2011 Iowa Football Fall Practice Preview: Five Questions On Defense

Yesterday we did the offense, which means today it's time for the defense (and special teams) to get examined.

1) Who are these new faces in old places on the defensive line? 

The defensive line saw some of the most dramatic change on the depth chart between spring and fall:

SPRING
DE:
Broderick Binns, Dominic Alvis
DT: Mike Daniels, Steve Bigach
DT: Thomas Nardo, Carl Davis
DE: Lebron Daniel, Joe Forgy

FALL
DE:
Broderick Binns, Joe Forgy/Mike Hardy
DT: Mike Daniels, Carl Davis
DT: Dominic Alvis, Steve Bigach/Thomas Nardo
DE: Lebron Daniel, Joe Gaglione

Three of the projected starters (Binns, Daniels, and Daniel) remain the same, but after that?  Chaos.  Alvis moves from back-up defensive end to starting defensive tackle.  Nardo moves from starting defensive tackle to splitting time with Bigach at back-up defensive tackle.  Mike Hardy and Joe Gaglione emerge from out of nowhere to crack the two-deeps.  It's madness. Madness, I tell you!  Or it's just totally expected depth chart shuffling at positions where very little is fixed.  One or the other.

The most intriguing move is Alvis, a guy who appears ideally suited to fill the Mitch King/Karl Klug-size void in Iowa's defensive line.  Under the radar prospect?  Try 2* and non-Iowa offers from UNI and South Dakota.  He even comes from a small town in Iowa I've never heard of (Logan).  Undersized?  He came to Iowa listed at 6'4", 225 lbs and is still only listed at 6'4", 255 lbs (which is farly close to the listed weights for King and Klug when they first cracked the line-up).  He drew praise from Ferentz after spring practice and from Norm on the I-Club circuit and Morehouse has mentioned him favorably on some of the On Iowa podcasts.

There are some other eyebrow-raising names among the back-ups, too.  Gaglione generated some early buzz as an incoming recruit because he had 22 sacks as a high school senior (not sure of the competition level there, but still: 22 sacks!), but injuries over the past 2-3 years have kept him from even sniffing the depth chart, let alone the field.  Hardy's a Wisconsin recruit that Iowa managed to get despite offers from Nebraska and the Badgers; he's shuffled between DT and DE, but it looks like end has won out for now.  Iowa has two senior starters at DE this fall, so the opportunity is there for considerable playing time in the near future.  And there's also Carl Davis (a DT of uncommon size for Iowa) and Thomas Nardo and Steve Bigach (who have great names, if nothing else).  None of these guys are probably ready to be every-down starters yet, but they could make an impact as high-energy subs who rotate in to cause some havoc.  Remember when Karl Klug saw spot duty in 2008 (and won a Defensive Player of the Week Award?!) on his way to becoming a terrormonster in 2009 and 2010?  One (or more) of these guys could be on that exact same career path.

2) What's going on at WLB?

Two LB spots seem pretty well-settled: Tyler Nielsen is recovered from his broken freakin' neck and ready to resume his starting gig at OLB and James Morris is ready to level up and become a conference-smothering destroyer of souls at MLB.  (And if he's not, then Bruce Davis, who's the living embodiment of a brick shithouse, is probably ready to carry the reins at MLB.)  WLB was a little more nebulous, though: Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens were divided by a slash on the spring depth chart.  For now, Kirksey appears to have moved ahead of Hitchens, since the slash has changed to a comma (ah, depth chartin': where punctuation assumes vital importance).  (Hitchens can't escape the slash, though: he's splitting time with Shane DiBona at the back-up WLB spot.)

Interestingly, both Kirksey and Hitchens appear to represent a change in the defensive mindset at Iowa.  Kirksey is listed at 6'2", 215 lbs and Hitchens is listed at 6'1", 224 lbs.  That's definitely smaller than the last guy to fill the WLB spot, Jeremiha Hunter, listed at 6'2", 235 lbs.  Which, as it happens, is the exact same listed height and weight for DiBona.  Ten years ago, DiBona probably starts at WLB for Iowa, given his size and experience.  Barring some strangeness at practice, though, he won't start this year, while a smaller, quicker guy like Hitchens or Kirksey will.  Short of switching to a base nickel defense, this might be the most obvious concession to the need to address the prevalence of spread offenses and dink-and-dunk passing games Iowa faces year in and year out now.  And if Hitchens or Kirksey can actually effectively defend slot receivers and speedy tight ends?  Then it will be a very welcome change indeed.

3) Seriously, what the hell is going on in the secondary?

