Ricky Stanzi proved how valuable he was last season in leading Iowa to a 9-0 start last year. Now the Hawkeyes must protect their investment by rebuilding the offensive line.
The only obstacle between the Hawkeyes and a serious chance at dethroning Ohio State as league champs is a line with just two starters returning -- tackle Riley Reiff and guard Julian Vandervelde.
That makes the work up front this spring critical. Luckily, offensive lines just happen to be coach Kirk Ferentz's specialty.
"We probably have eight or nine guys competing for the top spots. It's going to be interesting and we are equally interested to see who is going to emerge," Ferentz said. "We have a lot of guys on pretty equal footing as far as the competition goes."
Iowa has all of the other pieces in place for a memorable journey in 2010. Stanzi is back after proving last season he is the ultimate gamer (and winner), the tailbacks are again deep with Jewel Hampton healthy and added to a combination of Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher.
The defensive line might be the best in the Big Ten and ballhawking safety Tyler Sash, while he'll miss spring camp, gives the Hawkeyes the best centerfielder in football.
Last season's dream season crumbled only when Stanzi suffered an ankle injury in the 10th game. That makes protecting him even more paramount this season.
"We are pretty much just flipping coins right now and depth charts don't mean a lot at this point," Ferentz said. "Hopefully we'll be further along here in four weeks, and more importantly, hopefully by September, we'll have a good idea where we are heading."NOTES, QUOTES
SPRING OBJECTIVES: The most pressing issue between now and September is the offensive line, which has just two returning players with significant experience in tackle Riley Reiff and guard Julian Vandervelde.
Barring something unforeseen, Reiff will take over at left tackle for Bryan Bulaga, who is expected to be a top-10 pick in April's draft. Reiff is only a sophomore with limited experience for such a key position, but the Hawkeyes like his potential and have few other options.
The real questions are the other three positions, most particularly center. Fifth-year senior Josh Koeppel is the likely choice, but he's right around 6 feet and only about 270 pounds. Sorting through the candidates at guard will be a goal this spring, although it will likely come down to Adam Gettis and Nolan MacMillan, whose real future lies at tackle. Woody Orne, a transfer from South Dakota State, will get a look at right tackle. So will junior Markus Zusevics and senior Kyle Haganma. Redshirt freshman Brett Van Sloten is probably a year away, but a strong offseason could push him into the mix.
The linebacker situation is a bit clearer. Two starters must be replaced, but Jeff Tarpinian will take over in the middle and Tyler Nielsen is a strong candidate on the outside. The spring will be spent getting the three to play together. Tarpinian is a fifth-year senior who is ready, while Nielsen is a junior who has flashed tremendous speed on special teams.
Both Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher return at tailback, and now Jewel Hampton's knee is healthy. But Iowa must improve on a rushing attack that ranked 10th in the league (114.2 ypg). That makes the formation of the offensive line even more critical. Robinson and Wegher should be better as sophomores, but they need protection up front.
Daniel Murray was last seen limping off the field at the Orange Bowl. While he insists he's healthy, there could still be competition from Trent Mossbrucker. Murray has been inconsistent and will be pushed by the redshirt freshman this spring and summer.
BUILDING BLOCKS: While most of the focus will be on the return of QB Ricky Stanzi and the depth at tailback, the true strength of this team should again be the defense. Iowa might boast the best defensive line in the league with DEs Adrian Clayborn (70 tackles, 20 TFLs, 11.5 sacks) and Broderick Binns (63 tackles, 10 TFLs, 6 sacks) and DTs Karl Klug (65 tackles, 13 TFLs, four sacks) and Christian Ballard (54 tackles, 9 TFLs, 5.5 sacks). That's 202 tackles and 27 sacks just from the linemen.
The secondary must replace lockdown corner Amari Spievey, but Tyler Sash is the best ballhawk in the league at safety and sidekick Brett Greenwood is a good complement.
