Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE
A piece-by-piece look at the Iowa offense: what's gone, what's left, and what we might be able to expect in 2013.
Departures, in Order of Importance
1. James Vandenberg, QB. Vandenberg didn't have the senior season we expected (or hoped for), but he was still a quarterback with over two years of starting experience, which is (typically) a valuable commodity in the college game. He was also a tremendous representative of the team, the university, and the state. Of all the things I hated about this season, the thing I might have hated the most was how much it made me dislike the sight of James Vandenberg in an Iowa uniform. He deserved better than the 2012 season. Regardless, his departure robs Iowa of any and all experience and production at the QB position.
2. James Ferentz, C. James Ferentz came to Iowa with the hype of being better than his brother, Brian. I'm not sure if he ever lived up to that hype, but he was a three-year starter at center and the leader of the offensive line for several years. His play could be a bit inconsistent (he was capable of making great blocks and hitting the second level with ferocity, but he also seemed to miss a few more blocks than you'd like to see from a three-year starter), but his experience and leadership will likely be missed.
3. Keenan Davis, WR. Davis came to Iowa with a mountain of hype -- he was a 4* skill position recruit from just up I-380, basically exactly the sort of player Iowa never gets. He ended his career with 112 catches for 1470 yards and 7 TD. I think it's safe to say that's not exactly what anyone was expecting for his Iowa career. (By way of comparison, Marvin McNutt had 82 catches for 1315 yards and 12 TD last year.) He seemed to be a bad fit in Greg Davis' aggressively horizontal offense -- Davis struggled to get separation and catch the ball consistently -- but he also failed to excel in Ken O'Keefe's offense, too. Davis never lived up his hype, though he did provide one of the few good memories of the 2012 season when he hauled in a 35-yard bomb from Vandenberg on Iowa's game-tying drive against Michigan State.
4. Matt Tobin, OG/OT. Tobin started the better part of the last two seasons for Iowa and spent much of his tenure as a popular whipping boy for Iowa fans. He did struggle, especially as a first-time starter in 2011, but he had grown into a solid LG alongside LT Brandon Scherff early in the 2012 season and was no longer the weak link of the Iowa offensive line. Unfortunately, Scherff's midseason injury thrust Tobin into a starting job at LT, a position for which he was extremely ill-suited. Offensive linemen with two years of starting experience at Iowa typically get drafted by an NFL team, but Tobin figures to put that notion to the test this year.
5. Zach Derby, TE. Derby was initially famous at Iowa for being A.J. Derby's older brother, but he eventually worked his way into the playing rotation at tight end. He spent the last two years bouncing around the two-deeps, even starting five games in 2011, but by the end of this season he appeared to be behind C.J. Fiedorowicz and Henry Krieger-Coble on the tight end depth chart. His career numbers were quiet -- 19 catches for 182 yards and 0 TD -- and given the glut of tight end prospects on Iowa's roster, his absence probably won't be keenly felt.
What's Left, Also in Order of Importance
1. Jake Rudock/Cody Sokol/C.J. Beathard, QB. This is a bit of a cheat, but it can't really be helped -- the Iowa offense will likely go as the quarterback goes. The problem is that we don't know have any idea which quarterback will be behind center when the 2013 season kicks off. Rudock would seem to be the nominal favorite, given his status as QB2 on the depth chart all season, but a) we know how worthless depth charts can be, and b) the fact that he didn't see a single snap in 2012 might not be a good sign. Still, whether it's Rudock, Sokol, or even Beathard who takes over as QB1 for the Iowa offense, the pressure will be on to produce at a higher level than we saw from Vandenberg in 2012.
2. Brandon Scherff, OT. Scherff's emergence as the starter at LT in the off-season was met with trepidation by some corners, but he developed into the rock of Iowa's offensive line and its best player. He teamed with Tobin to form a strong left-hand side of the offensive line; that duo was a critical part of Mark Weisman's early success). His importance was made readily apparent after sustaining a leg injury against Penn State that caused him to miss the rest of the season -- the offensive line got much worse with Scherff on the sideline. His ability to recover from that injury and resume his position as the lynchpin of the Iowa offensive line will be vital for next year's team.
