The Iowa Hawkeyes are coming off a disappointing season despite a victory in the Insight Bowl over Blaine Gabbert and the Missouri Tigers. Ranked as high as No. 5 in the preseason rankings by SI.com going into the 2010 football season, the Hawkeyes crumbled and finished 8-5, losing games to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Northwestern and Arizona.
The team was ravaged by off-field controversy starting before they even played their first game in 2010. Freshman running back Brandon Wegher had left the team. This was a player who had set the Iowa record of touchdowns (eight) by a running back the year before.
Jewel Hampton, thought to be the next star running back, tore his ACL in the third game of the season at Arizona and later announced he would transfer.
Fellow running back Adam Robinson was arrested for marijuana possession in Des Moines in December throwing the team in more turmoil.
The negative headlines continued in Iowa City as star wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, was arrested on seven drug related charges.
Then came maybe the most disturbing news. An offseason workout put 13 Iowa players in the hospital with a condition called Rhadbomyolysis — a kidney threatening condition that involves the breakdown of muscle tissue.
In all the negative controversy I almost forgot that defensive coordinator Norm Parker was hospitalized for much of the season and had his right foot amputated in September 2010 due to diabetes related complications.
With the past seasons troubles behind them the Hawkeyes are ready to turn over a new leaf and replace departing stars such as Ricky Stanzi, DJK, Adrian Clayborn, Tyler Sash and Christian Ballard.
Iowa quarterback James Vandeberg
Despite losing numerous starters to graduation and the NFL such as Adrian Clayborn, Ricky Stanzi, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Tyler Sash, Brett Greenwood, Jeff Tarpinian, Julian Vandervelde, Karl Klug, Christian Ballard, Jeremiha Hunter and Allen Reisner, the Iowa Hawkeyes are set to compete in 2011 due to the emergence of players in their skill positions.
Quarterback James Vandenberg is a redshirt junior and has spent the last three seasons learning under Stanzi. Vandenberg's claim to fame began as a freshman when he stepped in for Stanzi when he was injured during a game against Northwestern. He beat the Minnesota Gophers and led the Hawkeyes back against Ohio State in a game at the Horseshoe. Despite losing the game by a field goal, Vandenberg showed tremendous poise and patience as well as a much stronger arm than Stanzi.
Joining Vandenberg is the next Hawkeyes' star running back — Marcus Coker.
Coker played sparingly last season behind Adam Robinson, but emerged during the Insight Bowl in which he carried the rock 33 times for 219 yards including two touchdowns. The 6'1" 220 pound bruiser is the prototype running back for the run heavy Big Ten conference. There is no reason to think that Coker couldn't get over 1,000 yards in 2011 as a starter.
Iowa has been blessed the past two seasons with arguably its best set of wide receivers in head coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure – Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt.
With Johnson-Koulianos leaving the program, that leaves the No. 1 receiver spot open for McNutt. McNutt led the team in 2010 in receptions and yards with 53 catches for 861 yards. The former QB was moved to WR prior to the 2009 season and has blossomed into an NFL-type wide receiver.
The 6'4" St. Louis, Miss., native was second on the team in 2010 with eight touchdowns and was named second team all-Big Ten. With the strong armed Vandenberg throwing to him, McNutt should expect similar if not better numbers in 2011.
Alongside McNutt is former blue-chip recruit, Keenan Davis.
Davis had played sparingly behind McNutt and Johnson-Koulianos the previous two seasons, but as a junior this is Davis' year to emerge as a game-changing receiver.
He has the size at 6'3" 215 lbs to dominate defensive backs and was the talk of the 2011 Iowa spring game in which he made numerous highlight reel catches. Davis and McNutt give Vandenberg two huge targets at the receiver positions. With a strong running game, and two game breaking receivers, it should allow for single coverage on Davis and McNutt and prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box for Coker.
As far as the tight end positions goes, the Hawkeyes have sophomore monster — C.J. Fiedorowicz. The 6'7" tight end played sparingly behind Allen Reisner during his freshman campaign, but after a full year with the Hawkeye coaching staff, Fiedorowicz is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties. If C.J. can stay on the field by doing a good job blocking for Coker, then the sky is the limit for the Iowa offense.
The Hawkeyes may have lost two all-Big Ten safeties in Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood, but still retained all-Big Ten corner Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde, the Defensive Player of the Insight Bowl.
