Iowa Football 2011: 10 Hawkeyes Who Could Make or Break the Season
Iowa has lost a lot of talent thanks to graduations, early departures and some unfortunate off-field incidents. There's little doubt that the upcoming 2011 season will be a proving grounds for the legions stepping in to fill the voids.
Football is a team sport and it takes everyone pulling together to make a season successful. With that in mind however, there are certain positions or players that can make a huge impact on the direction the campaign takes and how the team approaches each opponent.
With names like Clayborn, Sash, Greenwood, Stanzi, Johnson-Koulianos and Reisner (among others) no longer getting called on game day, Iowa will have to find some new heroes to carry them to another bowl outing.
Who are these Supermen-in-waiting?
Replacing: Three-year starter, Ricky Stanzi
Experience: "Vandy" or "JVB" filled in when Stanzi was injured in 2009 versus Northwestern. He played out that game plus the last two (at Ohio State and Minnesota) while Stanzi recovered. Also, he's gotten some snaps in "junk time" throughout the last two years.
Upside: Vandenberg looked outright amazing in one of the toughest venues in college football when he led the Hawkeyes to an overtime performance against the Buckeyes. With his first full week of practicing with the first string, he looked every bit the leader Iowa needs and appeared fearless in the face of taking on the toughest team in the conference in one of the toughest stadiums in the country.
Vandy has had the opportunity to study behind one of the great Iowa quarterbacks. Statistically, Stanzi may not have been one of the best, but his intangibles were incredible. Vandenberg has gotten to see the good and the bad that Stanzi brought to the table. Certainly, he got to witness the tremendous work ethic Stanzi had. Some of that had to have worn off on the new field general.
Downside: Okay, the Ohio State game was pretty great. However, the Minnesota game that followed was nothing to get excited over. In that game, Vandenberg completed only 45.8 percent of his passes and failed to throw a touchdown while tossing up an interception. While that performance often gets lost to the memories of Hawkeye faithful in the shadows of the Ohio State game, it's a stark reminder that not everything was rosy about Vandy's short history as the starter.
Vandenberg hasn't had a lot of recent experience to help him grow and learn. Getting game snaps at the end of 2009 was great, but throughout 2010 he only had eight total attempts (completing five of them) and those came against Eastern Illinois, Iowa State and Ball State.
Those opponents pale by comparison to having to play against the likes of Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State week after week. Only Iowa State provided any resemblance to the kind of defenses Vandenberg will have to face as the new signal caller. How much will he retain from his stint back in '09?
Impact Statement: Vandenberg isn't going to be Stanzi. He might eventually be better. Then again, he might not be nearly as good. The jury will, of course, remain out until we've seen him in action throughout a conference schedule.
This offense is nicely suited to rely heavily on the run game. The line brings back at least three veterans who should help keep it strong, and Marcus Coker is scarily similar to Shonn Greene (if not even better). With the line making holes and Coker blasting over defenders (or bouncing off and plowing on), Vandenberg doesn't have to be exactly stellar for the offense to work.
However, it's rare for an offense to be completely one-sided and still succeed. Defenses can stack the box against a pro-style run game and slow it down considerably. Vandy does need to be able to back that defense off with a quality pass attack and outright burn down the weaker pass defenses on the schedule.
What's more, with receivers like Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis returning, the Hawkeyes need to take advantage of the talent available. And I think they will.
If Vandenberg is even marginally better than he looked against Minnesota in '09 and as he looked in junk time last year, the offense will be double-dangerous. The run game can set up his pass attack, but his pass game will—in turn—open up opportunities for Coker and the ground game to beat down opponents.
Vandenberg's play will dictate just how heavily Iowa will have to rely on the run game and how competitive they can ultimately be against the better teams in the conference.
Replacing: Adam Robinson
Experience: Coker got extensive playing time throughout the final six contests for Iowa in 2010. All said and told, he got 114 carries on the season, picking up 622 yards (5.46 avg.) and three scores. Coker had three games with 20 or more carries and had 16 touches against Michigan State.