3. Mark Weisman, RB. Weisman was the latest in a long line of "out of nowhere" success stories for Iowa, a transfer from Air Force who arrived at Iowa as a fullback and ended September as the starting tailback. Injuries to Damon Bullock and Greg Garmon cleared the way for Weisman's ascendance, but his own excellent play kept him atop the depth chart. While the injury to Scherff was a major blow for the Iowa offense, the litany of minor injuries that Weisman sustained (and that kept him out of action for about a month) dealt a pretty big blow to the offense, too. Weisman ended the year with 815 rushing yards and 8 TDs on 159 carries, a pretty solid total for a guy who was only a healthy feature back for about six games. He'll enter 2013 atop the depth chart -- you know, assuming he can avoid running afoul of AIRBHG.
4. C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE. We knew The Polish Hat could be a major offensive weapon last off-season and said as much. Greg Davis knew Fiedorowicz could be a major offensive weapon last off-season and said as much in the run-up to the season. So naturally it took nine games for him to catch his first (and only) touchdown pass and ten games for him to have his first really good game (8 catches, 99 yards). In fact, over his final two games, Fiedorowicz had 14 receptions (almost one-third of his season total of 45) and 155 yards (over one-third of his season total of 433 yards) and he finally -- finally! -- started to look like the serious offensive weapon we'd envisioned him being a year ago. Hopefully it won't take ten games for him to become a critical part of the Iowa offense in 2013.
5. Kevonte Martin-Manley, WR. Martin-Manley ended the 2012 season as Iowa's leading receiver, with team-bests in receptions (52), yards (571, tied with Davis), and touchdowns (2). (The fact that numbers as modest as those led Iowa's receiving charts tells you all you need to know about the Iowa passing game in 2012.) He'll enter the off-season as Iowa's best receiver, but hopefully Greg Davis spends some time figuring out how to Martin-Manley and Fiedorowciz going at the same time; the Polish Hat's rise coincided with KMM's decline -- he caught just 5 passes for 26 yards in Iowa's last two games. Iowa needs much better production than that out of their top receiver.
6. Brett Van Sloten, OT. Van Sloten started all season as the tackle opposite Scherff on the offensive line and while he didn't stand out to the degree that Scherff did, he was still a solid player. He figures to be a name that you can pencil in to the depth chart and if he can take his game from "solid" to "very good," Iowa's line may finally turn the corner into becoming a dominant unit.
7. Damon Bullock, RB. Bullock began the season as Iowa's starting running back and ran for 150 yards and the game-winning touchdown on 30 carries against Northern Illinois. Two weeks later, he sustained a concussion in Iowa's win over UNI and was shut down for over a month. He returned with another 100-yard game against Northwestern before diminishing returns limited his effectiveness against Indiana and Purdue and an injury that kept him out of action for the rest of the season.
8. Austin Blythe, OG. The hype train started for Blythe when he signed with Iowa and ratcheted up in last off-season as word spread about his "mean streak" and he began to get talked about in the same excited tone formerly reserved for guys like Reiff and Bulaga. He was expected to be the next great Iowa offensive lineman and while he might yet get there (it's still very early in his career, after all), his first season was frustrating. That "mean streak" came through in some great blocks, but he also whiffed badly at other times. He looked, in short, like a freshman. The early hype had Blythe as Iowa's "next great lineman," following in the footsteps of Reiff and Bulaga (without the future at left tackle) and so far that looks awful premature. But there's plenty of time for him to get his consistency issues worked out and become a mainstay on the Iowa offensive line.
