Iowa Football: Breaking Down the Hawkeyes' Top 8 Spring Position Battles
As the Iowa Hawkeyes and head coach Kirk Ferentz head into the third week of spring practices, a number of key position battles have emerged.
The following will look at those battles and the importance and competitiveness thereof. The criteria for ranking these competitions concerns the talent of the players involved and Iowa's immediate need for them to step up.
The first depth chart, which will often be referenced, is available courtesy of QCTimes.com.
Finally, all Ferentz quotes, unless otherwise noted, are via his most recent press conference as transcribed by HawkeyeSports.com.
8. Punt Returner
Iowa doesn't have anybody on its roster with college punt return experience. Nonetheless, as Troy Hyde of the Examiner.com noted, Kirk Ferentz historically favors "safe" punt returners who don't drop the ball over explosive but risky return men.
Therefore, what might be a more competitive position battle on many other teams will be more of a battle of who is least prone to drop the ball.
The returner for the past two years was cornerback Micah Hyde, but if one looks at historical Ferentz (via toggling this Yahoo! Sports link), his punt returner is almost always a wide receiver.
In effect, the job will be open to all receivers, defensive backs and running backs, but a receiver—most notably senior kick returner Jordan Cotton—is the favorite to win out.
Iowa finds itself with something it has rarely seen over the past five years: multiple talented and experienced tailbacks fighting for carries.
Fullback-turned-tailback Mark Weisman and tailback-turned-receiver-turned-tailback Damon Bullock began spring at the top of the depth chart.
Bullock was the starter in 2012, but a concussion opened the door for Weisman, who was a sensation.
During the only four games for which he was healthy, the Air Force transfer and walk-on rushed for 623 yards, 6.35 yards per carry (YPC) and eight touchdowns. That is one touchdown for every 11.6 carries.
Unfortunately, he tweaked his ankle against Michigan State and wasn't 100 percent for the rest of the season. Neither were the Hawkeyes, as they went on to lose six straight.
Bullock eventually came back, but wasn't as effective as Weisman, albeit against the tougher part of the schedule. The junior-to-be finished the year with 513 yards for 3.80 YPC and three touchdowns.
The other key competitor for carries is sophomore Jordan Canzeri. Canzeri went into last spring as the top tailback, but a torn ACL ended his season prematurely. However, he was cleared to play only six months after his injury (though he never did play)—an injury that usually takes nine months to a year to heal.
It will be tough to keep a player with that type of work ethic and determination off the field.
In effect, the Hawkeyes are in the fortunate position of having a lot of choices. The question is who gets the bulk of the carries; will Ferentz opt to spread the playing time out or will he waste one of his options at fullback?
As with running back, Iowa has no shortage of talent at cornerback. In effect, it will be a heated battle for the second starting spot opposite returning starter B.J. Lowery.
Third-year sophomore Jordan Lomax opened the spring at the top of the depth chart. He burned his redshirt as a freshman, but a pre-camp summer injury forced him to sit out 2012.
This gave true freshmen Sean Draper and Kevin Buford a chance. Draper especially made the most of it, becoming the team's fourth cornerback and seeing a good deal of time in nickel and dime formations.
Draper began this spring as the No. 2 cornerback behind Lomax. Buford wasn't on the depth chart, but is sure to push for playing time.
Finally, redshirt freshman Maurice Fleming, who began his Iowa career as a receiver, is Lowery's backup and will be in the mix for the other starting job.
5. Backup Tight End or Y-Back
The addition of a "Y"-back to the offensive depth chart created an initial buzz, though that buzz was summarily squashed by a photo of Iowa's first-team offense in the standard (and tired) I-formation.
It remains to be seen whether Ferentz and the Hawkeyes will embrace change, but either way, Iowa is no stranger to using two tight ends. Therefore, the second tight end will be a key position for the offense whether the Hawks opt to use a two-tight end base formation or a base I-formation.