As much depth chart tumult as there was on the defensive line, there was no shortage of it in the secondary, either:

SPRING
CB:
Shaun Prater, Greg Castillo
CB: Micah Hyde, B.J. Lowery
FS: Tanner Miller, Jack Swanson
SS: Collin Sleeper, Tom Donatell

FALL
CB:
Shaun Prater, Jordan Bernstine
CB: Greg Castillo, B.J. Lowery
FS: Micah Hyde, Tanner Miller
SS: Collin Sleeper, Tom Donatell

BY GAWD, that's Jordan Bernstine's music!  He's cracked the depth chart!  Unfortunately, he's listed behind the one absolute sure thing on the depth chart and when Ferentz was talking about the cornerback situation at Media Days, Bernstine didn't even rate a mention.  So that doesn't exactly bode well for Bernstine's chances of playing time at CB.  Which doesn't necessarily mean he has no hope of seeing the field, though; he did rate a mention by Ferentz a little later, when he was talking about the safety spots, which are moderately unsettled -- and where Bernstine may be a better fit, anyway.

The safety spots do see the most notable change on the depth chart, though, since they have the latest confirmation that Hyde is moving to free safety.  If it was an experiment in the spring, it's all but written in ink now.  He's evidently adjusted well to the switch and Castillo and Lowery have looked at least decent as his replacements at CB.  The move relieves some of the anxiety over the safety spots -- instead of breaking in two new starters at those spots, Iowa now really just has to break in one.  And there's no shortage of competition for that spot: either Sleeper or Donatell would fill the Iowa quota of having a walk-on starting at safety, while Tanner Miller has drawn praise from the coaches and fits the Tyler Sash mold of being a lightly-recruited Iowa kid who starred in multiple sports in high school.  Bernstine should also be in the mix and there's even a chance of one of the incoming freshmen (like Nico Law or Jordan Lomax) turning enough heads this month to grab the starting gig.  With most of the other starting spots on the team looking fairly settled, strong safety should easily be the most intriguing position battle to follow during fall practice -- and probably even into the first few weeks of the season (lest we forget that Harold Dalton was the starter at SS coming out of camp in 2008, only to lose his job to Tyler Sash before the end of September).

4) Who's kicking the ball and how concerned should I be?

To answer the first question, according to the depth chart, that would be Mike Meyer (placekicker) and Eric Guthrie (punter).  So, the two guys everyone pretty much expected.  The depth chart doesn't list back-up kickers or punters, but presumably Trent Mossbrucker and Jonny Mullings are ably filling those roles, respectively.  To answer the second question... er, well, has there been a time since Kaeding graduated that you weren't concerned about at least one of the two spots?  Meyer had pretty good stats (14/17 FG), but he also missed an extra point (and had another blocked because the protection screwed up), had trouble with distance (no field goals made longer than 42 yards, trouble getting kickoffs to the end zone), and had less-than-stellar form on some of his made kicks.  Mind you, he was also a freshman, so growing pains are to be expected.  But for the time being a little concern is probably warranted.

As for punter, Eric Guthrie has one career kick on his college resume: a 32-yard (!) punt against Iowa State last year.  32 yards is not exactly impressive, but one kick is also a ridiculously small sample size.  We might as well just continue considering him a blank slate until he gets a few kicks in during the season.  But after four (mostly) excellent years of punting from Ryan Donahue, yeah, we're a little nervous about seeing a new face back there.  Considering that Iowa seems to live in the margins under Ferentz (especially lately), Iowa needs all they help they can get out of their specialists... and it's impossible to feel confident in them at the moment.

5) And what about return men?

An insightful question; unfortunately, the depth chart omits returners entirely.  In spring, the only listed names were Keenan Davis at KR and Marvin McNutt at PR.  There's probably a better chance of Herky returning punts for Iowa than McNutt, so go ahead and eliminate that possibility right now.   Keenan probably will be one of the starting kick returners; he did it last year and did okay (9 returns for 175 yards).  As for the other kick returner (and the punt returner)... /shrug

If this was NCAA FOOTBALL '12, you'd probably just sort the roster by speed, agility, and acceleration and grab the guys with the highest ratings there.  Judging by the listed (fake) 40 times, that would probably mean giving shots to guys like Bernstine, Torrey Campbell, and Jordan Lomax, who all have (fake) 40 times listed in the 4.4 range.  Which makes about as much sense as anything else right now; whatever other methods Iowa has been using to find kick returners in recent years hasn't led to boffo results (aside from DJK).  There's also a school of thought that Hyde should get a crack at punt returner, based on his excellence in returning interceptions for scores last year.  Sure, why not?  I'm not sure Iowa's had a truly solid option at PR since Ramon Ochoa was back there.

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