Upside: It's something of a misstatement to say that Coker is replacing Adam Robinson. He's already done that. When Robinson was injured midway through last season, Coker stepped in almost seamlessly. After Robinson got into a little legal trouble, Coker became the uncontested starter for Iowa's bowl game against Missouri.
Speaking of that game, it's worth repeating just how well Coker did in that match. As a true freshman, Coker bruised the Tigers to the tune of 219 yards on 33 carries (6.64 avg.) and two touchdowns.
Marcus has already demonstrated that he's capable of carrying a large portion of the offense. As noted above, he's had at least four opportunities to be a major part of the offensive production. During that time, he's proved to be relatively durable and consistent.
It also bares noting that Coker averaged 7.78 yards per carry against Ohio State's stiff run defense last year. Unfortunately, that number has to be tempered by the fact that he only carried the ball nine times in that game (what were you thinking O'Keefe?). He's shown that he's not just a one-trick pony that shines against weaker run defenses.
Downside: Now I've got to contradict myself a little. Yes, he did put up a decent average against Ohio State and he did have an offensive MVP performance in the Insight Bowl.
However, keep these numbers in mind (since they tend to get overlooked):
40—the number of yards Coker put up against Michigan State in 16 attempts (2.50 avg.)
90—yards gained at Minnesota in 21 attempts (4.29 avg.)
2—number of 100+ yard games out of seven games played (not started, but participated in)
Also, keep in mind that Coker's two 100+ yard games came against Indiana and Missouri. Neither of those teams are known for having stifling run defenses (80th and 62nd respectively, nationally).
Ohio State's run defense was very good (third nationally), but Coker only had nine carries. Could he have sustained that kind of production if he'd had to carry the ball 15 or 20 times? It's doubtful.
The games where Coker's numbers really look impressive (Ball State, Indiana, Ohio State and Missouri), he either a) faced weak run defenses, or b) didn't get enough carries to accurately evaluate what he might have done through a full game.
Impact Statement: Marcus Coker is a bruising back that reminds many Iowa fans of Doak Walker Award recipient Shonn Greene. He's big, powerful, and unafraid to take defenders head-on.
However, he doesn't get as low at impact as Greene did and has struggled for yards as many times as he's blasted for big gains.
If Coker can come back looking more like the freak-of-nature that he did against Missouri than the "eh, okay" back he did against Minnesota, then Iowa's offense will be fine. Much like 2008 when Greene shined, Iowa can rely heavily on Coker to be the foundation of the Hawkeye attack.
On the other hand, if he struggles as much as he did in the Michigan State game, Iowa will have to rely more heavily on James Vandenberg and the pass attack. It's never a great thing when a team like Iowa has to be pass-heavy.
What's more, Coker's health has to be a concern. He's not shown any signs of wear or tear, but the more he carries the ball, the more he'll be subjected to injury-inducing hits. Who else on the squad can provide such a solid foundation for Iowa?
Coker will set the tone for the entire offense. If he succeeds, Iowa's offense will be a force to take seriously. If he falters, Iowa will have to rely very heavily on an untested pass attack and a defense that lost a ton of star-quality personnel.
Replacing: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos
Experience: Keenan is a two-year veteran who has been available for virtually every game of his career at Iowa. He has a pair of touchdown catches (at Iowa State in '09 and vs. Ball State in '10).
Davis has been used as an extra receiver or occasionally in relief of DJK and/or Marvin McNutt. He hasn't been asked to be a major contributor with the amount of talent the Hawkeyes have had at that position.
Upside: Davis' highlight reel might be short, but it's not empty. He's pulled down some flashy passes and has found his way into the end zone despite limited action.
In just two games of action in 2009 (Iowa State and Arkansas State), Keenan averaged 13.75 yards per catch and scored a touchdown. In 2010, he saw considerable more passes thrown his way (11 versus four the year before) and maintained a 11.91 yard per catch average.
With DJK no longer wearing the black and gold, there needs to be a decent deep-ball threat and Davis could be that threat.