9. Andrew Donnal, OG/OT. Donnal arrived at Iowa with a lofty star rating (4*) and a fair amount of hype, but went through the usual acclimatization process for young offensive linemen ("Mr. Donnal? Meet Mr. Doyle. You'll be spending a lot of time together the next few years.") He broke into the two-deeps this year and even the starting lineup for a brief spell after Blythe went down with an injury. Then he suffered an ACL injury against Penn State (within a few plays of Scherff's season-ending injury) and that was all she wrote for his season. He's expected to be back this spring, though, and should be in contention for a spot in the offensive line rotation next fall.
10. Brad Rogers, FB. Rogers has the most injury-riddled existence for an Iowa running back since poor Jeff Brinson, and given the machinations of AIRBHG, that's saying something. Rogers recovered from the heart issues that kept him out of action last year and entered the season as the second fullback (behind Weisman), but quickly got elevated to starting fullback status after Weisman emerged as a legitimate threat at running back. Of course, injuries struck again (this time less severe than the heart issues, thank goodness) and limited his action in several games this season. Hopefully he's fully recovered and ready to plow some holes open for the Iowa running game next fall; the Iowa running game was at its best when Weisman and Rogers were tag-teaming defenders.
11. Eric Simmons/Connor Bofelli, OG/C. Someone's going to have to replace James Ferentz as Iowa's starting center next year. There's a chance Blythe could slide over from guard (he was talked about as Iowa's "center of the future" as a recruit and in the run-up to this season), but Simmons and Bofelli figure to be in the mix as well and could also play at one of the guard spots, too. Simmons is a rare JUCO transfer who redshirted this year and should have three years of eligibility remaining. The jury's (obviously) still out on how good he might be, but his highlight films showed a nice mean streak and Iowa rarely dips into the JUCO ranks unless they think a guy might legitimately be able to play. Bofelli is a junior who spent the early part of his career in obscurity, bulking up and waiting for an opportunity. Opportunity finally knocked at the end of the season as injuries and ineffective play opened up a chance for him to see the field at guard. I don't recall anything particularly memorable (in a good way or a bad way) about his play, but he'll no doubt be in the mix for the center or guard spot.
12. Jordan Cotton, WR. Iowa spent most of the season searching for playmakers in the passing game and while Cotton was hardly lights out (12 catches, 172 yards, 1 TD), he was one of the guys who most consistently saw the field. He seems like a prototypical slot receiver -- he's a little on the small side (6-1, 185), but he has good speed and solid shiftiness -- and should see a fair amount of looks in the passing offense next season. (He's also an excellent kick returner, but we'll sing his praises there when we get to the Special Teams portion of our breakdown.)
13. Greg Garmon/Barkley Hill/Jordan Canzeri/Michael Malloy, RB. Assuming Iowa's 1-2 backs are Weisman and Bullock, there's probably only room for one more running back in the "rotation," (Stop laughing about the idea of an actual running back rotation. I mean it.) the usual attacks of AIRBHG notwithstanding. Garmon saw action this year but seemed to struggle to see the running lanes (and was woefully undersized, to boot). Canzeri was reportedly medically cleared during the season after tearing an ACL in spring practice, but never saw the field and redshirted. Hill tore his ACL in fall practice and (obviously) missed the entire season. Malloy, recovering from tearing his ACL as a high school senior, also redshirted. Garmon and Hill would offer more of a speed option to Weisman's strength, while Hill and Malloy (from what little I recall seeing of them) seemed to be more in the Adam Robinson grinder mold. Recent (and not-so-recent) history suggests not all of these guys will still be here next Labor Day (unfortunately), but a few of them probably will be and we'll probably need to rely on that guy (or guys) to get carries at some point next season.
14. Henry Krieger-Coble, TE. Krieger-Coble went from being a non-entity at the start of the season to (seemingly) Iowa's second tight end by the end of the year, grabbing four receptions for 30 yards (and a pretty touchdown against Michigan) in the last two games of the season. Krieger-Coble was lauded as a pass-catching threat coming out of high school and the (very) limited sample size we have of his work so far would seem to back that up. Lord knows we can use anyone who can catch a pass. He seems like the early favorite to be CJ's understudy and the second tight end in the Iowa offense next year.
