1) The quarterback derby begins anew. For the first time since 2008, Iowa enters spring with some uncertainty at the QB position. If you'll recall, back then Iowa had a returning starter (the immortal JC6), but (a) he hadn't been very good and (b) the team had kinda stunk and people were clamoring for change. Enter: the Americanzi, who generated increasing amounts of positive buzz during spring and fall camp (despite a brief injury setback), then took over the job full-time a month into the 2008 campaign. From then on it was three years of "love it or leave it," STANZIBALLS, and fourth-quarter comebacks (er, more or less). But Stanzi is off to (hopefully) ply his trade in the NFL, which leaves a void at QB1. The expected successor is James "the Mandenberg" Vandenberg, who emerged as QB2 during the 2009 season (starting two games and playing most of another after the WOOTENOCALYPSE) and remained in that spot during the 2010 season.
Working in Vandenberg's favor is the fact that he has more experience than any other option (two starts, plus most of the '09 jNW game and some mop-up duty in other games), he's been getting QB2 reps for the better part of two years, and he came thisclose to leading Iowa to a Big Ten-title clinching win in the 'shoe in 2009. Working against Vandy is the fact that Iowa went just 1-2 in games with lots of Mandenberg action and the fact that his career stats (49% completion, 515 yards, 3/5 TD/INT) aren't going to wow anyone. The most obvious replacement is fellow junior John Wienke, who came to Iowa with more hype (he was an Elite 11 QB prospect and a Michigan verbal until RichRod became the head coach) but who has thus far toiled behind Vandy on the depth chart. In fact, he's logged zero career passes so far. If he's going to make his move and be anything more than the new Jason Manson, this spring is the time to do it. The odds-on favorite is still Vandy, but you never know. The odds-on favorite in 2008 was Christensen -- and we all know how that turned out. FUN FACT: Vandendberg would be Iowa's first native Iowan starting quarterback since the immortal Kyle McCann.
2) Who's "next man in" at running back? Partially by way of performance (why, hello, 219 yards and 2 TDs in the Insight Bowl) and partially by way of AIRBHG-influenced departures (OW MY KNEE, OW MY [RUMOR REDACTED], OW MY DRUGS), Marcus Coker finds himself atop the running back depth chart as we head into spring. That's kind of a new phenomenon for Iowa -- you'd probably have to back to 2007 and Albert Young's senior season to find the last time we had a starter etched in stone in spring (although you could argue that Jewel Hampton was pretty much a lock to start in spring 2009, too). We know what the Coked-Up Werewolf brings to the table after a half-season of punishing running: a wicked stiff-arm, the ability to blow up fools, and some better-than-expected quicks. He still has a few things to work on (catching the ball out of the backfield, running with a lower pad level), but that's fine. His main priority is making it to September without incurring the wrath of AIRBHG.
But whither his backups? In truth, this question probably won't get answered until summer, when incoming recruits Rodney Coe, Mika'il McCall, Jordan Canzeri, and Damon Bullock get to campus. On the other hand, the guys who are here now will have a leg up on those guys. The bad news is "the guys who are here now" amounts to De'Andre Johnson and a bunch of walk-ons (including noted Brandon Wegher impersonator, Jason White, and Broderick Binns' little brother, Marcus). Johnson was the rare freshman running back at Iowa who was actually able to take a redshirt year, although it was kind of necessitated by the fact that he was still rehabbing from an ACL injury suffered in high school. By all accounts he's up to full-speed now and he should comfortably take the RB2 spot in spring. Whether he holds on to that position by September is another matter.
3) Who steps up at wide receiver? This was also going to be an issue after Iowa lost a four-year starter (and all-time leading receiver) in DJK, but the scrutiny on this position was heightened by the news that Marvin McNutt, Iowa's only returning starter at WR, was going to miss the spring after undergoing surgery on his thumb/shoulder. So there will be no shortage of opportuntiies for the new faces at WR this spring. The biggest name in the mix is Keenan Davis, a 4* recruit who's seen sporadic playing time through his first two years. He's got pretty ideal size (6'3", 195) and has flashed moments of impressive talent at times, but consistency has been a bugaboo. This is his chance to shine.
After Davis, there's a mix of guys who are recent recruits and walk-ons. In the former camp, the most notable names are Jordan Cotton, Don Shumpert, and Kevonte Martin-Manley. Cotton is the oldest -- he's entering his third year in the program -- and should have a good shot to see a lot of playing time. Martin-Manley (or KMM as he's destined to be known to lazy Iowa fans, including this one) is an intriguing prospect -- DJK has given him props on Twitter a few times and there's been other scuttlebutt that suggests he could be in line for quite a bit of playing time. There are also a few interesting walk-on prospects: Steven Staggs is a former HS teammate of Tyler Sash and has good size (6'3", 195), James Hurt was Vandenberg's favorite target at Keokuk, and Blake Haluska is, well, a Haluska and we still have some residual warm fuzzies from the last Haluska to wear black-and-gold.
4) Is this the Polish Hat's coming out party? Outside of maybe Marcus Coker (or James Morris, if you just like seeing dudes get hit), there was probably no other true freshman people were more amped to see in action last year than our friend the Polish Hat (better known to his family as C.J. Fiedorowicz). He played, but he wasn't exactly put in a position to live up to the hype. The Hat mostly saw action late in blowouts, on special teams, or in the occasional goalline package. He didn't record any catches. On the other hand, Iowa had two experienced (at least in terms of years in the program, if not necessarily playing time) and capable tight ends in Allen Reisner and Brad Herman, so it was difficult to find playing time for Fiedorowicz. But Reisner is gone and while Herman should ascend to the top line on the tight end depth chart, Iowa's love of two-tight end sets should give Fiedorowicz many more opportunities to strut his stuff this season.
5) Changing of the (offensive) guards? By most measures, Iowa returns three starters on the offensive line (tackles Riley Reiff and Marcus Zusevics and center James Ferentz), but they really return five players with starting experience -- in addition to the three already listed, guards Adam Gettis and Nolan MacMillan started at times last year. So there's experience there even if they aren't technically listed as "returning starters" because they weren't starting at the end of the season (Julian Vandervelde and Josh Koeppel were instead). Still, there's a chance that they might not start this year, either, even if they're healthy. Reiff, Ferentz, and Zusevics appear to have their starting jobs pretty well locked down, which leaves just the two guard spots available for new faces -- and there will be plenty of new faces interested in those spots. One area where Iowa has recruited well in recent years is offensive line, so guys like Andrew Donnal, Conor Boffeli, Drew Clark, Brandon Scherff, and Brett Van Sloten could definitely be in the mix. There's also a few upperclassmen (like Woody Orne and perpetual BHGP favorite Casey McMillan) who are running out of chances to make an impact -- sometimes guys like that blossom at the end of their careers. Another thing to note is that Iowa could be losing both tackles after this season (if Reiff goes pro a year early); one of the common career paths for linemen at Iowa is to get their feet wet as guards and then move out to tackle after a year or two. Guys like Donnal, Scherff, and Van Sloten have been talked about as future tackles, so it could be beneficial to get them some action this year to get them ready for next year.
TOMORROW: Five questions on the defensive side of the ball.