All aboard! (Photo by Reese Strickland/Getty Images)
So what do we know about Iowa football after spring practice? A little bit more than we did a few weeks ago.
1) The offense is going to need all the practice it can get.
It's a good thing Iowa doesn't play a game until the Northern Illinois game at Soldier Field on September 1st. Iowa had 15 practices this spring to install and get accustomed to Greg Davis' offense. They'll have another 15 practices this summer/fall to continue to improve their understanding of the offense. They'll also have whatever unsupervised team activities they do this summer (hopefully Vandenberg is organizing some drills with the receivers and tight ends). And that's good because based on the evidence from this spring, they're going to need all that time to get up to speed. The offense didn't look very sharp in the open practice -- lots of miscommunication, especially in the passing game -- and other reports from practices suggested that it wasn't just an issue at the open practice. But none of that is surprising -- you expect some growing pains when you change offenses. Chances are good that the offense in September will look much better than the offense in April. Let's just be happy they don't play a meaningful game until then.
2) All aboard the H.M.S. Mandenberg.
There was some hope earlier this winter -- in the wake of James Vandenberg's somewhat topsy-turvy junior season and with the arrival of a new offensive coordinator not beholden to any pre-existing players -- that there would be an open quarterback contest and perhaps a challenger would emerge to threaten Vandenberg's iron grip on the job -- or at least push him to reach another level in his play. After spring ball, one thing is pretty clear: Iowa football will sink or swim with the Mandenberg in 2013. He appears to be well ahead of the challengers -- at this point, we probably just need to hope that he's able to solve the consistency issues that plagued him in 2011.
3) Running back might not be a black hole after all.
Maybe it was just a function of the rock-bottom expectations we had after the departures of Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall and the season-ending (probably) ACL injury to Jordan Canzeri. After all, we were effectively rolling out last year's 4th- and 5th-string options as 1st- and 2nd-string options during spring practice. And maybe it was a function of a not-so-great defensive line (more on that in a bit), but De'Andre Johnson and Damon Bullock looked... pretty decent, actually. Bullock had the highlight play of the open practice, an 84-yard TD scamper where he showed impressive speed in the open field. Johnson displayed nice shiftyness between the tackles and cut back a few good runs -- he did look far more comfortable in Iowa's zone blocking scheme than he did a year ago.
There's no doubt that incoming freshmen Barkley Hill and Greg Garmon will still have every opportunity to earn playing time when they arrive in the fall (as well as walk-on Andre Dawson, who was MIA yesterday; maybe he isn't on campus yet?), but Bullock and Johnson showed more promise at RB than they did a year ago. That's encouraging. Scary but true factoid: even with the departures of Coker and McCall and the injury-induced absence of Canzeri, this is one of the more experienced running back groups in recent years that Iowa has had entering a season -- just having two backs who have some experience (even if most of it is just in practice) is an improvement on the usual state of affairs lately.
4) Brother, can you spare a wide receiver?
On the other hand, the state of the wide receiving corps was less encouraging. It was always going to be difficult to replace Marvin McNutt's otherworldly production and it looked even harder at the open practice with Keenan Davis being limited in what he could do. Kevonte Martin-Manley and Don Shumpert were the top-two receivers in Davis' absence, but both were inconsistent at the open practice. Shumpert had the catch of the day (a 40-odd yard reception downfield) and would have had a deep TD reception if Vandenberg hadn't overthrown him by a few yards, but he also had a few drops and fumbled the ball after getting hit. KMM likewise made a nice catch along the sideline, but also missed a few and didn't seem on the same page with the QBs at times. Other than Shumpert and KMM, no receivers stood out -- walk ons Blake Haluska and Steven Staggs probably got the most work of the remaining receivers.
Mind you, this is where it's important to remember the usual caveat with open practice observations -- it's one practice out of fifteen and making firm judgments is not advised. It's also worth remembering that Iowa's open practices have been famous in recent years for featuring standout performances by wide receivers and tight ends nominally buried deep on the depth chart, generating plenty of (probably unwarranted) buzz among fans. Who can forget the hype train for Don Nordmann or Tyler Gerstandt in recent years? (And if you're saying "Who's Tyler Gerstandt?"... well, that's kind of the point.) So even if a receiver had stood out at the open practice, it wouldn't necessarily have been indicative of a player who would be a standout come fall. All that said... wide receiver still looks very much in flux. Davis and Martin-Manley are the top two guys, but everything after that is a mystery. There will definitely be opportunities for incoming freshmen to earn playing time at wide receiver this fall.
5) Can we go five-wide with tight ends?
Several coaches have been talking up the tight ends this spring and we saw glimpses of why they've been earning praise at the open practice. The tight ends combined for nine catches, with Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble leading the way with three apiece. The Polish Hat had two catches (for 12 yards) but was targeted heavily in the red zone drill portion of the practice. He could be a devastating weapon there, so hopefully he and Vandenberg can develop a good rapport in the red zone. While the overall stats for the tight ends (9 catches, 45 yards) were far from impressive, it was clear to see that they will be a big part of the offense -- and they have the potential to make things very difficult for opposing defenses.
Meanwhile, can we learn anything from Davis' use of the tight end at Texas? Here's a breakdown of the top tight end performance each season, going back to 2002:
2002: Brock Edwards -- 16 receptions, 258 yards, 1 TD
2003: Bo Scaife -- 16 receptions, 205 yards, 2 TD
2004: Bo Scaife -- 26 receptions, 348 yards, 2 TD
2005: David Thomas -- 50 receptions, 613 yards, 5 TD
2006: Jermichael Finley -- 25 receptions, 277 yards, 2 TD
2007: Jermichael Finley -- 45 receptions, 575 yards, 2 TD
2008: Blaine Irby -- 10 receptions, 95 yards, 2 TD
2009: Greg Smith -- 6 receptions, 48 yards, 0 TD
2010: Barrett Matthews -- 10 receptions, 47 yards, 1 TD
When Texas had a dominant receiver (or receivers), the tight end tended to play a fairly small role in the Texas offense. Roy Williams put up boffo numbers in the early '00s and the likes of Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby were the preferred targets of the Colt McCoy offenses in the mid-to-late '00s. But there were also times when the tight end was heavily involved -- David Thomas was Vince Young's favorite target in 2005 and Jermichael Finley was a prolific third option for Colt McCoy in 2007. Use of the tight end fell off a cliff after Finley left, but there may be several factors behind that -- Texas was fully invested in the spread offense at that point and seemed to run almost everything out of four-wide sets and, frankly, Irby, Smith, and Matthews were a step (or four) down from the likes of Scaife, Thomas, and Finley. Iowa isn't going all-in on the spread and Fedorowicz figures to be one of Iowa's most talented receiving options -- it seems pretty clear that Davis is going to feed the Hat this fall.
6) Block 'til you drop
The only real surprise with the Iowa offensive line was that redshirt freshman Austin Blythe bulled his way into contention for a starting job on the line, likely at guard. Might Blythe be the next phenom along the Iowa line? Well, maybe in terms of earning playing time as a freshman -- he's not likely to follow the Bryan Bulaga or Riley Reiff gameplan of breaking in as a guard and then transitioning to tackle. It's far more likely that he replaces James Ferentz as the starter at center next year.
But in general, the offensive line looks like a pretty big work in progress right now, which is hardly surprising when they're basically replacing 3.5 starters from a year ago (if we count Tobin as a half-starter last year) and breaking in a new position coach. We're not going to know much about this group until the
fur feathers start flying in September. For now, let's just hope that they can be better than the 2007 offensive line (the last offensive line that featured this many new faces).