Downside: Davis hasn't had to step up and be a go-to kind of guy. Despite being in and out of Ferentz's doghouse, DJK was a reliable and consistent contributor. Across from him, McNutt has likewise been reliable and consistent. Davis hasn't had a ton of expectations thrown on him and now he might have to handle the pressure of being one of Iowa's top targets.
In two years on the roster, Davis has only caught 15 passes and hasn't had a single performance against a top-flight defense that would make you think, "Wow, this guy is the real deal!"
Impact Statement: Let's be fair about a couple of things, here.
First of all, Davis isn't really replacing DJK. That's McNutt's job, to an extent. Davis would more accurately be filling McNutt's role as the "other guy" in a two-receiver set. In a three receiver set, he is a real good option that can keep defenses on their toes.
Second, there's some solid competition for playing time/starts that's going on in Iowa City right now. Don Shumpert's name keeps getting thrown about and DJK has been tweeting that Kevonte Martin-Manley (or as DJK calls him, "K-Mart") is the man to watch. Also, according to Hawk Talk Daily (subscriber-based newsletter), walk-on Steve Staggs is putting on quite a show during spring practices.
All of that means that Davis may not end up being one of the main go-to guys at all. There will plenty of competition for tosses this year.
So far, Keenan is listed along with McNutt and Martin-Manley at the top of the heap, though.
There's a new QB under center and DJK is gone. The pass game will be something of a question mark. DJK was a threat all over the field, but his biggest impact was his ability to stretch the defense out and make plays down field.
Someone needs to pick up that role. If that someone is McNutt, then there's a need for someone who can handle the short-to-mid range routes that's good enough to keep the secondary from cheating back to prevent McNutt from burning them.
As with any system on the micro or macro level, the receivers need to have a balance and some depth. Davis will be a part of that balance and depth.
If he builds on what little we've seen of him, defenses will have a lot to keep track of. If not, either someone else will have to step in and fill that role, or Iowa's pass attack will be a one-man show and that's never good.
Experience: As a sophomore, MacMillan is young and relatively inexperienced compared to some of his counterparts. That doesn't mean he hasn't seen action for the Hawkeyes, though.
Mac started six games last year for Iowa before an injury sidelined him for the latter half of the season. He's currently listed at the top of the depth chart at guard and looks to resume what he started last year.
Upside: It's tough to get solid stats on offensive linemen, but especially for one who missed half a season with injury. There aren't such tangible things as yards per carry, completion percentages or touchdowns that can be directly linked to any one lineman.
Having said that, it's pretty important to note that Mac was a starter as a redshirt freshman for the Hawks. While the unit did have to rebuild last season after graduating a ton of talent, there are always big time stars-in-waiting that could have taken that spot. They didn't; Mac did.
Iowa's line grew nicely over the course of last season and even from the start, it was a solid core for Iowa's offense to work around.
Downside: That line got better as the year wore on. Mac wasn't a part of the latter half of the season. So, it might be argued that the line got better after Mac was out of the rotation. I wouldn't necessarily make that argument myself, but it could be noted.
Is he fully healed? As of late March, he was listed at the top of the depth chart at guard, but that's always subject to change. Spring depth charts don't always mirror fall depth charts and his injury could continue to be a factor until we know otherwise.
Impact Statement: James Ferentz (C), Riley Reiff (OT) and Markus Zusevics (OT) are the real veterans of the group and will anchor this line with their combined experience. The guard position is the one that will see the newest faces with Adam Gettis being the other guard (presumably).
The impact Mac can potentially make with this unit is virtually immeasurable. In a strict pro-style offense like Iowa uses, the unit lives or dies with the play at the line. A mobile quarterback and/or flashy running back can offset some deficiencies in the line, but not many and not consistently.
MacMillan will be in a dogfight all spring to secure a leading role on the line, but if he secures it, look for him to add tremendous strength to a line that could be one of the better ones the Hawks have had. Along with that, if this line does come back as strong as fans hope, this offense could be tremendously potent.
Replacing: Adrian Clayborn
Experience: Daniel is a three-year veteran of Iowa's defense, though he's really only seen action in the last two and only had a real part to play in 2010.