15. Tevaun Smith, WR. Smith was a true freshman out of Canada (with a delightful nickname: "The Canadian Missile") who was part of Iowa's never-ending search to find a capable receiver this season. He only caught three passes for 31 yards (and he may have had as many drops as he had catches, actually), but he was one of the few Iowa players capable of getting open downfield and one of the few receivers with the speed that Greg Davis allegedly covets in his receiving corps. He should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact next season.
16. Nolan MacMillan/Jordan Walsh, OG. It's certainly possible that these guys don't play next year. Between Blythe, Donnal, Boffeli, and maybe Simmons, there are a lot of guys in the mix for the guard spots. But Walsh and MacMillan (another Canadian) should have their opportunities to vie for those jobs, too. MacMillan looked promising as a redshirt freshman in 2010 (he started at RG in six games that year), but injuries have wrecked his Iowa career -- he missed most of the second half of 2010 due to them, as well as all of the 2011 season and a good portion of this season, too. He did see some action this year, but he didn't look sharp and was unable to take hold of a starting spot after injuries opened up spots on the line. Walsh ended the year listed behind Boffeli on the depth chart but, like MacMillan, saw a bit of time this year as a result of injuries. He didn't look spectacular in those opportunities but again -- he'll have another chance to turn heads this spring and fall.
17. Jacob Hillyer/Don Shumpert/Greg Mabin/Cameron Wilson, WR. I would say these guys are listed "because someone has to see the field when Iowa goes five-wide" (which we do, on occasion), but that wouldn't really be accurate: in a five-wide look, Iowa's most likely to have three receivers, a tight end (probably CJ), and a running back out there. Regardless, the wide receiver depth chart is certainly not written in stone (I'd hope not after a season in which no receiver had more than 600 yards or 2 TDs) and so these guys will probably get a few looks this off-season. Hillyer saw time this year and amassed all of 1 catch for 15 yards. Shumpert entered the season as the third wide receiver behind Davis and Martin-Manley, but seemed to fall out of favor quickly and ended the year with just six catches for 29 yards. There's even been some chatter of him moving over to the defensive side of the ball, though that may just be wishful thinking. Mabin and Wilson were true freshmen who redshirted this season, but given the lack of standout play in the passing game this past year, they should get some looks this spring and fall.
18. Ray Hamilton, TE. Hamilton, nicknamed "Cobra Kai" by Mas Casa, seemed like a dream addition to Iowa when he signed with Iowa two years ago. A high school teammate of hoops star Aaron White, Hamilton looked like the prototype at tight end: 6-5, 248, with good hands and good speed. We dreamed of the damage that he and Fiedorowicz might be able to wreak on opposing defenses. Alas, two years later and we're still dreaming. Hamilton had just two catches for 20 yards this season and seemed to fall out of favor over the course of the season (notably, Krieger-Coble seemed to be seeing the field a lot more than Hamilton). It's hard to know what to expect out of Hamilton in 2013.
Three Signs of Hope
A Surplus of (Big) Ugly. Iowa's offensive line play wasn't as good as we hoped it would be in the preseason, but for the most part it wasn't terrible, either -- at least until injuries knocked out Donnal and (especially) Scherff. Early in the season the they struggled to pass block and run block well, but after a few games they seemed to find a rhythm and by the time of the Central Michigan and Minnesota games, they were looking very good indeed. Things went a bit sour after that (although the pass blocking remained fairly solid all season: after giving up six sacks to NIU, Iowa gave up just 13 in the remaining 11 games), but there was definite promise in this unit. Most of it should return in 2013 as well -- only Ferentz and Tobin graduate -- so hopefully that experience paves the way for stronger play next season.
