Iowa’s spring football practice wrapped up on Saturday with its annual spring game—using game in the loosest sense of the term—in front of 23,500 spectators at Kinnick Stadium.
Considering the number of fans who showed up to watch what essentially was a practice, expectations are high for Iowa in 2010. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi is back for his senior season, and the defense—especially the defensive line—could be the nation’s best.
But question marks loom, particularly on the young offensive line and at linebacker, two positions that Kirk Ferentz generally relies on for success. Many experts agree that if Iowa solves these problems, it could be in the hunt for a national championship. Did these positions make strides on Saturday? Here are the positives and the negatives that came out of Iowa’s very, very controlled scrimmage.
The Wide Receivers: With 2009’s top receivers, Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, returning, 2010’s batch of wide receivers figures to be the best since the 2005 corps of Clinton Solomon and Ed Hinkel, or possibly even better.
McNutt displayed his athleticism with three catches before the scrimmage (the main first team players didn’t play in the real scrimmage) and looked very good in drills. He had a knack for making big plays last season, and his exceptional size and athletic ability gave him an advantage over many Big Ten corners.
Johnson-Koulianos (DJK, to Iowans) also impressed, particularly with a 32-yard, over-the-shoulder reception from Stanzi down the sideline. Expect him to be a major part of Iowa’s offense once again next season and possibly break the 1,000-yard receiving mark. Plus, barring any injuries, he should come out of 2010 with Iowa’s career receiving yards and receptions records.
Other non-starters also had big days, especially senior Don Nordmann, who brought in five catches for 49 yards.
TE Brad Herman: Junior tight end Brad Herman looks like he will be the “next man in” after the departure of Tony Moeaki. A probable back-up to Allen Reisner, Herman will be a vital part of a team that runs a lot of two-tight end sets. Ferentz praised him earlier in spring practice as a solid replacement for Moeaki and a solid back-up for Reiser.
"He's clearly had his best period of practice," said Ferentz. "That's something we really needed to see."
Herman lived up to the hype Saturday, with three catches for 29 yards. And expect him to get even better with the competition from highly touted recruit CJ Fiedorowicz, who will start his career at Iowa next fall.
The Offensive Line: Nobody outside of the Iowa football program knew what to expect from the young Iowa offensive line heading in Saturday’s practice, and afterward, many fans breathed a sigh of relief.
Was the line perfect? No.
Was it even close to as good as last year? No.
But the players continue to make steady improvement and even gave quarterback Ricky Stanzi ample time to throw on a few occasions. That’s high praise, considering the unit was facing what many consider to be the best defensive line in the nation.
Defensive tackle Christian Ballard called right guard Adam Gettis a strong player today, and he, along with the rest of the team, feels like the group should be near the top of the Big Ten next season.
DE Adrian Clayborn: Not that this is a surprise or anything, but Clayborn clearly was the best player on the field, and definitely showcased himself during drills.
It seemed like the Iowa coaches didn’t let him go all out, but he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. On one drill in particular, he plowed through star offensive tackle Riley Reiff, something Georgia Tech’s Derrick Morgan—a likely first round pick in Thursday’s NFL Draft—failed to do in the Orange Bowl.
Right now, Clayborn is the best defensive player Iowa’s had since Bob Sanders and he should be showered in awards next December. But if he continues to improve, he could become the best defensive player in Iowa history.
An opposing Ohio State lineman put it best.
“He’s next year’s Suh.”
QB Ricky Stanzi: Stanzi was a little bit of everything last season. He was the opposing defense’s best friend. He was an x-factor. He was a fourth-quarter genious. He was an interception machine.
But most importantly, he was a winner.
And while the winning was nice for Iowa fans, they certainly would like him to cut down on the interceptions, which totaled 15 last season.
He and his coaches claim that he’s been working on it.
"Sometimes it's OK to punt, let the defense take care of things. That's part of football," Stanzi said. "Getting that mentality, but also understanding that we've got to go make plays at the same time, is something that we've all been working on this spring."
Ferentz added, “"I think he's more confident. He works at it hard. He studies it hard. He's acutely aware of what he needs to be working on, so I think he's made good use of his time."
Stanzi did well on Saturday, completing seven of 11 passes for 72 yards. He looked very confident and got rid of the ball quickly when he could, which will be important with an inexperienced o-line.
