006), receiver Ed Hinkel (2004-2005), receiver Ramon Ochoa (2003), etc.*
It is well known to Hawkeye fans that Ferentz prefers reliability to explosiveness, and receivers are the most adept at making catches in traffic.
*toggle through Rivals' stats for a detailed listing of Iowa's punt returners dating back to 2003
Weak-side Defensive End: Dominic Alvis (Sr.)*/ Drew Ott (So.) OR Melvin Spears (So.)
Strong-side Defensive End: Darian Cooper (So.)/ Riley McMinn (So.)
Others in the Mix: Mike Hardy (Jr.), Dean Tsopanides (So.), Faith Ekakitie (R.Fr.), Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara (R.Fr.)
Poor defensive-end play has been a dominant theme for the past two years. In 2011, the ends had trouble containing multiple quarterbacks—an issue that was most prevalent in the Hawks' triple-overtime loss to Iowa State. In 2012, poor defensive-end play led to a moribund pass rush—Iowa tied for 115th in the country in sacks.
Next year looks to be minimally better.
Alvis, who began his career as an undersized defensive tackle, has manned the weak-side end for two seasons. He has improved, but with 21 starts and only 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss to his name, it is hard to believe he will turn into a high-impact player in his final year. Alvis will start and be staunch against the run, but Iowa will need to find a consistent pass rusher elsewhere.
Cooper spent most of 2012 at defensive tackle, but he started the final game (per Phil Steele) at strong-side end. Though he didn't record any sacks, at the end of the year he was the only defensive lineman who consistently got penetration. Look for the coaches to use him as they did former Hawkeye/current Minnesota Viking Christian Ballard, moving him inside and outside as necessary.
Beyond Alvis and Cooper, there are a number of sophomores who have done little on the football field.
McMinn played sparingly in 2012. With a current listed height and weight of 6'7", 245 pounds, the sophomore will need to gain a good deal of weight this offseason. Spears came to Iowa as a linebacker but quickly moved to defensive end. Lastly, due to injuries and the poor play of other defensive ends, Ott burned his redshirt in the eighth game of the season.
One of the sophomores will need to step up as a consistent pass rusher in order for the Iowa defense to find success.
One-technique Defensive Tackle: Carl Davis (Jr.)/ Jaleel Johnson (R.Fr.)
Three-technique Defensive Tackle: Louis Trinca-Pasat (Jr.)*/ Mike Hardy (Jr.)
Others in the Mix: Darian Cooper (So.), Faith Ekakitie (R.Fr.)
Trinca-Pasat floundered in his first two years on campus, but as Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported, he flourished during the 2011 bowl practices. He made his way into the starting lineup and was the Hawkeyes' top lineman through the early part of the season, though his statistics don't reflect that.
He disappeared down the stretch, as did most of the Hawkeyes. Next season, with his newfound experience, he needs to bring consistency and durability to his game.
Davis came to Iowa as a 6'5", 300-pound 3-star (via Rivals) lineman. The Hawkeyes rarely get "big" defensive tackles, so a lot of responsibility was put on Davis' shoulders. Thus far, he has been inconsistent. In 2013, he needs to play like the 310 pounder that he is.
At this point, the Hawks don't have overwhelming depth at defensive tackle, but the versatility of their linemen alleviate potential issues. Moreover, as all of the linemen are juniors or younger, there is plenty of room for growth from this bunch.
Hit this link for an explanation of one- and three-technique defensive tackles.
Weak-side Linebacker: Anthony Hitchens (Sr.)*/ Cole Fisher (So.)
Middle Linebacker: James Morris (Sr.)*/ Quinton Alston (Jr.)
Strong-side Linebacker: Christian Kirksey (Sr.)*/ Dakota Getz (Sr.)
Others in the Mix: Travis Perry (So.), Jim Poggi (Jr.), Marcus Collins (Jr.), Laron Taylor (R.Fr.)
2013 will be a big year for Iowa's linebackers. In their final year on campus, they all need strong seasons to finish up their college careers with a bang and get onto NFL draft boards.
This is especially true of Morris, who has started since midway through his true freshman year. He was pressed into action due to a bevy of linebacker injuries, but he performed as well as one could expect of a first-year collegiate athlete.
A great deal was expected out of Morris in 2011, but he didn't make the strides Hawkeye fans hoped for. He followed 2011 up with a stagnant-at-best 2012.
Weak-side linebacker Hitchens led the Big Ten in tackles per game with 11.27. Unfortunately, too many of those tackles were of the blindly-dive-at-the-ball-carrier's-feet variety. In effect, as Steve Batterson of the Quad City Times reported, the coaches benched Hitchens against Purdue.
