There is good news and bad news in Iowa City.
The good news: the 10th-ranked defense in the country will be returning eight players, including the entire defensive line.
The bad news: not included amongst those eight will be All-American linebacker Pat Angerer, All-Big Ten linebacker A.J. Edds, and All-Big Ten cornerback Amari Spievey.
However, that is part of college football; players graduate, players leave early. There is a four- to five-year revolving door, which is why player development amongst the college ranks is crucial.
Thankfully, as Iowa fans know, there may not be a better coach in the nation than Kirk Ferentz when it comes to developing players.
He and his staff have transformed 230-pound tight ends into All American offensive linemen . They have developed walk-on linebackers into Mackey Award-winning tight ends . They have turned lightly regarded high school quarterbacks into All American linebackers .
I'm not saying it's going to be easy to replace the aforementioned players. I am saying it has to be done, and Hawkeye fans couldn't ask for a better staff to do it.
Needless to say, the players who end spring practice at the top of the depth chart, do not in any way guarantee themselves a spot in the lineup when the season comes around.
After all, at the end of spring practice in 2008, Paki O'Meara was at the top of the two deep for the tailback position. Also, Jacody Coleman was the starter at the MIKE linebacker position.
Meanwhile, by the end of the same season, both Shonn Greene and Pat Angerer had ascended the depth chart, and had seasons to remember.
In short, the spring ball depth charts and position battles only mean so much. However, they are crucial for developing players, and getting an idea of what the team has in the tank for the next season.
1. Defensive Line
The front four can be written in ink.
Clayborn, Klug, Ballard, Binns.
Iowa fans know that much, and excitement would be a weak word for describing how they feel about it.
However, three of the aforementioned are seniors, with Binns being the lone junior.
In effect, the two deep this year might be very telling where it concerns who will fill the rather large shoes of Klug, Ballard, and especially Clayborn.
The Orange Bowl two deep included a couple of players that are likely to remain as solid backups and probable starters in 2011.
Most notable is Mike Daniels , the redshirt junior defensive tackle, and the only lineman outside of the starting four who saw meaningful action last year.
In fact, Norm Parker called on Daniels to replace the undersized Karl Klug during various run-plugging situations. Daniels saw considerable time against Wisconsin, and figures prominently in Iowa's future.
He will be a future starter, and a notable backup this year. In fact, he might see considerable time in 2010.
Also of note is Lebron Daniel , who was listed as Adrian Clayborn's backup for the Orange Bowl.
Of course, playing behind Clayborn, Daniel didn't and doesn't project to see the field that much. However, the coaches have been very high on him.
He still will only play in mop-up duty and in case of injury, but he has a bright future. Expect to see the junior from Ohio firmly entrenched on the depth chart, and as a starter in 2011.
Other than that, everything is fairly wide open.
Some of the notable names that will get a chance at the backup end position will be redshirt freshmen Scott Covert, Joe Gaglione, and Marty Hopkins; and true freshmen, Mike Hardy, and Louis Trinca-Pasat.
Meanwhile, on the inside, redshirt sophomore Steve Bigach appears a likely candidate, but I wouldn't be surprised if he got a substantial push from 300-pound true freshman Carl Davis.
This will certainly be the most competitive of all the defensive position battles this spring, and it is the position battle most Iowa fans will keep their eyes on.
In 2009, Iowa saw the graduation of two of the better linebackers of the Ferentz era: MIKE Pat Angerer and LEO A.J. Edds.
For the uninitiated, Iowa calls its linebackers the MIKE, LEO, and WILL positions.
The MIKE is usually the leader of the bunch. It is a position that comes with a great deal of audible duties.
The LEO is the strong side linebacker. His job requires a great deal of coverage responsibilities, as well as taking out tight ends and fullbacks so the MIKE and WILL can make clean tackles.
The WILL is the weak side linebacker. He is also required to go into coverage a good deal, but he lines up inside the box, thereby tending to get more heavily involved in rush defense.
Iowa's returning WILL is senior Jeremiah Hunter. Hunter quietly had a breakout year in 2009. He really stepped up his play from the previous year. In fact, I would say he might be the best pure, run defending linebacker Iowa has had since Abdul Hodge.
For this reason, I don't think a move to the MIKE position would be unthinkable for Hunter. However, I don't know what Hunter's skill set is regarding calling audibles and such.
Regardless, Hunter is the one linebacker that you can count on to start next year. The only question is whether he will remain at WILL or move to MIKE.
Due to injuries, Johnson wound up starting Iowa's final 2009 game, against Minnesota. In that game, he ended up with 10 tackles, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. This was enough to earn him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Meanwhile, Davis has been primarily notable due to his solid play on special teams.
If Hunter does move to the MIKE position, senior Jeff Tarpinian is another linebacker that will be in the mix.
Tarp does not project as a MIKE, but he could play LEO or WILL.
Outside of Hunter, Tarp has the most playing experience in the linebacking corps. In fact, before injuries slowed him down in 2008, he was projected to start at WILL, a position that ultimately went to Hunter.
If Tarpinian doesn't ascend the depth chart at LEO, expect that position to be manned by Tyler Nielsen.
The heavily recruited junior out of Humboldt, Iowa, has patiently waited behind A.J. Edds, and now it is his turn to shine. I expect he will be successful.
Also in the mix will be junior Lance Tillison, as well as true freshmen James Morris, Austin Gray, and Jim Poggi.
My prediction is that Troy Johnson will man the MIKE, Jeremiah Hunter will remain at WILL, and Tyler Nielsen will take up the LEO spot. However, I don't think any combination of linebackers would surprise me.
3. Defensive Backfield
At the corner back position, true junior Shaun Prater will return to start on one side.
The other corner spot, formerly manned by early NFL draft entrant Amari Spievey, will be wide open .
The four players competing for that position will be juniors Willie Lowe and Jordan Bernstine, and sophomores Greg Castillo and Micah Hyde.
On a certain level, Bernstine would appear to have the inside track, as he was in serious competition for last year's open cornerback spot, until injuries derailed his season.
However, I wouldn't count out Willie Lowe or Micah Hyde.
Lowe started one game last season—Iowa State—and while he wasn't great, he was respectable. Furthermore, as the season wore on, his improvement was manifest in his play in nickel and dime packages.
Meanwhile, Hyde hasn't started any games. Nevertheless, when Prater was injured for a series during the Orange Bowl, it was Hyde, and not the more experienced Lowe or Castillo, that spelled him.
Another possibility is that Bernstine moves to safety, where the starters are all but set in stone, but the depth is non-existent.
This moves seems highly unlikely but, in truth, Bernstine is built more for the safety position than cornerback. However, Bernstine's innate physical abilities will help him wherever he winds up.
This brings me to the safeties.
As I said, the starters will be junior Tyler Sash and senior Brett Greenwood. The problem is there is absolutely no established depth.
The backups in the Orange Bowl were Joe Conklin, who has graduated, and David Cato, who has transferred.
With Greenwood entering his senior season, Iowa will be looking to establish a player that will be ready to step into the free safety role in 2011.
I have previously made the prediction that tailback Brandon Wegher will switch positions and will spell Greenwood or Sash.
Other than that, it is hard to predict who will be the other backup safety.
Also, a number of position changes could shake things up.
True freshman Anthony Hitchens or Don Shumpert could also end up there.
Finally, redshirt sophomore Jack Swanson has a good chance of playing behind one of the established safeties.
Overall, I expect Norm Parker's defense to have another top 20 year. At the very least, the defensive line and safeties will makes sure of that.
However, the difference between being a top 20 group, and being a top 10 group could very well come down to the new starters and the depth at established positions.