While 2008 was all about rebuilding Iowa's typical strong points, 2009 will be about improving those strong points and turning them back into some of the best units in the nation. There are virtually no weak spots for the Hawkeyes this season, and they look fairly set at the places where they lost some good players. All and all, this looks like a solid team all around in 2009.
The offensive line is the strongest unit on a solid Iowa team, and by far the strongest line in the Big Ten. One of the strongest in the country, both ESPN and Phil Steele rank this group in the top five nationally. The Hawkeyes return perhaps the best tackle tandem in the country in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, both of whom will be wearing NFL jerseys in the future. They are almost shoe-ins as first team All-Big Ten, and Bulaga is making a strong case to be selected as first team All-American.
Guard Julian Vandervelde also looks like a possible first team All-Big Ten candidate. Center Rafael Eubanks should improve on a strong 2008 campaign, while former highly touted recruit Dace Richardson will look to finish strong at Iowa after an injury filled career. Richardson has clear potential, but if he can't go again due to injuries, senior Dan Doering has the experience to be a solid option at guard for the Hawkeyes. Bottom line: this unit should terrorize opposing defensive lines all season and is one of the better offensive lines in Iowa's history.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Like most old-school Big Ten teams, Iowa is known to have outstanding play from both lines, a hard-hitting defense, and a power running game. It is a simple formula that has worked for decades, and with so muhc focus on those areas, the Hawkeyes don't usually have a premier set of receivers. Kirk Ferentz has been trying to change that over the past few years, but the unit hasn't been too good since 2004. The tight ends have always been strong, but the receivers have been lacking compared to the rest of the conference.
This year, things look to be better and the wide receivers should be at their best since 2004. Seniors Trey Stross and recently converted quarterback Marvin McNutt will lead a talented group, which will also feature juniors Colin Sandeman, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, and freshman Keenan Davis.
The reason for the significant growth in this group has been the competition Marvin McNutt has brought to the table. He is very athletic, has great hands, and impressive speed. This has added some competition, especially for Johnson-Koulianos, who is listed as second string on the depth chart. As the competition intensifies, the receiving corps will only get better, and should be in great shape by Sept. 5.
The tight ends will be a strong point for the Hawkeyes in 2009. Iowa runs a lot of play action passes to their tight ends, and that was evident last year, as tight ends Brandon Meyers and Alan Reisner both had terrific seasons. Reisner is back, and will be a major target for quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Tony Moeaki can also be a significan contribution to the Iowa roster. Moeaki came to Iowa in 2005 as one of the top high school tight ends in the country.
There is no doubt in his potential, as he has been outstanding when healthy, but injuries have hampered his career. If he can stay healthy, Iowa may have the strongest tight end duo in the Big Ten.
After an intense battle for the starting job that lasted well into the 2008 season, Ricky Stanzi has finally emerged as the starter. He improved greatly in every game last season, which he capped off with a 31-10 drubbing of South Carolina. He improved his poise tremendously and proved he could win big games by putting together a last minute drive to beat No. 3 Penn State.
This year, he will have to win many more of those big games, with a schedule that includes road games against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin.
This looks like the year that Stanzi can prove himself to be one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks. He has the potential, but needs to cut down on the interceptions. Most of his passes are crisp and right on the money, and he has developed close relationships with many of his receivers.
If he picks up right where he left off in 2008, there is no reason why he won't keep improving by the game and become one of the league's premier quarterbacks. His grade could improve as the season goes on, but right now, I have to base it off where he was at the end of last season.
This position is the reason that many experts are underestimating Iowa in 2009. They don't see how the Hawkeyes can replace Shonn Greene's numbers overnight. The truth is, they can't, but new starter, Jewel Hampton, figures to be a strong back. Hampton rushed for 461 yards on 91 carries as Greene's back-up in 2008, and looks like he will be a strong back that can carry most of the load in 2009.
If you think about it, Iowa's running game was a bigger question mark heading into 2008 than it is heading into 2009. Greene was unheard of outside of Iowa City and had spent the previous season lifting furniature. Now the Hawkeyes have a back who they know they can count on. Hampton will also have great support. The offensive line will be a big help, as it was to Greene. Freshman Jeff Brinson is a very capable back-up and Paki O'Meara has the experience to come in as a solid third down back for the Hawkeyes.
Even with the losses of four year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul, the Hawkeyes will have a solid defensive line next season. Both Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard return at the ends and should have another outstanding year in 2009. Meanwhile, the tackles are one of the few question marks on a strong Iowa team. While they won;t be King of Kroul, Karl Klug and Mike Daniels are both solid tackles that should be able to get the job done inside.
While Iowa was mainly a run-stopper last season, the line's focus will be more on the pass rush, as the ends are the stronger point this year, not the inside. This will result in more sacks for the ends, Clayborn and Ballard.
This unit, lead by first team All-Big Ten candidate Pat Angerer, is possibly the best linebacking trio in the conference. Angerer came out of nowhere last year to lead the Hawkeyes in tackles and tie for the league lead in interceptions. If he improves on an outstanding 2008, he could end up as an All-American. His counterparts, AJ Edds and Jeremiah Hunter are also solid players and could both end up on All-Big Ten teams.
While the run defense is still strong, Iowa's linebackers specialize in pass defense, hence Angerer's five interceptions last season. They are very skilled at reading quarterbacks' faces and cutting off routes for pass break-ups and takeaways. As I said earlier, the run defense isn't a joke either, and this group should be able to handle any production lost from King and Kroul.
The Iowa secondary is by far the best in the Big Ten. Cornerback Amari Spievey is coming off a terrific season that was just as surprising as Greene's and Angerer's. He is one of the better corners in the country and is considered by most as the best in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes also return safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood. Sash had an outstanding freshman year in 2008, recording five interceptions and tying for the league lead with teammate Pat Angerer. Greenwood was also much improved from 2007 and that improvement should carry over into 2009.
Iowa's secondary is so good at what they do because of Norm Parker's bend, but don't break, style of defense. The Hawkeyes rarely give up big plays and always capitalize on opponents' mistakes. It may be old fashioned, but it has turned not just the secondary, but the whole defense, into the best in the Big Ten and arguably one of the best in the country.
The Iowa special teams were a pleasant surprise in 2008 and was quietly one of the better units in the Big Ten. Ryan Donahue is one of the best punters in the conference, while the kicking duo of Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker will be a strong point for the Hawkeyes. The loss of Andy Brodell hurts the return game, but Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Colin Sandeman are very capable back-ups. Overall, this should be a solid unit for the Hawkeyes in 2009.