Prater emerged as an elite cover corner the past season and is regarded as one of the best if not the best cornerback in the Big Ten conference. He gives Iowa a true shutdown corner able to take the opposing team's best receiver out of the passing game.
Hyde, who started the 2010 season at cornerback has been practicing at free safety this spring. This may seem like an odd move to casual fans, but Hyde is a ball hawk and welcomed the change. Feel free to read more about Hyde in this excellent article written by Daily Iowan colleague, Jordan Garretson: http://bit.ly/jk5yDv
The other two slots in the secondary are up for grabs and a possible starter is senior Jordan Bernstine. The former high school All-American from Lincoln HS (Des Moines) has all the measurables to succeed. He's 5'11" 205 lbs and runs a 4.4 40 yard dash, but his career has been dictated by multiple injuries.
Bernstine saw action in eight games last season and hopefully with both Sash and Greenwood gone this late bloomer can emerge in the Iowa secondary.
Despite losing leader Julian Vandervelde on the offensive line, there is no reason for Hawkeye fans to panic. The offensive line is always a strength of a Kirk Ferentz coached team and the Iowa staff is able to get productive lineman every season.
Mammoth left tackle Riley Reiff leads the line with returning starters — James Ferentz and Markus Zuzevics.
Reiff is a prototypical blindside blocker. He is 6'6" and 300 pounds. After emerging two seasons ago filling in for Bryan Bulaga, Reiff has the potential to be even better than the first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers.
Reiff is one of the better left tackles in the Big Ten and is currently projected as the seventh overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft according to Sports Illustrated. http://bit.ly/l9ac3Z
Ferentz and Zuzevics are both above average starters and will be sure to protect Vandenberg as well as open lanes for Coker.
The defensive line lost Karl Klug, Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard, but that still leaves Broderick Binns who is seen as the leader on the D-line.
Binns will line up at defensive end and will be a solid starter for the Hawks. Last season saw the emergence of D-tackle Mike Daniels. As a rotational starter last season, Daniels ranked second on the team in tackles for loss with 11 and second in sacks with four.
Daniels was arguably the Hawkeyes' best member of the D-line last season that produced three NFL players in Clayborn, Ballard and Klug.
Another potential starter for Iowa is defensive lineman LeBron Daniel.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz has succeeded the legendary Hayden Fry and built Iowa into a strong Big Ten program. Ferentz may not get the five star recruits like Ohio State, but he gets players that fit into his system and players that he can develop into stars. Look at Marvin McNutt, he was recruited as a quarterback and has become one of the better wideouts in the Big Ten.
Ferentz always produces great linemen and tight ends and preaches fundamentals on the football field. A member of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, Ferentz is much like Belichick in how he coaches and runs his program.
With Ferentz at the helm, the Iowa fans will be sure of one thing. The team will always put together a group out on the field that wants to win and will always compete. Iowa will always be a contender in the Big Ten because of the man at the helm — Kirk Ferentz.
One of the key reasons why Iowa will contend in the Big Ten next season is due to the reshuffling of the Big Ten conference due to Nebraska joining.
On paper, the Hawkeyes schedule is favorable due to the fact Iowa will not face Wisconsin or Ohio State.
The schedule can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/iJhhJ1
The notable games I see are when Pittsburgh comes to Kinnick Stadium in the third game of the season. Last season Iowa was dismantled in their third game in Tuscon, by the Arizona Wildcats. Pittsburgh will be a solid test for them as they prepare for Big Ten games.
In their fifth week the Hawkeyes travel to Beaver Stadium and face Penn State. Though recently Ferentz has dominated Joe Paterno in matchups, playing in Happy Valley is always an intimidating and tough game. This could really set the tone for the rest of the season.
Iowa gets to face both Michigan and Michigan State, two teams that will make noise in the Big Ten next season at home. They won against both teams last season, most memorably dominating the Spartans in Kinnick 37-6. Keep in mind MSU was ranked No. 5 in the country at this point.
Iowa's hardest game of the season is going to be at Nebraska on Black Friday. With the similar characteristics between the two teams, this is going to be Iowa's biggest rivalry now that the Big Ten has reshuffled. Going into Lincoln the day after Thanksgiving in front of the Sea of Red will truly test the Hawkeyes in their last game of the regular season.
Being optimistic I could see Iowa finishing in the upper part of the Big Ten next season due to such a favorable schedule. Most of it comes down to how the Hawkeyes perform against Nebraska.