Five Things To Watch During Fall Practice: Defense Edition

Hey, Joe Gaglione! He's actually played before! In a real game! This makes him our third-most experienced defensive lineman. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Yesterday we talked about the offense, which means today it's time to talk about the defense. And the special teams. Oh, the special teams. Are you ready for RED HOT PUNTER TALK? Maybe you better have a seat.

1) My Name Is __________ And I Play On The Iowa Defensive Line

One position unit on the Iowa defense is pretty much etched in stone -- linebacker. Barring injury, James Morris, Christian Kirksey, and Anthony Hitchens are going to be the starters on opening day. The position unit in front of the them, the defensive line, is not etched in stone. It's barely even written down on a dry erase board. Needless to say, this is a slight concern after underwhelming defensive line play contributed to one of the worst Iowa defenses in the Ferentz Era last year.

After spring, Riley McMinn and Dean Tsopanides were listed as the starters at defensive end, backed up by Melvin Spears and Joe Gaglione. Steve Bigach and Darian Cooper were the starters at defensive tackle, with Mike Hardy and Louis Trinca-Pasat as back-ups. Heading into fall, the new depth chart has Gaglione and Dominic Alvis/Bigach as the starters at end, with LTP and Carl Davis/Cooper the starters at tackle. (The backups are Spears and McMinn at end and Hardy and Tsopanides at tackle.) Depth charts at Iowa are frequently pretty useless and depth charts in spring and early fall are often of even less value. On the other hand, guess how many other starters from the spring depth chart were no longer starters on the preseason depth chart? Other than Jordan Canzeri (victim of an injury-induced departure from the depth chart)... none. To say things are unsettled along the defensive line is putting it mildly. Hell, two guys listed as starters in the spring (Tsopanides and Bigach) have now switched positions.

No other position battle during fall practice is likely to be as interesting as this one. Who stands out? Who switches positions? Who's listed as the starters at the end of fall practice? Alvis and Bigach seem like safe bets as the two most experienced options on the line, but after that? All bets are off.

2) The Law Won, But Can It Maintain?

One of the most pleasant surprises of spring practice was the ascension of Nico Law to the starting spot at strong safety. Nico's been a fan favorite since he was a recruit -- he helped wrangle several D.C.-area recruits in the class of 2011, he had great highlight film, and he displayed an entertaining, fun-loving presence in his tweets and on his internet radio show -- and he had a few "ooh!" worthy hits on special teams last year, too. Still, it was no sure thing that he'd take over the strong safety spot after Jordan Bernstine graduated, especially with Iowa's favorite sort of safety prospect (walk-on) sitting right there (Collin Sleeper). But Sleeper's Insight Bowl exploits (egregious enough that they earned him a solo trip home before the game) earned him a spot in Ferentz's doghouse and Law's only other real competition for the job was Tom Donatell, who's probably spent time at more different positions in his Iowa career than any player since Champ Davis.

Donatell and Sleeper are listed as co-backups to Law on the current depth chart, so it still looks good for Law to be the starter on September 1st. Law appears to have the most upside of those three players by far, but he's going to need to prove that he can perform consistently and not be a liability in pass coverage (I feel pretty good about him holding his own in run support) if he wants to keep the job full-time.

3) Children of the Korn(brath)

Other teams have heated battles over the quarterback position. Iowa has heated battles over... the punter position. That's life as a B1G, homey. Punting is winning. In all seriousness, punting is important -- field position can dramatically change games and the best Iowa teams under Ferentz have always had strong special teams (including punters). Punting and field position could be even more important this fall if the defense, as expected, struggles a bit. Iowa's current depth chart has former quarterback* John Wienke and Aussie heartthrob Jonny Mullings listed as co-starters and they should be joined at that spot by incoming freshman Connor Kornbrath. Iowa's been blessed with pretty strong play at punter for the last five years -- Ryan Donahue was a four-year starter and frequently excellent (after a slightly rocky freshman season) and Eric Guthrie was perfectly solid last year -- so whoever steps in here has some big shoes to fill.

Mullings might have the most raw talent of any of the options at punter, but his Iowa career has been hobbled to this point by a too-slow delivery. Until he gets that sorted out, he's not going to be a serious challenger for the gig. Wienke produced respectable but not stellar results in Iowa's spring game-type substance in April, but he almost certainly has the lowest ceiling of any of the contenders. (That's not a dig on him -- he spent most of his first four years at Iowa as a quarterback, for God's sake.) As an incoming freshman, Kornbrath has the smallest track record (although his competitors don't exactly have long ones themselves), but if his mechanics are sound and he can consistently hit kicks a decent distance, there's no reason to think that he won't be Iowa's next four-year starter at punter.