Lebron has played second-fiddle to Adrian Clayborn, Broderick Binns and Christian Ballard throughout his career, but has had opportunities here and there to step in and relieve these star players.
Through his time, he has a handful of tackles and a sack to his credit. He's been studying behind some big time Hawkeye defenders.
Upside: Daniel picked up a sack in 2010, showing that he does know how to get into the backfield. He's seen limited action thanks to the consistency and reliability of guys like Clayborn and Binns.
It's tough to look at his stat sheet and say this is a guy who will replace an Iowa legend like Adrian Clayborn. However, when you are the understudy for a force like Clayborn, you learn a thing or two along the way.
Downside: Daniel isn't a proven leader, sacker (is that a word?) or tackler (that is).
Over the last three years, Lebron has just six total tackles, one sack and a tackle-for-loss (the sack). Yes, he's been a reliever and junk-time player, but that doesn't change the fact that he hasn't shown any particular ability that would lead anyone to believe he'll be the next incarnation of Clayborn.
For that matter, there's no evidence that he'll even be close.
Impact Statement: The D-line will return Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns to anchor the unit. If Daniels can do even more to get penetration up the middle, it will take a little pressure off Daniel (without the "s") to provide a lot of pressure from the outside.
However, Daniel is going to have to prove he can move up and down the line quickly. One of the great aspects of the Clayborn era at Iowa is that the ends have been very mobile and have been able to stretch out the line and cut off running lanes all the way to the sidelines. Daniel will have to be able to carry on that ability or an Achilles heel may be revealed against quick backs.
Daniel hasn't locked down the starting position, but rather is battling with Joe Forgy and Dominic Alvis for that position (possibly among others). Coming into spring drills though, he was the gut-check player to lead the position battle.
If Lebron can continue with Iowa's stiff run defense history and lock down the outside running lanes, Mike Daniels is capable of providing pressure up the middle to make the Hawkeye defense very, very tough.
If not, Daniels could begin to experience what Clayborn went through a year ago as opponents double team him and send backs to the outside. It could mean a significant step back for Iowa's run defense.
Replaces: Christian Ballard or Karl Klug
Experience: Nardo saw very limited action in 2010, strictly in a reserve role. Thomas saw the field in just five games and recorded two tackles in the opener against Eastern Illinois and another against Ball State.
Nardo accumulated no stats in games against Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State.
Upside: Nardo could be one of those great "unknowns" that suddenly explodes onto the stage for the Hawkeyes. While he has no sacks and no tackles for loss, he does have a QB hurry to his credit and has picked up a few tackles here and there.
He entered spring drills at the top of the depth chart next to Mike Daniels and ahead of Steve Bigach and Carl Davis. That should at least say something about what the coaches see in the guy.
He has some experience in some pretty big games. Michigan State and Ohio State were two of the three conference co-champions last year and Nardo saw the field against both. While he may not have set the world on fire in those two contests, he undoubtedly gained some very valuable experience.
Downside: Eastern Illinois and Ball State. My 13-year-old son could probably get a tackle and an assist against Eastern Illinois and a tackle against Ball State. In the three games that actually meant something, Nardo could manage nothing more than a QB hurry on Kirk Cousins.
Steve Bigach has better numbers, pulling down a sack and a QB hurry to go along with his three tackles in five games. What's more, his sack came against Michigan State.
I know, I'm splitting hairs here between two guys with virtually no experience. With no stats to go from, it's the little things, I tell you.
Impact Statement: It's not definite that Nardo will be the starter come September. Not by a long-shot.
However, Norm Parker and Kirk Ferentz placed him on the initial spring depth chart ahead of Bigach. Yes, he's a senior whereas Bigach is a junior and that might have played a part in it. Ferentz doesn't typically make a habit out of randomly tossing names onto a depth chart for our amusement without something behind it, though.
The staff has seen something in Nardo—either in previous seasons or in the weight room—that they like and believe in. I believe he was (and maybe is) the front-runner for the starting spot.
The center of the line is the heart of the line. The ends can be disruptive from the outside, but if the middle isn't solid, running backs and quarterbacks alike can gouge straight up the middle and render them ineffective.