The most consistent linebacker was Kirksey, who manned the strong side. Kirksey is as solid in coverage as a safety. He notched two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. However, despite recording 95 tackles, he still has trouble getting off blocks and bringing the ball-carrier down.
All three return, as does every backup. Furthermore, Getz is coming off an injury suffered early in the season.
The Hawkeye defense will be exponentially better than it was in 2012 if Morris, Hitchens and Kirksey can fulfill the promise they have sporadically shown throughout their careers.
Cornerback No. 1: B.J. Lowery (Jr.)*/ Kevin Buford (So.)
Cornerback No. 2: Jordan Lomax (So.) OR Sean Draper (So.)/ Torrey Campbell (So.)
Others in the Mix: Anthony Gair (R.Fr.)
It is unfortunate that in Iowa's bend-don't-break scheme, the success of the defense hinges less on the cornerbacks than any other position.
It is unfortunate because the Hawks have done a good job bringing talented cornerbacks into Iowa City. That has shown up in the NFL draft—all of Iowa's starting cornerbacks going back to 2008 have been drafted—and it will show up on the field in 2013.
Lowery started all but three games last year. He missed two of them due to injury, and he was still less than 100 percent in the third game. He has as much natural ability as departed all-Big Ten corner Micah Hyde, and will look to continue the tradition of NFL draft success.
The second spot will be a battle between Lomax, Draper and Buford.
Lomax would have been the heir apparent to Hyde's spot if not for an injury that forced him to redshirt last year.
Lomax's loss opened up the door for Buford and Draper to earn playing time as true freshmen. By the end of the season, Buford was listed as Hyde's backup and played in dime packages.
Campbell will also have a shot at a starting job. The coaches might consider moving him to receiver if he doesn't impress on the defensive side of the ball.
Free Safety: Tanner Miller (Sr.)*/ John Lowdermilk (Jr.)
Strong Safety: Nico Law (Jr.)*/ Ruben Lile (R.Fr.)
Others in the Mix: None
Iowa has done as poor a job of recruiting safeties as it has done a strong job in recruiting cornerbacks. That came home to roost in 2012, as half of the Iowa safeties were walk ons. Though the Hawkeyes have done well at developing walk-on safeties—Sean Considine and Derek Pagel most notably—there is no excuse for that in year 14 of the Ferentz era.
Unfortunately, next year there looks to be minimal improvement, at least from a depth standpoint.
Miller became a starter in his second year on campus, as did Brett Greenwood before him. Greenwood struggled during his first two years on the field, but flourished in his final two campaigns, recording eight interceptions as a junior and senior.
Hopes were that Miller would do the same, but his junior season seemed to be a step back from his sophomore campaign as was especially evident in the Michigan game. As Hawkeyenation noted, due to his poor play, Miller was benched at times for Lowdermilk, who didn't play much better.
Miller will begin the year as the starting free safety. Hopefully, he can play better and with more consistency.
Law started the final four games, replacing walk-ons Tom Donatell and Collin Sleeper. As a former Rivals 3-star recruit, he is the Hawks' most athletic safety, and he demonstrated his abilities in run support. On the other hand, he had issues in coverage.
As recently detailed, there will be opportunities for true-freshman safeties to play right away.
Left Tackle: Brandon Scherff (Jr.)*/ Andrew Donnal (Jr.)
Right Tackle Brett Van Sloten (Sr.)*/ Nolan MacMillan (Sr.)
Others in the Mix: Ryan Ward (R.Fr.)
Scherff will start at left tackle after coming off a leg injury that prematurely ended his season. Hopefully, he can come back strong, as he had been establishing himself as one of the premiere linemen in the Big Ten.
Van Sloten will be the starting right tackle. The senior is nowhere near as dominant as Scherff, but he is steady. A notable final year will push him into the later rounds of the draft.
Donnal, who will vie for a starting guard spot, will shift over if either of the tackles gets hurt.
MacMillan is fourth in the pecking order.
It will be tough sledding if the Hawks get past the top-two backups.
Left Guard: Nolan MacMillan (Sr.) OR Andrew Donnal (Jr.)/ Jordan Walsh (So.)
Right Guard: Austin Blythe (So.)*/ Drew Clark (Sr.)
Others in the Mix: Conor Boffeli (Sr.)*, Eric Simmons (So.), Mitch Keppy (R.Fr.), Reid Sealby (R.Fr.)
The top-four guards are all experienced, and the competition for the two starting spots will be stiff.