* At other schools having a former quarterback as your punter would all but guarantee a trick play or two; at Iowa it's merely an amusing footnote.

4) Meyer? Koehn? Mossbrucker? Herky?

The current depth chart for Iowa goes three-deep at placekicker. Three-deep. Then again, maybe that shouldn't be too surprising since Iowa's been looking for a consistent kicker ever since Nate Kaeding headed to the NFL (or at least since Kyle Schlicher's junior year in 2004). Mike Meyer has been the main man the last two years, with up and down results. His freshman year stats were actually pretty solid: 14/17 on field goals, although he gets dinged up for missing a field goal under 30 yards and two extra points (one of those was blocked due to ridiculously poor blocking, to be fair). He regressed statistically as a sophomore, making just 14/20 of his field goals. (He did go 44/44 on extra points, though.) The biggest reason for the decline in his field goal proficiency seems to be the increased willingness of the Iowa coaches to use him from distance: four of his six misses came from 40+ yards (he was 4/6 from 40-49 yards and 1/3 from 50+ yards). His struggles from distance are corroborated by his lackluster kickoff touchback numbers: he had just four last year, worst in the Big Ten. At this point, maybe Meyer is what he is: a pretty solid kicker from 40 yards in, but a somewhat shaky one beyond that distance.

What's the answer? Perhaps kicker-by-committee. Again, Meyer really hasn't been a bad kicker, especially from 40 yards and in. (He was 9/11 from that distance last year.) Iowa just needs some help on longer-range kicks and (especially) kickoffs. Enter: walk-on Marshall Koehn, maybe. Koehn (from Solon) came to Iowa with a reputation of a booming leg, so he might be exactly what the doctor ordered for Iowa's distance problems in the kicking game. He'll definitely get a long look during fall practice. There's also Trent Mossbrucker, who I promise only seems like he's on the Jess Settles eligibility plan. He's third on the depth chart, though, and other than a pair of kick-offs last season (one of them an onside attempt against Nebraska) he hasn't seen any real action since early 2010. It would be quite a career resurrection for him to find himself in a prominent role now.

5) Return To Sender

Last year's main kick returner was Jordan Bernstine, who averaged a respectable-ish 23.77 yards per return, had several good returns, and looked on the cusp of breaking one free for a touchdown on a few occasions -- but never did. He's gone now. One of last year's other kick returners was Jordan Canzeri. Thanks to an ACL injury, he's also gone now. The other players who returned more than two kickoffs last year were Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley, who are both healthy (knock on wood) and return to lead Iowa's wide receiver corps. They could feature in the kickoff return game this year, but neither has been particularly impressive at the gig. Davis (who also spelled DJK for a few returns in 2010) has a career average around 19.5 yards per return, while KMM averaged about 20.5 yards per return last year. They could be in the mix again this year -- or we could see some new faces. There's some speed among Iowa's incoming freshmen (Greg Mabin, Cameron Wilson, Tevaun Smith, Reese Fleming) and redshirt freshman Torrey Campbell (a track stud) is a definite speedster. Whoever can field the ball cleanly and avoid fumbles will likely win the job, but it would be nice if that person was also a real threat to break a big return.

Micah Hyde was last year's main punt returner and he was... frustrating. He avoided turnovers (as I recall), but mainly by also flat-out avoiding the ball. He had just 13 returns all season, for a total of 106 yards. Surprisingly, that 7.93 yards/attempt average was still good enough for the middle of the Big Ten (sixth), which is about in line with where it was the year before, too. Nationally, Iowa was 64th last year, 62nd in 2010, and 78th in 2009. While Iowa has gotten worse at punt returns (they ranked 42nd in 2008 and 36th in 2007), the reality is that their punt return prowess hasn't totally fallen off a cliff -- they've just gotten pretty average at it. Of course, when you're Iowa and you live in the margins and rely on good special teams play to help swing games for you... that's a problem. Based on past performance, there's no reason to expect gangbusters play out of the return game this year; on the other hand, return men seem to emerge as pleasant surprises more often than not (I doubt anyone went into seasons thinking that Ramon Ochoa, Jovon Johnson, or Andy Brodell gave Iowa a decided special teams advantage... but they were pretty good at what they did). Maybe we're due for good news there.

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