And for what it’s worth, he was the only quarterback to not fumble a snap. Hopefully for Iowa fans, that’s an indication of the future.
The Linebackers: Outside of the offensive line, linebacker was the key position for Iowa to focus on in spring practice.
The Hawkeyes lost a ton of defensive production and leadership from departing linebackers Pat Angerer and AJ Edds, but Iowa normally reloads at that position, and Saturday’s practice was more of the same.
Jeff Tarpinian switched from outside to inside linebacker halfway through the spring and looked like a natural. He was all over the field, and while he may not put up Angerer-type numbers, he will do a solid job as a replacement.
On the outside, last year’s starter Jeremiah Hunter and first-year starter Tyler Nielsen were solid, as was back-up Troy Johnson, giving the Hawkeyes depth in the middle of the defense.
In short, expect more outstanding production from the linebackers next season. Even with all the departures, they haven’t missed a beat.
What needs work…
The Kickers: To put it in Kirk Ferentz’s words, the kicking battle was “underwhelming” this spring. And even that may be putting it lightly.
Starting kicker Daniel Murray was horrendous, hitting only three of seven field goals, none of which were very difficult to make.
Back-up Trent Mossbrucker was a little better, hitting four of five, but still needs improvement.
“We’ve been very inconsistent. We’ve flashed, but we haven’t been consistent. I’m not sure what’s the cause of that, but we’re not consistent like we need to be, at this point, with that position.”
Both players traded kicks two years ago, but Murray ended up winning the job after his dagger to upset Penn State, even though many Iowa fans believed Mossbrucker was the better player.
Murray was inconsistent in 2009, hitting some tough kicks, but missing some very easy ones, including a chip shot against Ohio State that could have eventually won the game for Iowa in regulation.
So, a year later, the kicking battle is back open. And someone needs to step up before September, or else Iowa’s special teams could take a hit.
The Back-up Quarterbacks: Ricky Stanzi’s injury against Northwestern last season suddenly caused back-up quarterback to become a priority for Iowa.
While it continues to be a priority in 2010, the spring game didn’t provide much evidence of progress.
No. 2 quarterback James Vandenberg was fine, completing 13 of 22 passes for 114 yards and looking much more confident than last season.
But after Vandenberg, there was a big drop-off.
Third-stringer John Wienke was only three for 10 with 33 yards and early enrollee AJ Derby threw more interceptions (two) than completions (one).
Right now, the production from the last two isn’t much to worry about. But with Stanzi graduating after this season, both need to elevate their games for 2011.
The Offensive Line: Yes, the o-line played fairly well, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
A number of times, the protection broke down and, if this were a real game, Stanzi would have been on the ground much more than he would like.
While experience and athleticism can’t be taught, the line needs to focus on things it can control, like strength.
Last year’s line was full of 320-pound players, while many players on this year’s unit weigh around 280-pounds.
Will size be a disadvantage? It’s hard to say. But Iowa’s o-linemen need to hit the weight room early and often to get stronger and be able to compete with the physical defensive linemen in the Big Ten.
Overview: Like any typical Iowa team, the 2010 version of the Hawkeyes will be stronger on defense than offense. And, as expected, the offensive line will be the key to greatness this season.
I could go on all day analyzing the little issues of this team, but given the enormous amount hype for Kirk Ferentz’s squad, fans wanted one question answered after Saturday’s scrimmage: can Iowa win the BCS National Championship?
It’s certainly difficult to say from the very limited action we saw. But it’s conceivable to conclude from Saturday that yes, Iowa has a chance to win a national championship in 2010.
The defense is clearly at championship level, but it will be the offense that will decide if this team is elite.
The skill position players are there, as wide receiver, running back, and quarterback are solidified more than they have been in years.
But if the offensive line can’t function at a high level, this championship-caliber team could turn into a middle of the pack Big Ten team.
“We have a chance to be a good football team,” said Ferentz, “but we’re hardly there yet.”
And while Ferentz normally plays dumb with the press, he nailed this topic. There’s still a lot of work left to do. But if history tells us anything, Ferentz will have his team ready to play come September.
And maybe—just maybe—Iowa will have a chance to not only be a “good” football team, but a chance to end next season in Glendale.