MacMillan looked to be the next in the line of great Iowa linemen before injuries derailed his career in 2010 and 2011. He grabbed two starts (per Phil Steele) in 2012, but he looked rusty and was promptly pulled. Two straight years of health will put him back in game shape and give him the opportunity to finish his career off well.
At 6'7", Donnal is more reminiscent of a tackle, but he was coming on as a guard until a leg injury derailed his season. He will be the next man in at guard or tackle if he doesn't win a spot in the starting lineup.
Blythe started nine games in 2012, beginning the season as the right guard. However, health and shaky play pushed him down to the second string. After Scherff and Donnal went out, Blythe came back and improved minimally as the year progressed. A former Rivals 4-star recruit, he has a high ceiling and will be expected to turn his experience into stronger, more consistent play.
Walsh gained valuable minutes in 2012 but looked shaky. Unless he has made considerable progress over the offseason, look for him to provide depth until 2014.
Clark has been on the depth chart for the past two seasons. He seems like the type of player who always provides depth, but will never see any game action.
Center: Conor Boffeli (Sr.)*/ Austin Blythe (So.)* OR Eric Simmons (So.)
Others in the Mix: None
Boffeli has backed up James Ferentz for two years. In 2012, he started the final three games at left guard.
Now that Ferentz has graduated, he will have the best shot of grabbing the starting position.
As previously mentioned, Blythe will be a front-runner for a starting-guard spot, but as Scott Dochterman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported, "his future might be at center." If he doesn't win the spot, he could be No. 2 with a move to the middle likely in 2014.
Finally, Simmons is a JUCO recruit who redshirted last year.
Tight End No. 1: C.J. Fiedorowicz (Sr.)*
Tight End No. 2: Henry Krieger Coble (So.) OR Ray Hamilton (Jr.)
Others in the Mix: Jake Duzey (So.), George Kittle (R.Fr.)
This will be Fiedorowicz's last year to live up to the potential that had Rivals rank him 2010's No. 5 tight end in the country.
In 2012, he had 45 receptions for 433 yards and one touchdown. Though the 45 receptions were the most for an Iowa tight end since Scott Chandler in 2006, his 9.66 yards per catch (YPC) is the lowest YPC of a starting tight end in the Ferentz era. Furthermore, he seemed absent through most of the season until the final two games, at which point he put up 14 receptions for 155 yards.
Meanwhile, the No. 2—virtually a starter in Iowa's offense, and, in fact, Iowa did start a second tight end in three of its final four games—in the last two games was Krieger Coble. He recorded four receptions for 30 yards, including a touchdown grab.
Hamilton began the season as the No. 2, but after an off-week arrest and an undisciplined special-teams penalty, he went into Kirk Ferentz's doghouse. He recorded two catches on the season—both in the first half of the year. Like Fiedorowicz, Hamilton is a Rivals 4-star recruit that has yet to live up to his potential.
Finally, Duzey saw some action in 2012 catching three passes for 16 yards. He came to Iowa as a big receiver, and is small for a traditional tight end. In effect, he would make an ideal H-back if the Iowa coaches decide to get creative.
If the Iowa offensive brain trust decides not to wait until the final two games to use its tight ends, the No. 2 and even No. 3 spot could be a heated position battle. This is one of the deepest and most talented position groups on the team, and the coaches would be well advised to look west on how to utilize that talent.
Wide Receiver No. 1: Kevonte Martin-Manley (Jr.)*/ Tevaun Smith (So.)
Wide Receiver No. 2: Jordan Cotton (Sr.)/ Damond Powell (Jr.)
Wide Receiver No. 3: Damond Powell (Jr.)/ Tevaun Smith (So.)
Others in the Mix: Don Shumpert (Sr.), Jacob Hillyer (So.), Greg Mabin (R.Fr.), Cameron Wilson (R.Fr.)
As Scott Dochterman noted, offensive coordinator Greg Davis was critical of his receivers' speed preceding the season, and unfortunately, the receivers, fast or not, didn't have a great year. On the other hand, the quarterbacking, play-calling and overall coaching left a great deal to be desired, so it's difficult to say how much of the blame was on the receivers.
Heading into 2013, the Hawkeyes are still shorthanded in the wide-receiver department. That includes the receivers coach, which is still officially vacant in the wake of Erik Campbell's departure. Campbell's exit might be a good or a bad thing depending upon whom you ask.
Cotton is more of a speedster; thus, he is more in line with what Davis wants out of his receivers. As previously mentioned, Cotton was one of the few Hawkeye success stories in 2012. Aside from his special-teams exploits, he finished the year with 12 receptions for 172 yards and one touchdown. He will be the second starter.
