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SPRING FOOTBALL: Answering The Questions (And Then Some)

So about a month ago, we did a quick-and-dirty preview of ye olde spring football in which we identified five key questions concerning the Iowa football team as they prepare for the 2010 season.  How well were those questions answered by the goings-on this spring?  Let's see...

1.  OK, so Riley Reiff's back... what about the rest of the offensive line?
Well, at the very least we now know who the top six options are: the aforementioned Mr. Reiff (SO) at left tackle, Julian Vandervelde (SR) at left guard, James Ferentz (SO)/Josh Koeppel (SR) at center, Adam Gettis (JR) at right guard, and Marcus Zusevics (JR) at right tackle.  The tackle spots sound fairly set and by all indications both Reiff and Zusevics had good springs; Reiff was often tasked with blocking Clayborn and did as good a job as could be expected.  Zusevics has never lacked for talent or technique, but was lacking in size; now that he's up to sniffing distance of 300 lbs., he's got enough bulk to hold his own.  On the other hand, the names at the interior line spots are probably written in pencil, not ink.  Other names could get in the mix there, like Cody Hundertmark (SO) and Nolan MacMillan (FR) and Woody Orne (JR) if they can get healthy and get a concerted run in practice.  Vandervelde's inconsistency has been on display for a few seasons now and Gettis made an inauspicious debut against UNI last fall.  Ferentz had the edge on Koeppel at center at the end of the spring session, but that may have been as much because of a minor injury Koeppel sustained as it was because of Ferentz's own improvement.  That spot doesn't seem settled yet. 

Spring ball has narrowed the candidates for the OL spots, but it hasn't done much to allay our anxiety about the unit.  No other unit on the team has as much potential to utterly derail Iowa's season next year and without actually seeing them in live, meaningful action, it's impossible to really know how good they are.  Ferentz may need to earn that "offensive line guru" moniker this fall.


2.  No Angerer, no Edds... big problem?
And... nope.  From all indications, Tyler Nielsen (JR) will be filling in for A.J. Edds next fall and Jeff Tarpinian (SR) (now shorn of his flowing locks, sadly) will be taking over for Pat Angerer at middle linebacker.  Troy Johnson (SR) and Bruce Davis (JR) will serve as the respective "next men in" at those spots and could see action in different formations (Johnson came in as one of the linebackers in some 3-4 and nickel sets during spring ball).  As with the new faces at offensive line, we won't really know what we have in the new linebackers until September.  So why are the fresh faces at linebacker less concerning than the newbies in the trenches?  A few reasons, namely experience and positional history.  Both Nielsen and Tarp have considerable experience on special teams and that's been a solid proving ground for excellent linebackers of the past (Greenway was a special teams demon), and they've been solid when called upon in games, too.  Tarp was slagged for some whiffed tackles in the Ohio State game last fall, but when it comes out that he was playing on a partially torn MCL in that game... well, it's hard to fault his performance that much. 

Second, the positional history at linebacker has been excellent under Ferentz.  When was the last time Iowa had a really sub-par linebacker?  The past performance of former players is no guarantee of future success for wholly different players, but it should be comforting; Norm Parker and Darrell Wilson do fantastic work developing linebackers here.  Expecting Nielsen and Tarp to step in and seamlessly produce at the same level as Angerer and Edds may be a bit much, but they should still be very good. 

3.  Assuming he avoids any more rogue bartenders, Prater has one CB spot, but what about the other one?
This battle was one of the more interesting developments of spring practice, as Micah Hyde (SO) managed to slip ahead of expected starter Jordan Bernstine (JR) in the race to start at the CB spot opposite Shaun Prater (JR).  While Bernstine has apparently been slowed by injuries this spring (nothing new -- just rehabbing the injuries that kept him off the field in the fall), indications are that Hyde has incredible natural aptitude for the position; the Gazette guys were effusive in their praise of him after last Saturday's open practice.  We got a glimpse of his development when he spelled Prater for a few plays in the Orange Bowl and the fact that he'd already jumped ahead of Willie Lowe (JR) and Greg Castillo (SO) was significant, but it still seemed likely that Bernstine would replace Amari Spievey in the starting lineup.  And he still might, presuming he can regain full health and shake off the rust this summer.  But Hyde isn't going to make things easy on him, which is fine -- the last time a guy came from out of nowhere to win the starting CB spot (Spievey in 2008), things turned out just fine. 

4.  The Tongan Terror is off to get paid; who's replacing him?
The crystal ball says "Results fuzzy; check back in four months -- when the Polish Hat is in the mix, too."  Allen Reisner (SR) is a lock to be TE1; after years of serving as TE2 or TE3 behind Tony Moeaki and Brandon Myers, he's ready to ascend to the top spot on the depth chart.  He should do a fine job there; he's a solid pass-catcher and blocker and he has considerable experience.  Beyond him, though, things get interesting.  If there was a game on Saturday, Brad Herman (JR) would be the second tight end; he's been getting most of the reps at TE2 and he's done a solid job.  That said, he has a grand total of one catch in his Iowa career, so he's not exactly experienced, though it is one more catch than any of his challengers.  

There are a lot of other names listed at tight end on the roster (J.D. Griggs, Jonathan Gimm, Dakota Getz, Zach Derby, and Zach Furlong), but none of them have done much to distinguish themselves.  Griggs is a physical specimen, but his stone hands have some people pondering a potential move to the defensive line.  The real name to watch is a guy not even on campus yet -- the aforementioned Polish Hat, C.J. Fiedorowicz.  Iowa loves two tight end sets, so there will be opportunities, and they haven't been shy about giving a true freshman a shot at the position in the past (both Reisner and Moeaki played as true freshmen).  How much he plays will be determined by his aptitude at picking up the blocking schemes, although even if he struggles there, he could see the field purely for his pass-catching skills.  With his size (6'7", 240) and hands, he could be devastating in the red zone.