Mike Daniels proved last year that he's more than capable of wreaking havoc from his tackle position. Can Nardo be the yin to his yang at the other tackle spot?
If Nardo pulls it together and becomes even half the player Daniels appears to be, this line could be something special yet again. He doesn't have to be a sack machine. He only needs to plug the holes and Iowa's run defense could once again be among the elite in the nation.
If he fails, then Daniels gets double-teamed and a great potential is neutralized.
Experience: Nielsen is not a freshman. He started eight games last year and played in a number of games the two years before.
Last season, Tyler racked up 43 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, broke up four passes and grabbed an interception. He's a proven asset for the Hawkeyes who unfortunately suffered an injury that limited his production in 2010.
Upside: Nielsen was a starter at the beginning of last year and has plenty of experience. Besides that, he got to sit behind A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer for a couple of years to see how it's done.
Tyler notched seven tackles at Arizona, six at Michigan and 10 against Wisconsin. Against the toughest competition he faced (he was injured against Michigan State), Nielsen had his biggest games, statistically speaking.
Now that he's back and healthy, what might he accomplish this year?
Downside: That was no small injury Tyler suffered. A broken neck is nothing to sneeze at. Iowa wouldn't put him back on the field if he wasn't ready to go, but I still can't help but wonder just how strong Nielsen will be. How will full contact affect him? Will he continue to be a fearless tackler?
That's about it, in all honesty. Nielsen is a solid, veteran linebacker who should have a solid season as long as he stays healthy.
Impact Statement: The linebackers were a sore spot last year. Nielsen was good, but fans were accustomed to Angerer and Edds and the kind of production they brought to the field. Then he was injured, others were injured and the whole corps seemed to almost fall apart.
James Morris emerged as a star backer and will occupy one of the other positions this fall, but Iowa depends on solid linebacker play across the board to make its defense really work.
Team success may start at the line for Iowa, but it moves very quickly to the linebackers. Iowa's secondary typically plays in such a fashion as to take away the deep threat. That puts a lot of pressure on the backers to take away the short and mid-range attacks.
Nielsen will be counted on to thwart any runner that may get past the line and take away any route under under ten yards. It's a tall order, but if he can build on 2010's strong start, Iowa's linebacker corps could see a significant resurgence.
It should be a great boost and comfort to know that Nielsen is on the early Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List. He's a true impact player that only needs enough time to prove what a difference he can make.
Replacing: none or Brett Greenwood
Experience: Hyde is a two-year starter at cornerback. Last year alone, Hyde racked up four interceptions, 83 tackles, seven broken passes, forced a fumble and scored two touchdowns.
As far as cornerbacks go, Hyde is the man. He came a long way from the eight total tackles he logged in '09.
Now comes the interesting part. Hyde may no longer be playing cornerback. With the departure of both Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood, Iowa is in desperate need of a couple of safeties and Hyde just might be one of those safeties. Correction, he will be one of those safeties.
At that position, Hyde has zero experience. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. That is, since high school.
Upside: This is a real need for Iowa. Tanner Miller did alright filling in for Greenwood briefly in the Insight Bowl when Greenwood was injured. The thing is, "alright" isn't really good enough. Iowa relies very heavily on their safeties and no one else seems to be able to step in and fill the position.
Hyde is a very good defender who grew by leaps and bounds between the last two years. He's a natural athlete who can play just about anywhere in the secondary.
Shaun Prater gives his endorsement of Hyde's move. (From the link above) "...he just makes it look so easy. I see good things coming out of him from that position."
Downside: It's tough to argue with the move, but it also can't be ignored that this represents a serious lack of depth for Iowa's secondary.
Before this move (according to the March 23 depth chart) Iowa was looking at Hyde and Prater at corner with B.J. Lowery and Greg Castillo listed as the backups. Of course, Jordan Bernstine also returns this year, giving the corner position better depth than its seen in a while.
But the safety position was paper thin with Tanner Miller and Collin Sleeper as the starters and Tom Donatell and Jack Swanson as immediate backups.