Linebackers will be low on experience, but that doesn't always equal talent. Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds are gone, but Jeremiha Hunter is back after finishing second on the team in tackles last year (89) and Jeff Tarpinian is finally ready to be a starter as a fifth-year senior. Tarpinian was once ahead of Hunter on the depth chart, but injuries set him back and Hunter exploded.
Iowa may struggle offensively until the issues up front are sorted out. But the defense, as usual, should keep the Hawkeyes in contention for a championship once again.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have some very good players back and that will drive expectations. ... I think preseason rankings are based on your experience level, your success level and then maybe the name of your school, too. But really don't have much to do with how we play next year and our 12 games." -- coach Kirk Ferentz, on preseason expectationsSTRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: The Hawkeyes must rebuild the offensive line, but otherwise don't have any glaring holes entering the fall. Tailbacks Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher will both be sophomores and both proved capable of handling the load last season. Now they also get back RB Jewel Hampton, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
QB Ricky Stanzi is the leader of this team, which was evident during the time he missed last season. With Stanzi healthy now and a strong supporting cast around him, the Hawkeyes should again be one of the best teams in the Big Ten.
--OL Woody Orne is eligible after sitting out a season following his transfer from South Dakota State. He'll likely get on the field, perhaps as the starter at right tackle, after playing there his last five games at SDSU. Originally a basketball recruit, Orne is now close to 300 pounds.
--TE C.J. Fiedorowicz -- An immediate contender to replace Tony Moeaki who should develop into the same type of deep threat down the middle of the field. Fiedorowicz could follow the same path as Dallas Clark and Moeaki. Iowa plucked the freshman recruit away from home-state school Illinois late in the recruiting season after he verbally committed to the Illini.
--QB A.J. Derby -- The hometown product from Iowa City graduated early and will take part in spring ball. Coach Kirk Ferentz called Derby a "Tim Tebow" type and could design packages to get him on the field, much like Tebow did as a freshman the year the Gators won the national championship.
--OL Andrew Donnal -- With all the uncertainty surrounding the offensive line, Donnal is the type of freshman who could immediately work his way onto the depth chart. He has the size at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds. He was a four-star recruit.
--Sophomore RB Jeff Brinson has decided to transfer rather than get caught in the traffic jam in Iowa's backfield. Brinson, a highly-touted recruit from Florida in 2008, is looking at schools closer to home. He redshirted in '08 and a foot injury limited him to one carry last season. He most likely would've started next season at least fourth on the depth chart behind Adam Robinson, Jewel Hampton and Brandon Wegher.
--Safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood will again miss spring ball after undergoing shoulder surgeries for the second consecutive offseason. They missed spring practice last year after the procedures, too. Iowa signed safety candidates Don Shumpert (6-3, 185), Anthony Hitchens (6-1, 200) and Tanner Miller (6-2, 195). Coach Kirk Ferentz said the lack of depth behind Sash and Greenwood leaves it likely at least one of the freshmen will contribute next season.
--DB David Cato and RB Josh Brown both transferred after the season. Cato, a sophomore from Arlington, Texas, made six tackles in 12 games last season. Brown, a freshman from St. Petersburg, Fla., did not have a carry. The loss of Cato is a blow to a safety position already thin behind starters Sash and Greenwood.
--Junior Cody Hundertmark made the switch from defensive end to offensive line before the Orange Bowl. He's around 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, so he has a good frame and he's fairly athletic. But there are a lot of bodies on the depth chart between he and the field.
--DE Adrian Clayborn pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct stemming from an incident in Iowa City in January 2009. Clayborn was originally charged with assault after allegedly striking a cab driver. Ferentz said Clayborn has been a model citizen during his time with the Hawkeyes. If anything, he may be suspended one game for the incident.
--DL Dominic Alvis, a redshirt freshman, will be limited during spring drills with a sore groin. Ferentz was unsure at the start of camp how much he would get out of Alvis.
Previous Report: 04/28/2010