5.  We talkin' about kickers?  Really?
Right now, "clusterfuck" is spelled "f-i-e-l-d-g-o-a-l-k-i-c-k-e-r" in Iowa City.  Both Daniel Murray (SR) and Trent Mossbrucker (SO) were maddeningly uneven at the spring practice last Saturday and that inconsistency was evidently par for the course during the entire spring practice period.  So nothing was decided during spring and their battle will be continuing during the fall camp; hopefully one of them will emerge as a consistent option at that point.  If not, field goal kicks will be every bit as much of an adventure as they've been the past two years... and given Iowa's propensity for close games, that's a stomach-churning thought.

One interesting side-note for the kicking battle is that the battle for kickoff duty may be even more convoluted.  In addition to Murray and Mossbrucker, walk-ons Mike Meyer and Jonny Mullings (who will be on scholarship at some point, likely January 2011) may be vying for the kickoff spot as well; both have Howitzers for legs and power like that would be much appreciated on kickoffs after watching virtual squib kicks for the past few seasons.

HONORABLE MENTION: Hey, what about that running back logjam?
What about it?  We don't know anything more than we did a month ago.  Adam Robinson (SO) didn't participate in spring practice at all while he recovered from shoulder surgery, Jewel Hampton (SO) participated only in non-contact drills, and Brandon Wegher (SO) missed the final week of spring practice with a minor shoulder injury.  About the only thing we do know?  God bless his effort, but Jason White (SO) probably won't be in the mix, despite the fact that he took the majority of the carries in the final spring scrimmage after Brad Rogers (FR) went down with a minor ankle injury.  Beyond that... well, whatever guesses you had a month ago are probably just as valid now.  We won't have any inkling how this distribution of carries is going to be handled until August at the earliest.

And Five Other Quick Thoughts From Spring Practice

1. There is no quarterback controversy.
In all likelihood, there never really was one outside of the fevered ramblings on message boards of people who thought James Vandenberg (SO) might challenge America's Own Ricky Stanzi (SR), given Stanzi's propensity for turnovers and Vandenberg's solid effort in the Horseshoe.  That said, the likelihood of Ferentz benching a QB who's started over twenty games (and won the vast majority of them*) and is beloved by the team was ... well, how many euphemisms for "no fucking chance" do you know?  While KF might toy with subbing in Vandy if Stanzi has another 5-INT shitshow, realistically there are only three ways Vandenberg gets on the field next fall: if Stanzi gets injured (god forbid), if Iowa rediscovers the ability to blow out a team, or if America needs Ricky Stanzi to safeguard liberty.

* - Yes, yes, wins are an imperfect means of measuring a QB's quality.  Save it for now.

2. In case you were wondering, there's also no fullback controversy.
Brett Morse (SR) has that spot on lockdown.  The coaches may even let him carry the ball a few times this year -- no, sorry, that's just the rum talking.  Sorry.  He'll have to make do with pulverizing linebackers as the lead blocker for the RB triumvirate and catching the occasional swing pass.

3. Wide receivers?  Yeah, we have a few good ones.
In Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (SR) and Marvin McNutt (JR), Iowa has its best 1-2 punch at WR since Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon in 2005.  And when you factor in Colin Sandeman (SR), Keenan Davis (SO), Paul Chaney (SR), and spring starlet Don Nordmann (SR), you have the deepest collection of talent at WR since at least 2002 and CJ Jones, Mo Brown, Ed Hinkel, Clinton Solomon, etc.  Mind you, despite that depth there's still a sizable gap between the starters (DJK, McNutt) and the rest of the crew.  Let's hope they stay healthy.

4. On the other hand, the defensive line is a bit top-heavy in terms of quality.
We all know the starting four -- Adrian Clayborn (SR), Karl Klug (SR), Christian Ballard (SR), and Broderick Binns (JR) -- are absolute terrors and, by most indications, even better than they were a year ago.  Klug has been drawing comparisons to Mitch King and Ballard seems to be really settling into his interior role.  Clayborn is, of course, Clayborn -- the best DE at Iowa since Matt Roth, and you might have to go back even farther than that to find an apt comparison.  BUT... beyond them, the pickings are slim.  Lebron Daniel and Mike Daniels have drawn some praise, but that's about it.  Good health will be essential and some new faces are going to need to be found and developed if we want to avoid significant backsliding at this position in 2011.

5. But maybe safety depth isn't as perilous as we once thought.
Tyler MF'ing Sash (JR) and Brett Greenwood (SR) both sat out spring practice as they rehabbed from shoulder surgeries (it's becoming an annual rite of spring for Sash).  Tom Donatell (JR) and Kyle Steinbrecher (JR) filled in and, by all accounts, did a perfectly solid job.  It's comforting to know that the white walk-on safety chain may continue even after EPIC GREENWOOD departs for the NFL corporate America next year. Third-string safety Nick Nielsen (brother of Tyler Nielsen and, yes, another walk-on) was one of the stars (so to speak) of the scrimmage last Saturday; he snared two interceptions off errant A.J. Derby passes.  We're not saying he's the next Tyler MF'ing Sash or anything, but hey -- remember where you heard the name if you look at the depth chart in a few years and wonder why there's two Nielsens starting on defense.  It could happen.