The first candidate is junior Ray Hamilton, who began spring as the No. 2 standard tight end behind starter C.J. Fiedorowicz. He also began 2012 as the No. 2 tight end but saw his playing time decrease as the season wore on.
Sophomores Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble filled the void. Krieger-Coble finished especially strong, catching four passes for 30 yards and one touchdown in the final two games.
Duzey and Krieger-Coble were listed as co-starting "Y"-backs on the opening depth chart.
This is one of the Hawkeyes' deepest and most talented position groups. Hopefully, Ferentz uses them to the offense's advantage.
The left tackle may be the glory boy of the offensive line, but the center is the line's "quarterback." He calls the blocking assignments and, aside from the quarterback, is the only player who touches the ball every play.
James Ferentz held down the assignment admirably for the past three years, but with his graduation, the job is open.
Austin Blythe began spring at the top of the depth chart and at the top of the scales. Last season, during which he started nine games at right guard, he weighed in at 275 pounds, but he began this spring with a listed weight of 300 pounds.
If Blythe develops, he could be the first full-time Iowa center to get drafted since Bruce Nelson in 2002.
If he doesn't develop as a center, he will likely move back to and start at guard.
The current co-No. 2 centers are junior walk-on Tommy Gaul and sophomore JUCO transfer Eric Simmons. Simmons redshirted last year, and Gaul has seen minimal playing time.
However, Blythe's most serious competition might come from senior Conor Boffeli, who is listed as the starting right guard but spent 2011 and 2012 as the backup center.
3. All Receivers
According to new wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy (via Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette), the wide receivers position group is, "probably a little embarrassed about last year."
Those are harsh words, but it gives a realistic idea of how hapless the entire position group was.
Drops are not an official stat in college football, but they were a huge problem in 2012. According to Morehouse, Hawkeyes pass catchers had eight drops against Iowa State alone. The receivers only logged two catches against Michigan. Poorly run routes, an inability to get off the line, a general slowness—it was all on grand display last year.
This year, all but one receiver who caught a pass in 2012 returns. Those returning receivers need to have a strong spring, because they will be pushed by a bevy of true freshman wide receivers, as Ryan Suchomel of HawkCentral.com reported.
Right now, returning starter Kevonte Martin-Manley is a favorite to come out on top as is returning slot receiver Jordan Cotton. Nevertheless, senior Don Shumpert, sophomores Jacob Hillyer and Tevaun Smith and redshirt freshman Cameron Wilson will all push for playing time.
In the end, it is wide open, as the Hawkeyes and second-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis need the receivers to step up.
2. Strong-Side Defensive End and Overall Pass-Rushing Specialists
Last season, Iowa ranked 115th in the country with 12 sacks. The lack of a pass rush played no small part in the Hawks allowing their opponents to convert 43.43 percent of their third downs—47.50 percent in conference play.
That is the bad news. The worse news is that 5.5 of those sacks, or just over 42 percent of them, have graduated.
The Hawks need somebody who can consistently pressure the quarterback, especially from the end position. The most likely candidates are sophomores: Drew Ott, Riley McMinn and Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara were all listed on the depth chart, along with junior Mike Hardy.
Also, a number of the defensive tackles could move to the outside. The most notable of the bunch is Darian Cooper, who Kirk Ferentz described as having "a real knack" for pressuring the quarterback.
The success of the 2013 Iowa defense depends on the Hawks finding at least one consistent pass-rusher out of this group.
The quarterback spot is a three-man race between sophomore Jake Rudock, redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard and junior Cody Sokol.
Neither has taken a single snap of FBS football.
According to former Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg (via QCTimes.com) at the end of the 2012 season, Rudock "has kind of been groomed for the spot," Sokol is "the oldest and the most mature" and Beathard "has no idea what he’s doing yet, but you can see his natural talent."
Moreover, according to Kirk Ferentz, "I don't think anybody has a clear advantage or edge" and "We're probably going to alternate every couple of plays with all three guys."
While one of the quarterbacks may fall out of the running, look for the starting spot to remain unsettled beyond spring and possibly beyond summer camp.