Hammers, Hats, and Hyphens, Oh My! For what it's worth, Iowa does return their top running back (Weisman), tight end (Fiedorowicz), and wide receiver (Martin-Manley) from this year. I say "for what it's worth" because, obviously, none of them were all that impressive this year -- no one on the Iowa offense was. (Although given better health and a full season's worth of work, Weisman likely would have ended the year with very solid stats -- around 1200-1300 yards and 12-14 TDs, probably.) Still, Iowa isn't starting from complete scratch on the offensive side of the ball and while consistency was a major issue, all three of those players have flashed brightly at times.
Hello, Rock Bottom. Pat posted the grisly numbers in his first Epilogue post, so I'm not going to rehash them here; we all know that the Iowa offense was a five-alarm tire fire this year. It was arguably the worst it's ever been since Ferentz arrived and it ranked near the bottom of the league (and the nation) in most categories. Short of punting on first down, it can hardly get much worse.
Three Reasons for Panic
Improvement Not Guaranteed. That said, "can't get worse" is not the same thing as "guaranteed to get better," either. The fit between Greg Davis' horizontal passing schemes and Kirk Ferentz's zone running schemes was outrageously poor this year and until we see evidence that a) it can work or b) the schemes are going to change, it seems foolhardy to expect a dramatic improvement in year two. (Especially with a brand-new quarterback directing it this year.)
Are you Receiving This? There were a lot of problems with the offense last year, to be charitable. Ferentz and Davis didn't mesh their respective visions well. Davis didn't call plays well at times. Vandenberg made poor decisions at times. But the receivers also deserve their share of the blame -- they struggled mightily to get separation for most of the season and they had several drops. Until we see actual improvement in those areas, the Iowa passing offense isn't going to stop looking like a sucking chest wound.
Experience, Schmxperience. As has been discussed extensively at this site, James Vandenberg was the only quarterback to take a snap for Iowa all season. Granted, two of the contenders for the starting job next season were redshirting (Sokol and Beathard) and were thus ineligible to see the field, but Rudock (unfortunately) did nothing but show off his ability to signal in plays, hold a clipboard, and wear a hat. As a result, we have zero idea what to expect (other than a few throws each at open practices last spring and fall and if you consider those to be at all telling of anything, you're foolish) from the quarterback position next year. That's kind of exciting... but it's also a whole lot of terrifying.
Three Things That Could Change Everything
Greg Davis II: Electric Boogaloo. Perhaps after a year of settling in at Iowa, after a year of getting to know the personnel he has (and not the personnel he covets or remembers having), and after a year of getting to know Ferentz, Year Two of the Greg Davis Experience will be smoother and more successful. It wouldn't take a lot to hit that "more successful" bar, frankly. The offense was such a horrorshow last year that it's (understandably) very hard to be optimistic about it in 2013... but you never know. It might only be a two-alarm tire fire next year. (/goes to look for razor blades to gargle)
A Better Fit. Maybe one of the biggest problems with the Iowa offense this year was James Vandenberg, a wonderful representative of the team and university who struggled on the field at times and who seemed like an absolute square peg in the round hole that was the Greg Davis offense. Perhaps a fresh face behind center -- particularly one with a bit more mobility -- will be the cure that the ailing Iowa offense so desperately needs.
AIRBHG Rides Again. On paper, Iowa should return a decent amount of experience at the running back position in 2013, which would be a welcome change of pace. In practice, Weisman will probably get shanghaied by a traveling production of "Jesus Christ, Superstar," Bullock will be the victim of a moped accident, Garmon will get expelled for too many parking tickets, and Hill will tear the ACL in his other knee. Something will happen. Something always happens.
I predict that Iowa's quarterback -- whoever that may be -- will throw more than the seven touchdown passes that JVB threw. I predict that Iowa Weisman will crack 1000 yards. I predict that Fiedorowicz will have a much better year overall in 2013, but that there will still be 2-3 games where he gets very few looks. I predict that we will be pleasantly surprised by the production of one of the emerging wide receivers next year. I predict that the Iowa offense will be better than it was in 2012, but that it will still be poor overall and that we will still gnash our teeth about it often.