We haven't forgotten that actual Hawkeye sports exist and that they're actually going on these days [could have fooled me.--ed.]. For example, spring football started, which gave Pat Harty a positively orgasmic opportunity to bring up all the arrests that happened over the past year. As far as what happens on the field, we've got a brand new depth chart, linked rightchere (embedded PDF, pops). There aren't many surprises, as you might expect; after all, it's not like A.J. Edds is seeing time at quarterback or anything. But still, we've got several situations for you to keep a close eye on over the next few weeks.
1. The Offensive Line. This is an area of great concern, and really has been since Joe Philbin left (you know our thoughts on that, no doubt). Nonetheless, almost everybody's back from last season, including previously injured Rob Bruggeman (more on him in a moment). Nobody graduated, but Dace Richardson's knee suffered a 9/11-esque structural failure, and there's no reason to expect any contribution from him at this point. Quite a shame, that. So the tackle spots will be manned by known beastmaster Bryan Bulaga on the left side and Kyle Calloway (no, not him) on the right. This is a bit of a juggle, as Bulaga was at left guard last season with Calloway at left tackle. Seth Olsen, last year's right tackle and top lineman, moves to the interior at right guard in front of Travis Meade.
At left guard are two highly underwhelming players, Julian Vandervelde and Dan Doering, both of whom split time at RG last season. Neither was effective, though Doering was slightly better at times. It's quite possible, though, that neither will receive the lion's share of the snaps at LG this fall. That's because there's a remarkable battle underway for the center spot, as Bruggeman and Rafael Eubanks are listed as co-starters. Bruggeman, as you might recall, was in the OL rotation last spring when he tore his ACL and missed all but the last three games of the season. Now, it's hard to think that Eubanks isn't one of the five best linemen on the team, especially considering most guys aren't capable of playing center. Therefore, as the coaching staff decides on a "best five guys" to put out there, it's highly likely that they decide Eubanks is better at center than the Julidan Vanderdoering duo is at guard, and they move Bruggeman over to LG.
If that's the case, and I think it's way more likely to play out that way than with a potential four-year starter sitting on the bench most of the time, then this is what your starting five looks like:
Considering they're all more seasoned at this point than they were 12 months ago, it's only reasonable to expect better things out of the unit for next season. At the very least, the odds that Vandervelde's going to be on his ass the backfield are far lower than they were last season.
2. Wide Receiver. Another aspect of the passing game that looks to be improved. Andy Brodell is back, starting at split end. Ferentz said Brodell is "back to full speed," and we need not tell you what great news that is. Before his injury last season, of course, Brodell's hands were--ahem--suspect. It definitely warrants mention, however, that Christensen was doing a much better job of putting the ball in a receiver's hands before Brodell was hurt, which tells you one of two things:
A) Christensen's accuracy dropped way off when Brodell's hamstring exploded;
B) Brodell's route running is far better than anyone else on the team.
B) is your far more likely answer, and his return is a major plus for the passing game. His backup at SE is Colin Sandeman, another(!!) white WR, although he hasn't made the Inexplicably Great leap yet. Sandeman spent time at punt returner, though his speed and acceleration don't really seem to warrant his presence back there. The depth chart lists him at 195 pounds now, which if true is a welcome change; he looked like he didn't even weigh that much in pads last season.
On the other side, your co-starters at flanker are Trey Stross and DJK, which is no real surprise. Both are highly talented receivers without a great deal of collegiate experience, but who are more than capable of starting. It'll be interesting to see how often Iowa goes 3-wide next season, because it doesn't seem like you'd want any of the top three receivers off the field. A lot of it will probably come down to how well they block off the ball during running plays, as downfield blocks are usually the difference between a 10-yard gain and a 65-yard touchdown. No predictions here on that outcome, because it'd be ridiculous to bet against any of those guys.
3. Running back. Yes, the three most important questions are on offense, because this just so happened to be the worst offense in the BXI last season, and that cannot continue if Iowa wants to have any measure of success [easy there, Nostradumbass.--ed.]. The only two scholarship backs on campus are Jevon Pugh and Nate Guillory, and they're listed as co-starters for now. The benefit of practicing with the team over the spring gives the two a major edge over Shonn Greene, Jeff Brinson, and Jewel Hampton. Yes, Greene has considerable experience with the team, but his time away from the program can't help, so he'll have amost as steep a learning curve as Brinson and Hampton do. This race is wide, wide open, and it would be no surprise if Iowa went back to a three-back committee style like they used in 2006 with Young, Sims, and Greene. Still, someone's got to emerge as an every-down horse, or the run game won't earn any respect in 2008, and that usually spells disaster.