This move helps give the safety position some much-needed strength, but now there's no depth anywhere.
Impact Statement: From Bob Sanders to Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood, Iowa's safety position has been highly instrumental in the overall success of the defense. These players are most responsible for eliminating the big play and keeping the ball in manageable positions for the rest of the defense to corral.
Having Hyde move to safety is a pretty big deal. Hawk fans know that they're getting an exciting athlete that is fully capable of carrying on what Sash and Greenwood did over the last few years.
That can't be underestimated. Yes, the cornerback position will likely suffer. Bernstine may be the other safety in the equation, leaving Prater to solidify one of the corner positions. The other side will need some work.
Still, most of the positions will be filled by personnel who are experienced enough to avoid a major drop-off.
What Iowa gets is some consistency at a position that was a huge question mark after Sash's announcement that he was departing early for the NFL.
Besides that, who can forget Sash's lateral to Hyde and his subsequent across-field scamper for a touchdown? That's what Hawk fans are getting back. Whether he's at corner or safety, he's explosive, exciting and dangerous.
Experience: Meyer successfully made 82.4 percent of his field goal attempts last year (14 of 17) as a freshman. He split extra-point duties with Trent Mossbrucker early in the year, but took over the full duty and never let it go.
Upside: Completing 82.4 percent of his kicks as a freshman is nothing to be ashamed of. Mossbrucker had a slightly higher percentage in 2008 as a freshman, but couldn't hold the position.
Meyer has been getting better with more experience and could end up being one of Iowa's better place kickers.
Downside: Look again at what I said above. Mossbrucker made 86.7 percent of his kicks (13 of 15) in 2008 as a freshman and was still replaced. He didn't play in 2009 and only got to kick a few extra points in 2010.
The kicking game was a little bit of a sore spot for Iowa last year. Meyer missed an important XP against Wisconsin and the few misses on field goals that he had left Hawkeye fans grumbling.
Impact Statement: Special teams don't get enough credit for what they do and how much of an impact they can have on a team's overall performance.
Iowa typically has very little room for error. Kirk Ferentz has said so himself. They don't typically blow out their opponents (at least in conference) and they don't typically get blown out.
In any one game, a field goal can easily make the difference between victory and defeat. It could make the difference between losing in regulation or taking a game to overtime. Heck, Iowa has won games on nothing but field goals before.
Meyer can turn from villain to hero this year. With the turnover on defense and a few question marks on offense, it's reasonable to expect that Iowa will be in every game they play, but won't be fully dominating many of them.
In 2008, Iowa lost their four games by a combined total of only 12 points. In 2009, four of their wins were by a combined total of only eight points. A couple extra field goals and Iowa might have had a 10-win season in 2008. A few missed field goals and Iowa might have scratched by at 8-4 in 2009.
Iowa's fortunes may well ride on Meyer's golden leg.
If he improves even a little, Iowa might pick up an extra win or two. If he doesn't, Iowa could be playing a weekly game of roulette, gambling that they can punch it into the end zone.
The Great Unknown
Position: OL, DL, WR, CB, S, ST, Anywhere
Experience: The list of Iowa players that have walked on, come very lowly recruited or simply hidden in the shadows is long and distinguished.
Upside: Opposing teams can't plan for these guys. They have no real film to study, no history to pour over and no indication of what to expect.
The Great Unknown brings a determination that can't be denied. They weren't top-flight recruits that have been under the microscope from the moment they stepped on campus. They've had to work their way to the top on sheer will power and determination.
Downside: That these guys ever make the big stage means someone else didn't live up to their potential. Either that or they were injured.
Neither is a situation that Hawk fans want to see.
Impact Statement: It's almost impossible to predict or foresee. But when it happens, it's usually pretty magical. It's the feel-good story of the year and reminds us all that anything is possible with enough determination and hard work.
These guys can spark the offense, ignite the defense and thrill the fans with spectacular performances that leave opponents wondering "what happened?!" These are the guys that take a void and fill it with excellence.
Will there be a Great Unknown for Iowa this year? Given the number of lost players on both sides of the ball, it's entirely possible.