Iowa Hawkeyes football is slated to begin its spring practice on March 27, and as with any spring practice, this will lead to a number of opportunities, especially for underclassmen.
These opportunities will be complicated by what ESPN's Adam Rittenberg referred to as the Iowa staff's "extreme makeover."
After a year of transition, still fairly new offensive coordinator Greg Davis should have his offense fully installed this spring. Moreover, three position groups will get their first impressions of new position coaches.
Furthermore, defensive coordinator (DC) Phil Parker will have more talent to play with, as his defense last year—the first of his career as a DC—was woefully undersized and inexperienced, especially up front, as Jim Nelson of the WCF Courier reported last August.
More than anything else, head coach Kirk Ferentz will depend on these young players to seize their opportunities in order to turn around a program that has been on a three-year slide.
As is always the case, the players with the most to gain not only have a great deal to offer, but also play a position that has the most questions.
Finally, those who seize the opportunity early will be able to build on their early successes, as spring practice is the beginning of a snowball effect in college football.
Those who fare well in the spring begin the summer camp at the top of the depth chart. That means they receive more quality and quantity reps than those who didn't fare as well. This gives them the most opportunity to improve, which, in turn, keeps them at the top of the depth chart.
Ray Hamilton came to Iowa as a 4-star tight end. According to 247Sports, he had 20 offers including Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame and Florida State.
He burned his redshirt and looked like he would press for second-team duties in 2012.
He began the year as a key special teamer and as a role player in heavy packages, receiving a fair amount of playing time in the first half of the season. Hamilton also picked up two receptions, one against Minnesota and the other against Michigan State.
The sophomore didn't see the offensive side of the field again, only playing on special teams. He also got passed on the depth chart by two redshirt freshmen—Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble—both of whom combined for seven catches, five of them in the final five games.
In 2013, C.J. Fiedorowicz will be the starting tight end, but this will be Hamilton's last chance to earn substantial playing time.
It is unlikely he will be a major player in the offense this season or in 2014, his senior year, if Duzey and Krieger-Coble stay ahead of him in the pecking order.
Smith came to the Hawks as a lightly recruited receiver out of Connecticut.
He burned his redshirt immediately, but the majority of his initial playing time came on special teams. However, Smith climbed the depth chart when the Iowa offense began to crumble and it became apparent that the established receivers on the roster weren't cut out for the new offense.
By the end of the year, according to Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, he was listed as the second-team split end behind senior Keenan Davis. As Morehouse notes regarding Hamilton, being listed on the depth chart does not equate to playing time in the Hawkeyes world, but Smith did record three catches and received a number of targets.
As Ryan Suchomel of HawkCentral.com reported, Iowa brought in a slew of receivers in the 2013 recruiting class. As HawkeyeInsider's Rob Howe noted in the article,
They are trying to add a different kind of receiver...From what you saw with (offensive coordinator) Greg Davis last year, they are looking for guys that can catch short passes and make plays with the ball in their hands. … Yards after catch.
In effect, the pressure will be on Smith.
He will likely begin the spring as Iowa's third receiver behind returning starter Kevonte Martin-Manley and senior Jordan Cotton.
It will be a great opportunity for him to get a head start on the five incoming freshman receivers, all of whom were specifically recruited to play in Greg Davis' offense.
Lomax came to Iowa as an athlete out of Maryland.
He played during his true freshman year and, as Marc Morehouse of TheGazette.com noted, "had a shot at being Iowa’s third cornerback" in his sophomore year. Nevertheless, a torn labrum ended his season before it began, and he took a redshirt.
That opened the door for true freshmen Kevin Buford and Sean Draper, who took over the fourth and fifth cornerback spots, with Draper especially receiving playing time in dime coverages.
Lomax will be back for spring practices and will compete with Draper and Buford, among others, for the starting spot vacated by graduate and soon-to-be NFLer Micah Hyde.
Drew Ott is so unknown he doesn't have any pictures or videos. Consequently, here is a picture of Dominic Alvis taking an uncalled facemask penalty.
The original plan was to redshirt Ott, who came to Iowa from the wilds of Nebraska eight-man high school football. Nonetheless, injuries and the poor play of the other ends caused the coaches to burn his redshirt eight games into the season.
As noted last week and multiple times before that, the Hawks are light on defensive ends heading into 2013. This follows a season in which Iowa recorded a Big Ten-worst 13 sacks.
In effect, the coaches will look for help from any player who can pressure the quarterback and get penetration on the outside.
Ott's primary competition will come from senior and returning starter Dominic Alvis—who has been minimally effective throughout his career—as well as fellow sophomores Riley McMinn and Melvin "Bud" Spears.
Though he saw his first collegiate playing time at the end of October and he has yet to be involved in a win, Ott will have a good chance to start for the Hawks in 2013.
In truth, Ott's stiffest competition for the strong-side defensive end spot is probably Cooper, who spent most of last year at defensive tackle.
Cooper was a high school teammate of Jordan Lomax and a 4-star prospect with a host of offers including Michigan, Michigan State, Southern Cal and Clemson.
He arrived late to his first camp due to what Kirk Ferentz called "complications" and wound up redshirting his first year.
Last season, he saw a good amount of meaningful playing time as a reserve defensive tackle, though his only start on the season was as the strong-side end in the final game of the year.
He finished the year with 34 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, but unlike much of the rest of the defense and the line in particular, he didn't wane as the season progressed.
Heading into 2013, the line will have two open spots—one inside and one outside—and, as previously mentioned, the coaches will be desperate for a playmaker to emerge, especially off the end.
Cooper will compete for both the inside and outside spots. Moreover, Cooper will receive a ton of reps during practices with incumbent defensive tackle, Louis Trinca Pasat out for the spring as he recovers from surgery.
Look for Cooper to make the most of it, as he has arguably the highest ceiling of any of Iowa's current defensive linemen.
According to Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa was the only FBS team that gave every single 2012 snap to one quarterback.
That means that none of the players who will be competing for a starting spot have taken a single FBS snap in their careers.
In short, the quarterback race is as wide open as it has ever been, and this spring, all three of the prospects will have a realistic shot to move to the top of the depth chart.
The first of those prospects is third-year sophomore Jake Rudock, who spent all of 2012 as the backup, but despite getting blown out against Penn State and Michigan, never saw playing time.
After that, JUCO transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard will get a shot.
Rudock seems to be the favorite, but it's hard to believe he had any advantage over the other two given Ferentz's reticence to put him in even when the game was out of hand.
In effect, look for a tight battle that could go right up to the first game of the season. However, the signal-caller who ends spring in the No. 1 position will have a decided advantage over the others.