4. Cornerback. Ah, finally some talk on defense. Three-time letterwinner Bradley Fletcher is back and a near-prohibitive favorite at the left corner, though he hasn't exactly sparkled on the field thus far. His backup is Chris Rowell, who was high on some lists coming out of high school, so expect some decent competition to emerge there. Still, hard to bet against a senior on a Kirk Ferentz team. On the other side, Jordan Bernstine is likely your starter, but he's coming off shoulder surgery and probably won't see any field time this spring, which opens the position up for jockeying in the meantime. Behind Bernstine is Drew Gardner, a walk-on who's generously listed at 5'10" and 178. Gardner doesn't suck, per se--he made a solid tackle on a much bigger receiver to finish off Michigan State in the second overtime last season--but we have no real idea if he can succeed on an island against a good wideout. In other words, we'd feel a lot more confident with an elite athlete like Bernstine on the edges and letting Gardner play short zone as a nickel or dime back. So please come back healthy, Bernstine. Please.
5. Quarterback. Okay, this isn't the fifth-most important position battle, but it's probably the fifth-most likely to change. We're not ready to throw all the dirt on Jake Christensen just yet. As you might recall (especially if you're a creep), Christensen was named the Most Accurate Passer when he attended the Elite 11 camp in 2005 alongside such talents as Heisman finalist Chase Daniel, supreme talent and ne'er-do-well Ryan Perriloux, and USC's Dirty Mark Sanchez. So it's not like he's some walk-on with a noodle arm. Ferentz has publicly stated that it's important for Christensen to show improvement in 2008, and there's no doubt that he's keeping a close eye on backups Ricky Stanzi and Marvin McNutt this spring as well. Unless Christensen has in fact regressed or shown little improvement in relation to Stanzi and McNutt, we expect him to stay atop the depth chart. We also wouldn't be surprised, however, to see McNutt spell Christensen for a series or two at a time, not unlike the McCann-Banks tandem of 2001.
6. Linebacker. A.J. Edds is a mortal lock to keep his starting role. He's fierce, athletic, and relentless; we'd be surprised if he wasn't named at least second-team All-BXI this season. At the Mike and Will spots, though, questions remain. Gone are Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal, who were excellent in 2007 and who will certainly be missed in 2008. Jacody Coleman is the current favorite to take over the middle linebacker role, as he spent a good deal of time in the middle while Klinkenborg was injured. He didn't excel, though, and Iowa's run defense seemed to suffer without Klinkenborg in the middle. Still, Coleman was a true freshman last year, so he can be forgiven to some extent. Nonetheless, the success of Iowa's run defense depends on Coleman's ability to step up into the leadership role that usually accompanies that position.
The starting weakside linebacker is Jeff Tarpinian, an Omaha native who spent most of last season battling back problems. He's listed ahead of star recruit Jeremiha Hunter, who certainly has the talent to be a big-time linebacker. Having not seen the depth chart, we probably would have bet that Hunter would get the nod here, but the coaches must like what they've seen out of Tarpinian when he's been healthy. Ferentz said that Edds was the only linebacker whose role is secure, so watch for good competition this spring out of the weakside position.
7. Defensive End. There's little to no question who your starters will be, but how they perform will definitely be worth noting. Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard, two highly rated recruits (VHTs!), played quality minutes last season down the stretch, and one could certainly argue that their contributions to the pass rush were instrumental in Iowa's comeback against the SPARTAAAANS. They replace the much-lauded duo of Bryan Mattison and Ken Iwebema, but it seems like those two peaked in 2005, especially Iwebema. Mattison will be missed, of course, and he'll make an NFL team very happy over the next five years. But his pass rush disappeared for weeks at a time, and both Ballard and Clayborn are much more athletic. If the two talented sophomores can play with an appropriate amount of discipline and complement the disruptive forces of Matt Kroul and Mitch King on the defensive line, Iowa stands to be at an advantage on defense for most of 2008.
8. Bits and pieces: Your starting safeties are Brett Greenwood and Harold Dalton, just like last season. Neither are particularly outstanding, but Greenwood plays well and Dalton's got every bit the nose for the tackle Bob Sanders or Marcus Paschal did, if not the highlight-reel hitting ability ... Tony Moeaki is still recovering from his arm injury, though coaches expect him to be at 100% for the summer and fall; his replacement, Brandon Myers, is not a liability at TE ... Paul Chaney Jr. is the current punt returner, though that typically changes as spring and summer practices progress ... All three kickers (Daniel Murray, Austin Signor, and Ryan Donahue) are back on special teams, and their roles should stay the same. Considering their--ahem--inconsistency last season, Hawkeye fans with end zones seats should probably invest in crash helmets. INCOMING!