It's about that time again. For the next three months, BHGP will be previewing this year's Iowa Hawkeyes, position-by-position. Naturally, as the earth revolves around the sun, things will change. Therefore, we're starting with the position where we are most certain, and ending with the position of which we are least certain. To date:
Tonight: Defensive End
I know what you're thinking: Where is the uncertainty at defensive end? On its face, it is a valid question. Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard are both returning starters who had top-notch first seasons, phenomenal athletic ability, and no history of significant injury. They are both guaranteed starting spots until the day they graduate.
The only question is where those starts will be. The three most experienced returning defensive linemen (Clayborn, Ballard, Binns) are all defensive ends, and both Clayborn and Ballard tip the scales at a higher weight than any defensive tackle on the two-deep. Considering the imporatance of the interior pass rush to the Iowa defense and the "best four players" mentality of Ferentz, Parker, and staff, we're almost certain one of the returning ends will move inside in August.
The Starters, Somewhere
Adrian Clayborn (#94, 6'3", 285, Junior) - After an inauspicious debut in rotation work as a freshman, Clayborn hit the Big Ten like the Cloverfield monster in his first full season as a starter. He finished his year with 50 tackles, including 8 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. The numbers were excellent in and of themselves, but it was Clayborn's ability to disrupt blocking schemes and spring his teammates loose that endeared him to the staff and fans. After dominant performances in the non-conference season, Clayborn became the target of double teams throughout the Big Ten campaign, leading in large part to Mitch King's best season as a Hawkeye.
What Clayborn lacked in experience, he more than made up for in pure athleticism; Ken O'Keefe reportedly told an I-Club gathering that the offense doesn't have an athlete like Adrian Clayborn (and the offense has Bryan Bulaga). It certainly didn't hurt that Clayborn lined up across from Bulaga every day in practice.
Clayborn hasn't been shown much in the way of preseason accolades; he inexplicably was omitted from Phil Steele's four preseason all-Big Ten teams (PDF), and is missing from Athlon's three all-conference teams. Let there be no doubt; he might not be there before the season begins, but he'll be there when it ends.
Christian Ballard (#46, 6'5", 285, Junior) - The more likely choice to move inside for a number of reasons, Christian Ballard had an equially stellar first season as a starter. After turning down offers to play tight end from such programs as Oklahoma, Michigan, and Georgia, Ballard recorded 15 tackles in his first year at Iowa. He inherited Bryan Mattison's spot on the right side and ran interference as a run-stuffing end. He finished the season with 40 tackles, including 4 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
So why is Ballard more likely to move inside? For starters, he played primarily on the right; the designated pass rush spot on the left was mostly Clayborn's. Second, Broderick Binns (the most likely replacement starter) is listed as his backup, which in theory means nothing but in practice indicates who the staff thinks might make the move. Third, Ballard's body (shorter arms than Clayborn, in particular) is better suited for the interior line. I think the move is a foregone conclusion, especially on passing downs. Regardless of where he lines up, expect another step forward from Ballard.
The Non-Starter Starter
Broderick Binns (#91, 6'2", 255, Sophomore) - Broderick Binns is the wildcard. If his freshman year was any indication, there's nothing keeping him off the field. Binns, a 3-star recruit out of vaunted Cretin Durham-Hall (St. Paul, MN; school of a certain Googlestalk victim), racked up 22 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups, and a fumble recovery in spot duty last season. You could actually watch the defensive coaches gain confidence in his abilities as the season progressed. He showed an uncanny ability to get to the quarterback and, when he couldn't record the sack, get his hands up and deflect passes or change the quarterback's throwing motion. He peaked against Purdue, when a pass tipped by Binns was picked off deep in Iowa territory, stopping the Boilers from closing within 5 (they would do it on the next possession). He also recorded 4 tackles in that game, and cemented his place in the defensive end rotation that Norm Parker has favored for the past two seasons.
This year, he should get increased playing time, especially if the coaching staff realizes the obvious and moves Ballard inside on passing downs to give him some space. That should be enough for us to get a better idea of the limitations of his talent, if they exist.
Should See the Field
Lebron Daniel (#58, 6'2", 250, Sophomore) - Anyone else see the marketing potential in a guy named Lebron from Cleveland?
Daniel (2* Scout, 3* Rivals, ignored by ESPN) comes to Iowa from Glenville High (Cleveland, OH), and was coached by Ted Ginn Sr. He was the second member of the 2007 class to come from Glenville; Bruce Davis, previously chronicled at linebacker, was part of his graduating class. For obvious reasons, Glenville is generally considered an Ohio State feeder school; Daniel drew interest but no offer from OSU (as well as Michigan and Notre Dame), and turned down offers from Wisconsin, Purdue, and Duke to come to Iowa. He then bulked up and moved from linebacker to defensive end. He featured primarily on special teams last season, recording a sole tackle against Maine. By the end of spring, he had replaced the injured Chad Geary as Clayborn's backup on the left side, and has held that line since. Barring injury, expect spot duty and garbage time reps.
Won't See the Field
Chad Geary (#98, 6'3", 262, Senior) - The former walk-on from Tipton is likely finished, and in the cruelest of ways. Geary showed signs of life in 2007, after Ken Iwebema went down injured and Geary stepped into the left end spot, recorded 4 tackles in a loss at Purdue in his first career start, then went down injured the next week against Michigan State. He entered 2008 in the backup spot and never emerged, recording 15 tackles in rotation duty. Entering spring practice, Geary was a legitimate contender for either a defensive tackle spot or the rotation end that Binns will inevitably be. Then he tore his ACL. Barring a medical redshirt that is highly unlikely for a fifth-year senior walk-on, Geary won't play again. The end is a whimper for a player that, for one brief moment, looked to be on the verge of a bang.