The second in a two-part series. Part 1 is here (also, right below part two).
Who are the unknown kids on your team that will be household names come December?
The usual household names are from the skill positions. Of course, Iowa has issues at quarterback and running back, and the receivers are only as good as the quarterback (in other words, screwed). The household names are probably coming from the defense. Our best guesses:
Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn, DE -- Bryan Mattison finally exceeded expectations in his final season, and Kenny Iwebema's mom once asked to use my bathroom before a game. I love those guys. That being said, it was time for a change, and what better way to reload than with two hyper-athletic freaks. Christian Ballard (6'4", 270 sophomore) has the size to bull rush tackles and the speed to run around them. Adrian Clayborn (6'3", 245) might not be quite as gargantuan, but matches Ballard in speed. Both saw limited action last season (you might remember Ballard played Ike Turner to C.J. Bacher's Tina), and both have impressed throughout the spring. With both of Iowa's top-notch defensive tackles returning and occupying the interior line, Clayborn and Ballard should spend the fall terrorizing quarterbacks across the league, never seeing a double team.
Jordan Bernstine, CB/S -- One of the most heralded in-state recruits this decade, Bernstine (5'11", 200 sophomore) has the instincts of a guy who tackled everything that moved in high school. There's just one problem: He's never actually played cornerback. That didn't stop Iowa from making him the prohibitive favorite to start there this season. Eventually, that spot will likely go to Amari Spivey, but that won't be enough to keep Bernstine off the field. Regardless of position, expect to see him in the defensive backfield with the frequency.
A.J. Edds, OLB -- Here comes The Great Leap Forward. Edds (6'4", 245) was a starter last season, and showed more than a few flashes of brilliance. He is already the best coverage linebacker of the Ferentz era (you read that right), and improved against the run as the season progressed. If he played in a program where the media played attention, he'd be a Butkus Award candidate. As it is - absent a corresponding Great Leap Forward by his teammates - he'll be the best linebacker you've never heard of.
How would you describe the general mood around your program? Are you gearing up the tailgate party for a conference title run or do you get the impression there are going to be a lot of empty seats in your stadium this year?
For the record, this might be the most purely athletic team Kirk Ferentz has ever fielded; a group of seniors who functioned almost exclusively on willpower are being replaced by the products of two of the best recruiting classes in school history. That being said, it's hard to generate excitement when you lose your final game of the season - and your chance at a bowl - to Directional Michigan. Expectations are greatly diminished.
The position battles, especially on offense, aren't generally between two players equally capable of success in Big Ten conference football; they are a search for the lesser of two evils. Quarterback is a disaster, running back might well be led by a walk-on, and the offensive line is in shambles. The rash of injuries at wide receiver had the unexpected benefit of improving depth; Iowa might be more stocked at wideout than anyone but Ohio State. Of course, there isn't anyone to get those receivers the ball or anyone to block for the guy who will try just that.
The good news? There is still no Ohio State on the schedule (not having Michigan is a curse this year), and the defense might even be better than last year. Replacements are available for the graduating ends and linebackers. Charles Godfrey's graduation hurts, but there is experience in the defensive secondary, and Brett Greenwood is showing signs of becoming the next great Iowa walk-on at safety. Discipline issues ran rampant through the program this fall, but the Hawkeyes have largely stayed off the police blotter through the spring. If nobody leaves, there is a remarkable number of sophomores and juniors with significant experience competing for playing time.
There is deep cynicism within the fan base, and rightfully so. Three seasons at .500 have been hugely disappointing, especially given the unprecedented success of the three prior seasons and the whimper that ended the 2007 campaign. In fact, hope hasn't been lower since the summer of 2002. We all know what happened then. If things break the right way - and there is no doubt Iowa is due for a couple of good breaks - it's not completely unreasonable to hope for nine or ten wins. Unfortunately, it's equally likely we see four or five.