One of my favorite "tweets" yesterday came from Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. It read:
"Iowa's spring game. Not spring and not a game."
While the cold weather definitely was a shock, the fact that's Iowa's spring game amounted more to a practice has become commonplace under coach Kirk Ferentz.
It's hard to gauge much from the "game," but Ferentz did reveal where players in position battles stand following spring practice and it was a chance for some players to show their talent and potential.
Here's how the Hawkeyes graded out in their spring game/scrimmage/practice.
Quarterback was probably the most interesting position to watch Saturday, despite the fact that none of them were particularly outstanding. However, all of them have shown improvement from last season and we have moved closer to discovering the depth chart for next season.
James Vandenberg has cemented himself as the starter next season and Ferentz feels comfortable with that, saying he's a respected leader on the team.
But that was no surprise.
What's more surprising is the fact that AJ Derby has pulled even with John Wienke as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart. Ferentz says that Derby still has a long way to go and that both quarterbacks could grab the job by the fall, but clearly Derby has started to show the skill that many thought he was capable of coming out of high school.
If he continues to improve, Derby will in all likelihood be Iowa's backup quarterback in the fall and its starter by the time he is a junior. Maybe now all the "position switch" drama will finally fall by the wayside.
There wasn't much to learn from the running backs at Iowa's spring game--Marcus Coker, the starter, sat out, and James White and De'Andre Johnson rushed for nine and eight yards, respectively.
White and Johnson will likely be on even footing going into August, but there's the possibility that the No. 2 running back may not be on campus yet.
The Hawkeyes brought in an impressive recruiting class at running back this year, which includes Rodney Coe, Mika'il McCall, Damon Bullock, and Jordan Canzeri. All three are very talented players and all three have a chance to see action this season. And with Iowa's recent running back history in mind, having so many good players at that position may be a necessity.
“Someone in the freshman class, it’s realistic to think one or two of those guys might help us next year as well,” Ferentz said.
With Marvin McNutt sitting out due to shoulder surgery, all eyes were on No. 2 wide receiver Keenan Davis on Saturday, and the up-and-coming starter didn't disappoint.
Davis proved why he was so highly recruited out of high school, coming up with an acrobatic, one-handed catch that drew "wows" from both the crowd and the defense.
“I didn’t think there was any way Keenan would get to that ball,” corner Shaun Prater said. “No way.”
McNutt and Ferentz are both counting on Davis to come up with his first big season this year, and both think he is capable of doing so. After Saturday, there's no doubt that he has the skill.
“It’s his time,” Ferentz said. “He needs to play like a starter, [and] he’s certainly more than capable.”
Last April, the offensive line was the weak link for the Iowa program and the lone question mark for a team that many ranked in the top ten nationally.
This year, the veteran unit should be a strength for the Hawkeyes and it showed why on Saturday, dominating the defensive line for much of the scrimmage.
Ferentz said that he wasn't happy with the line's development at points, especially in pass protection, but seemed knows the potential that unit has.
“They’re going to do a little better than they did today,” he said. “I think we did a pretty good job with holding penalties. I think we had three or four or five, I don’t know, something like that, a couple exchange problems. I think that group will be fine, but we’re not there yet by any stretch.”
Like the offensive line, the defensive line's status has changed since last spring. With three starters to replace from last year's unit, the defensive line is expected to be the Hawkeyes' weak link this season.
Earlier in spring practice, the unit was persistent that it would be able to fill the big shoes it needed to, but it struggled mightily against the offensive line on Saturday.
Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns both return with significant game experience, but the other two spots are still up in the air. Lebron Daniel will likely start as well, but with some solid players pushing him from lower on the depth chart, expect this unit to rotate throughout much of the offseason and the regular season as well, as Ferentz said he could potentially use a six to eight man rotation.
Like the offensive line last year, it will definitely be a work in progress.
After sustaining a number of injuries at linebacker last season, Iowa was forced to play a number of young players, including true freshman James Morris and redshirt freshman Shane DiBona.
That has actually turned out to be a positive for the Hawkeyes, who will have great experience at that unit heading into 2011.
Ferentz has been very pleased with the linebackers' development, especially that of Morris, who he said has picked up right where he left off last season.
Tyler Nielsen will also be back in play this season after being injured last year, and expect the Hawkeyes to play a number of different players, as they have plenty of depth in the middle of their defense.
Many experts expected the Iowa secondary to be a weakness this season after the departures of safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood. However, thanks to an abundance of talent at corner, the Hawkeyes have been able to clog those holes.
Micah Hyde, who started at corner last season, has been moved to safety in order to fill one of the holes left by Sash and Greenwood, and he says his development has been going well. Collin Sleeper has been playing as Hyde's co-starter this spring and the coaches have been very please with how he's stepped up as the "next man in."
Shaun Prater is a lock to start at corner--although he admitted he'd love to play safety--and was named by GoDaddy.com as a preseason All-American. Across from Prater will be either Greg Castillo or BJ Lowery, and Prater's backup will likely be Jordan Bernstine, who could potentially switch to safety as well.
Iowa also has a number of good defensive backs coming to campus next fall, including Nicholas Law and Jordan Lomax, both of whom could be in the mix next season.
After fielding a special teams unit that was miserable at times last season, Kirk Ferentz made that unit a focus during spring practice this season.
"I'll just say this: We can't play special teams next year like we did last year and expect to be playing in a bowl game or having a good year," he said. "It just won't work."
There was really no way to judge if the coverage teams have improved this year because there were no kickoffs or punts, so that will need to be resolved in the fall.
Iowa also needs to find some new return men after losing kickoff returner Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and punt returner Colin Sandeman. Keenan Davis is the obvious choice to replace Johnson-Koulianos after playing beside him last season, but there is no solid replacement behind him.
Punter is also an area of concern after the departure of Ryan Donahue, who was arguably one of the best punters in college football during his career. Eric Guthrie will likely be his replacement after wowing the coaches during the spring.
“Eric Guthrie, from where he was three years ago, it’s unbelievable,” Ferentz said. “He’ll probably be like [James Vandenberg] with some ups and downs early, but he’s shown us he can be a good punter, so we’re excited about him.”
Like the rest of the special teams unit, Iowa's kicking game certainly had its ups and downs last season. Freshman Mike Meyer eventually won the starting job from Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker and will keep that job this season.
“Mike Meyer has done a good job all spring and Trent is right behind him,” Ferentz said. “Mike right now is the starter.”
Meyer was called out by fans at times last year, but performed well for just being a freshman, converting on 14 of 17 field goals. To put that in perspective, former Lou Groza Award winner Nate Kaeding was 14 of 22 his freshman year.
Iowa's kicking game should become a strength again the year and Meyer could rank among the best kickers in the Big Ten.
After failing under high expectations last season, the Iowa coaching staff has once again embraced the role of the underdog and has emphasized its "next man in" mentality.
The Hawkeyes always play better when under the radar and many of these players were under-appreciated coming out of high school and feel they have something to prove.
This offseason was a rocky one for Iowa after two drug arrests before the bowl game and a breakout of rhabdomyolysis that left 13 players in the hospital. However, Ferentz has been open about all of those controversies and it seems to have brought his team closer together.
This year, nobody expects Iowa to be anything above mediocre. That's just how the Hawkeyes like it and that's just when they're the most dangerous. Expect the coaches to build another strong, chemistry-oriented team that showcases their "more with less" reputation.