It's about that time. For the next month, 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 we are most certain of, and ending with running back the position of which we are least certain. To date:
1. Defensive Tackle
2. Tight End
5. Defensive End
6. Wide Receiver
8. Special Teams
OK, let's do it.
The Starter, For Now
Jake Christensen (6'1", 215, Jr.) - There are certainly differing viewpoints on how tenuous Christensen's grasp on the top line is, but let's not confuse conflict with uncertainty: JC6 will start the season as the first-team quarterback.
Jake was one of the crown jewels of the vaunted - and now oft-maligned - 2005 Iowa recruiting class. He was one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country, lauded for his sound mechanics, throwing accuracy, and ability to scramble (he was considered a "dual-threat" quarterback; all the talk of Christensen as a Chandler-like pocket passer are patently false). He played in the U.S. Army All-American Game with Richardson, Stross, Doering, Moeaki, and Blum. He was, by all accounts, the heir apparent to Drew Tate. He redshirted, then saw limited action in his second season, primarily in lieu of an injured Tate against Northern Illinois (the infamous "kinda gay" game). He looked about as good as you'd expect from a freshman, completing 65% of his passes but throwing a couple of bad picks (especially against Minnesota) and exhibiting a bad tendency to hold onto the ball too long.
Last season? Well, as OPS has said, you could write 1500 words about Christensen's 2007 campaign and not even scratch the surface. There were a multitude of reasons why it might have been such a struggle, many of which were out of his control:
- Injuries/suspensions/attrition in the receiver corps - Christensen entered fall camp with Brodell and Douglas at receiver (with Stross as the third option) and Moeaki at tight end. By the end of week 4, he had Cleveland and DJK at receiver (with a rotation of Chaney/Sandeman/Nelson(?)/Stross in there, as well), and Myers at tight end. Not one of those players (save for the injury-plagued Stross) had any serious experience. It certainly didn't help Christensen. There were repeated subtle hints that the receivers had no idea what they were doing and could not run precise routes. If true, it makes sense.
- Position flux and youth in the offensive line - The following players played on the offensive line during 2007: Richardson, Calloway, Kuempel, Doering, Eubanks, Bruggeman, Aeschliman, Meade, Vandervelde, Olsen, Blum, Koeppel, Bulaga. That's 13 different offensive linemen who saw action. That's amazing in and of itself, but it doesn't even factor in position changes (I'm pretty sure Olsen played in three different positions over the course of last season). Two of those players had ever started before. None of them graduated (though Richardson's career is apparently over due to injury). That lack of experience led to confusion in the running game (zone blocking is unconventional and requires some smarts, and experience is absolutely essential) and routine breakdowns in pass protection. Christensen was sacked 46 times last season. That number is completely unacceptable, and is probably 75% due to offensive line play.
- Playcalling - FIRE KOK. All right, I won't start just yet, but the playcalling was atrocious. Part of it was certainly due to O'Keefe's dedication to the Lloyd Carr offensive system, but MUAK made a valid point not that long ago: KOK probably looked at his offense - particularly his passing offense - with a young quarterback, young line, and young receivers, and cut the playbook down considerably. With a handful of experienced receivers at his disposal, possibly including one of the best tight ends in the country and a couple of bona fide deep threats on the outside, maybe things will open up. Then again, it's KOK, so don't hold your breath.
Those things are all important, but they still don't entirely explain away a season in which a quarterback with renowned accuracy completed 53.5% of his passes and averaged only 6.13 yards per attempt. JC might have thrown for 2200 yards, but he was over 200 yards only 4 times in 12 games. He might have only thrown 6 picks, but an incredible number of passes were so far off-target that nobody from either team had a chance to catch them. He might have been sacked 46 times, but a significant portion of those were a result of Christensen holding the ball too long. The point is this: Even if everything listed above is true, and even if all those things had their greatest possible effect, Christensen should still have been better than he was.
Barring another parade of arrests and injuries, there's no excuse this season. The receiver rotation is fairly concrete, and all receivers have significant experience. Moeaki is back. The offensive line should be more solidified and also picked up much-needed experience. KOK is still there, but might open up the offense more, especially given the fact he doesn't have a returning running back. It's time for this offense in general, where 9 (effectively 10, given last season's criminal non-use of Tom Busch) starters are back, to make a big move forward. That's going to depend on Christensen.