After a brief moment of uncertainty, JUCO-commit Powell has, according to Randy Peterson of Hawkcentral, said, "he's sticking with the Hawks." As a perfect fit for Davis' offense, Powell will see immediate playing time and could push the top two.
It is wide open after K-Mart, Cotton and Powell.
Smith has the inside track for the fourth spot, having finished 2012 the strongest. Shumpert has one more year to make a splash, and Hillyer is talented, but he might be a bad fit for Davis' offense.
Fullback: Brad Rogers (Sr.)*/ Nate Meier (R.Fr.)
Others in the Mix: None
He missed the final four games of 2012, which was a large part of the reason Iowa started a second tight end or third receiver in lieu of its typical starting fullback. There wasn't anybody to take Rogers' place.
If he is healthy, he will be the starting fullback in 2013.
With no other quality fullbacks on the roster, look for Iowa to make some position changes.
Meier has plenty of experience as a running back, having gained, according to Rivals, 2,494 yards as a high school senior. Moreover, according to nationalfootballpost.com, Meier worked out at running back when he first arrived on campus.
He eventually moved to linebacker, where he practiced throughout 2012, though his Iowa page lists him as "LB/RB". Either way, he won't see the depth chart for at least another year if he remains on defense. In effect, if he wants to earn immediate playing time, a move to fullback is his best option.
As previously noted, in Davis' offense, Iowa would be best off scrapping the traditional fullback role and moving toward an H-back. As a former high school tailback, Meier, along with the aforementioned Duzey, could serve well in that capacity.
Tailback: Mark Weisman (Jr.)*/ Jordan Canzeri (So.) OR Damon Bullock (Jr.)*
Others in the Mix: Barkley Hill (R.Fr.), Andre Dawson (Jr.)
Weisman was the feel-good story of the year for Iowa—a walk-on transfer fullback who ascended the depth chart and became the starting tailback. For a few weeks, he was the Big Ten's leading rusher (yards-per-carry). Then he twisted his knee on the tying score against Michigan State and wasn't the same for the rest of the year.
He still finished the season with respectable numbers: 815 yards, eight touchdowns, 5.13 YPC, 15 receptions and one touchdown grab.
He will be Iowa's top back next year.
Canzeri would have been the top running back last year, but a torn ACL suffered near the end of spring practice put him out of commission. The work ethic that allowed him to get back onto the depth chart only six months after his injury will make it hard to keep him on the bench in 2013.
Bullock began 2012 as the Hawks' top guy, but a concussion kept him out for a few weeks. As Marc Morehouse detailed, he began his career as a receiver, but the transfer and/or injury of every Hawkeye back put him and kept him in the backfield.
He has done a solid job—513 yards, 3.80 YPC, three touchdowns, 18 receptions in 2012—but if Iowa manages to hold onto more than two running backs, he could still move back to receiver where the Hawks are shorthanded.
In fact, if Ferentz and Davis could get creative with the offense, they could use Bullock as a utility running back, slot receiver and return man.I've said it before, but though Iowa fans joke about AIRBHG, many of the running back issues are self-created. Nobody wants to play for a team that can't find creative ways to use running backs or get multiple running backs onto the field.
Quarterback: Cody Sokol (Jr.)/ Jake Rudock (So.) OR C.J. Beathard (R.Fr.)
Others in the Mix: None
Rudock spent his entire freshman season as the backup quarterback, yet he never took a snap. This was despite the Penn State and Michigan games being out of reach by halftime, and the Hawks having nothing to play for but pride against Nebraska.
Perhaps this was Ferentz being stubborn, but it's difficult to believe there isn't a greater plan going on behind the scenes.
Sokol came to Iowa as a JUCO transfer from Scotsdale Community College. As Morehouse reported, Sokol broke a number of passing records as a Fighting Artichoke.
It would have been pointless to waste Sokol's redshirt on meaningless fourth-quarter snaps. In effect, it is possible that Sokol was the true No. 2, but he wasn't listed as such and didn't play in order to protect his redshirt.
Finally, if Beathard had been the true front-runner to succeed James Vandenberg, as Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register suggested, he likely wouldn't have redshirted this year. On the other hand, Jon Miller of Hawkeyenation, who has more inside sources than I do (i.e. more than none), feels Beathard will be the top guy in 2013.
In short, nothing is certain when it comes to the Hawkeye quarterback situation. On the other hand, at this point, Rudock looks unlikely to be No.1.