Heading into 2008, the Iowa defense was one of the many units on a young Hawkeye team with many questions and few answers. A strong run defense was expected, but the secondary had questions. After losing star linebackers Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal and star defensive backs Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey, the secondary looked like a weak spot for the Hawkeyes heading into 2008.
But the year of surprises held true of its title for the secondary, as linebacker Pat Angerer and cornerback Amari Spievey, among others, shocked the Big Ten by becoming one of the best units in the conference.
The Hawkeyes won't sneak up on anyone in 2009. Iowa has arguably one of the best linebacking corps in the country. They return all three starters and are led by All-Big Ten candidate, Pat Angerer. Most of the secondary, ranked by ESPN's Adam Rittenberg as the best in the Big Ten, returns in 2009. Cornerback Amari Spievey, who Rittenberg calls the best in the Big Ten, will lead a group that also returns sophomore safety Tyler Sash, who led the Big Ten in interceptions, and much improved junior safety Brett Greenwood.
The defensive line is a bit questionable, with the loss of unanimous All-Big Ten selection Mitch King and fellow four-year starter Matt Kroul, but the Hawkeyes should still be fairly strong. Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard are returning starters at defensive end, and anchor a line that will be above average in the Big Ten.
Defense will keep the Hawkeyes in every game next season, but it's the offensive line that will ultimately decide the outcome of the season. Iowa should be good, barring a major "screw-up" in 2009, as another January Bowl is expected, but the offensive line could make them great.
The line, ranked one of the top five in the country by college football expert Phil Steele, is anchored by preseason All-American candidate Bryan Bulaga. He and All-Big Ten candidate Kyle Calloway form arguably the best tackle tandem in the country. Inside, returning starter Julian Vandervelde and Andy Kuempel should be strong as well. The one, minor question is at center, but Josh Koeppel looks like a very good replacement for Rob Bruggeman.
How, you may ask, will this group ultimately decide the outcome of Iowa's season? The answer, they are the key to the success of quarterback Ricky Stanzi and running back Jewel Hampton. After a dreadful 2007, the offensive line rebounded back to normal in 2008. They did an great job protecting Ricky Stanzi, giving him more poise in the pocket and helping him mature very quickly. The outstanding pass protection will continue into 2009, and will help Stanzi improve even more throughout the season.
While the passing attack will be very dependent of the offensive line, perhaps the most support the line will have to give will be to the running game. Many experts see the running game as Iowa's biggest weakness for the upcoming season, but when you think about it, the running game had more questions heading into 2008 than it does for 2009.
Shonn Greene was unknown heading into 2008, but went on to rush for at least 100 yards every game, win the Doak Walker Award, and be selected as an All-American. 2009 will feature a back with more experience than Greene had. Jewel Hampton, who rushed for almost 500 yards on 91 carries as Greene's back-up, will see a majority of the carries in 2009. Hampton isn't as big as Greene, but his speed and quickness makes him just as capable of a back.
Not to take anything away from Greene, but a lot of his success was due to his offensive line. If the line lives up to expectations and produces even the same amount as last year, Hampton will have a good year. If they are able to produce more than last year, which is very possible from a veteran unit, Hampton could put up huge numbers. If he does so, that could open up the passing attack for Stanzi. So, while Stanzi and Hampton still have to do their part, it is the offensive line that will be responsible for making or breaking Iowa's season in 2009.
2009 will be a year for Iowa to prove themselves to the Big Ten and the rest of the country. The two major pieces to their success; defense and the offensive line. The defense, called the best in the Big Ten by many experts, should be even better than a unit that ranked fifth in scoring defense in 2008. The offensive line will be one of the best in the country and will help tremendously to improve the already solid games of Ricky Stanzi and Jewel Hampton. If both of these units live up to expectations, expect a 10-plus win season from the Hawkeyes in 2009.
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