Ferentz has repeatedly compared Christensen to Matt Rodgers, who went 5-6 as a sophomore starter in 1989 before taking Iowa to the Rose Bown in 1990. The comparison is somewhat suspect. The 1989 Hawkeyes had no running game whatsoever; the passing offense was actually pretty good. Rodgers was #2 in the Big Ten in passing in his first season as a starter and was named honorable mention all-conference. He went 29-41 against Michigan that season, threw for nearly 300 yards against Illinois (who had the best pass defense in the country), and was almost perfect against Northwestern. Aside from the Syracuse game (23-32, 278 yards, 4 TD's), has Christensen ever played anything resembling those games? There were signs of life, to be sure (the second half of the Northwestern game comes to mind), but we have yet to see it for four consecutive quarters. If Christensen has a sophomore-to-junior-season jump akin to Rodgers, he's probably playing like Brian Hoyer at MSU. That's not great, but it's probably enough to get 8 wins.
The Backup, For Now
Rick(y) Stanzi (6'4", 225, Soph.) - Hayden Fry once said the best player in the Big Ten, year in and year out, was the backup quarterback at Iowa. If you had any doubts, just ask an Iowa fan, who would bench the starter yesterday.
Rick(y) Stanzi is the heir to the backup quarterback throne and, if you ask many Iowa fans, should be the starter. He wasn't highly regarded or heavily recruited out of high school, but received offers from Purdue, Miami (OH), and Toledo before choosing the Hawks. At 6'4", he has ideal size. He's not quite as fast as Christensen, but by all accounts has some mobility. He was buried behind classmate Arvell Nelson last season. The inside word was that, despite Christensen's problems, the staff had no faith in either of its backups (Stanzi was raw, and Nelson was apparently stoned). Christensen was the quarterback, no matter what happened.
Not anymore. After two series of the spring game in which Christensen threw an interception and a Tacopants overthrow, Stanzi took the reins and looked pretty good (the staff said JC was injured, but he wasn't hit and actually played significant time later; we're gullible, but not that gullible). He threw a bomb to Stross and exhibited the feel for touch passes not often seen from JC last year. Of couse, he also threw a pick and a number of incompletions. Nevertheless, he was arguably better than Christensen and certainly better than McNutt. He was the co-first team starter after spring, and may well have won the starting job had he not sustained a shoulder injury. Word is he will be back in mid-August, but the damage is probably done. Stanzi will enter the fall at #2. How long he stays there is up to Christensen.
The Wild Card
Marvin McNutt (6'4", 210, Fr. (RS)) - Last year, we heard a lot about McNutt. We heard he had a Howitzer for an arm. We heard he could scramble for yardage like Brad Banks. We heard he helps old women cross the street and, in his spare time, solves crimes. If you sat in the stands of Kinnick or the parking lots of Melrose Avenue last fall, you could have walked away thinking McNutt was the second coming.
McNutt, a St. Louis native, received offers from just about every program in the region (Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota) by the end of his junior year. He was redshirted last season, but nevertheless dominated conversations on potential replacements at quarterback. We heard he was getting a lot of snaps in the week of post-season practice Iowa conducted as the bowl situation worked itself out.
Spring? Eh...it wasn't pretty. Marvin's footwork wasn't good and his accuracy was lacking. Maybe it was just a bad day, and maybe it was a function of working with the second-team offense, but he did not look ready for prime time. His position on the post-spring depth chart, firmly behind Christensen and Stanzi, only reinforced that view. That said, with Stanzi's shoulder injury, McNutt might have a chance to move up the depth chart this fall and get himself into position to take over. Nevertheless, expect to see him in garbage time, especially in the first 2-3 weeks of the season.
Could See the Field
James Vandenberg (6'3", 195, Fr.) - If Stanzi comes back in mid-August at full health, I would expect all three of Iowa's incoming freshman quarterbacks to redshirt. However, it's not out of the question that one sees some playing time due to injury. If it happens, my money's on Vandenberg, a Keokuk native who threw for 3700 yards and 49(!) touchdowns as a senior in leading Keokuk to the 3A state championship. He's quick enough to avoid pressure and has been running a wide-open offense for two seasons. Obviously, you don't plan on using a true freshman at quarterback, but you could do worse.
John Wienke (6'5", 225, Fr.) - Wienke was initially a Michigan commit who changed his mind at the 11th hour, probably because he's not exactly the prototypical spread option quarterback. That being said, he's giant and has a great throwing arm.