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2011 Iowa Spring Football Preview: Five Questions On Defense/Special Teams

1) Brother, can you spare a defensive lineman?  There are two spots on the Iowa defense where there are big flashing "HELP WANTED" signs.  One is at the safety spots (see below) and the other is in the trenches.  Compared to the options (or lack thereof) at safety, defensive line is a little bit better off since there are two returning players with considerable starting experience: defensive end Broderick Binns and defensive tackle Mike Daniels, the man who was so irrepressible last year that he bounced Binns from the starting lineup.  So that's nice.  On the other hand, there are four starting defensive linemen spots unless Iowa's planning to switch to a 3-4 this year (which: LOL NO WAY) and after Binns and Daniels, it's hard to find guys you can even name.

At the end of the year, the depth chart featured LeBron Daniel at defensive end (behind Adrian Clayborn) and Thomas Nardo and Steve Bigach as the reserve defensive tackles.  Daniel is the heavy favorite to assume the other end spot opposite Binns, mostly because he's actually seen substantive playing time, unlike Joe Gaglione, Dominic Alvis, or Joe Forgy.  That said, 1-2 of those guys probably need to start making some noise and working their way into the rotation in the spring because odds are Iowa's going to need more than just Binns and Daniel to produce from the defensive end spot next year.  The tackle race is a little more wide open: in addition to upperclassmen like Nardo and Bigach, there's also a chance that redshirt freshmen like Carl Davis (who has uncommon size -- 6'5", 295 -- for a young defensive tackle at Iowa) or Mike Hardy could emerge as the starter opposite Daniels.  Either way, there will be plenty of opportunities for unknown guys this spring to make a name for themselves.

2) While you're at it, can you spare a safety?  While Iowa has some starting experience returning on the line, they have none at safety -- multi-year starters Brett Greenwood (four years) and Tyler Sash (three years) are both gone.  The last time Iowa had to break in two brand new safeties we got the EPIC GREENWOOD and Harold Dalton Experience of 2007.  It... did not go well.  Frankly, we still get night terrors thinking about some of the breakdowns in the secondary that year.  So you'll pardon us for being more than a little concerned about who's going to emerge as starters this year.  By the end of last season, Tom Donatell and Tanner Miller were listed as the back-ups on the two-deeps (and, indeed, Miller came in during the Insight Bowl when Greenwood got hurt), so at least nominally those are your favorites to be the new starters.  Miller has an excellent chance to be one of the starters, given his brief appearances last year and the frequent comparisons to Sash and Greenwood that came up during his recruitment.  Of course, if he's going to become one of the starters he'll probably have to make up some ground during fall camp because he'll be limited (at best) during spring camp after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery.

The identity of the other starter is rather more mysterious, though.  It could be oft-injured Jordan Bernstine, back for a fifth year and one last shot at cracking the starting line-up (frankly, AJBHG is almost as much of a dick as AIRBHG); he saw a little time at strong safety last year and there's long been muttering that he's better suited to being a safety than a cornerback.  It could be Nick Nielsen, the younger brother of Tyler Nielsen and a guy who would bring more size (6'3", 210) to the position than we've seen at Iowa in quite a while.  It could be Micah Hyde, who became a very solid (and play-making) cornerback by the end of last season, but who might ultimately be better-suited to safety.  It could be Colin Sleeper or Jack Swanson.  It could be you or me.  (OK, probably not.)  My guess is the coaches experiment with a lot of different combinations back here during the spring.

3) Playing linebacker musical chairs.  The good news is that Iowa returns four linebackers with a reasonable amount of starting experience after the emergence of AILBHG last year forced a few guys (James Morris, Shane DiBona) into action sooner than expected.  The less-good news is that it's not quite clear how Iowa will fit them in a line-up.  One thing is certain: if Tyler Nielsen is fully recovered from the neck injury that kept him out of Iowa's last five games, he'll man the outside linebacker spot.  He was developing into a pretty nice replacement for A.J. Edds at the time of his injury last year and the defense definitely took a hit in his absence.  If he's healthy, he plays -- and probably plays quite well. 

Middle linebacker is also pretty well locked-in.  Chances are pretty good the starter there will be James Morris, who went from a special teamer to starter after injuries took Jeff Tarpinian and Bruce Davis out of commission; he had a few rough spots, but he also made quite a few plays and looked like a natural on the field.  Given another year's experience, he could be excellent.  That said, there's also a chance that Morris moves over to the weakside linebacker spot and Davis takes over the starting job at middle linebacker.  Nielson, Davis, and Morris might be the three best linebackers Iowa has and that would be a way to get them all on the field at the same time.  If they don't do that and Morris sticks at MLB, weakside linebacker is "pull a name out of a hat" category.  It could be DiBona, it could be Dakota Getz, or it could be Christian Kirksey.  Like safety, expect some experimentation here until they find a combination that clicks. 

4) Deja vu: competition at placekicker.  Stop me if you've heard this one before: Iowa enters spring ball with uncertainty at placekicker and with a number of options vying for the spot.  At least for spring we're down to two options following Daniel Murray's graduation-induced departure (fare thee well, young Daniel; we'll always have November 2008): former walk-on and returning starter Michael Meyer and long-ago starter Trent Mossbrucker.  Mossbrucker was expected to be the guy to shore up a position that had gone from incredible strength at Iowa (Kaeding's junior and senior seasons, Schlicher's junior year) to almost-total clusterfuck (pretty much every year after that). 

Things started promisingly for Mossie: he went 13/15 on field goals and made his first 24 consecutive extra points (on his way to setting a then-freshman record for points in a season at 70).  Then came Penn State and Ferentz's fateful decision to use Murray for the game-winner.  It was good, but Mossbrucker hasn't been quite the same since.  He missed two extra points against Purdue the next week (though he did rebound to make all 7 extra points against Minnesota the week after that) and redshirted in 2009 before again assuming the starting kicker job at the beginning of the 2010 season.  He made his first thirteen extra points last year, then missed one against Arizona -- and was never heard from again.  Meyer emerged as his replacement and he did pretty well: 31/33 on extra points (with one clearly blocked as a result of poor protection) and 14/17 on field goals.  He also displayed a bit more range than Mossbrucker, going 2/3 on field goals from 40+ yards.  He would appear to be the favorite to start at placekicker, but Ferentz hasn't sounded particularly sold on this position for a while, so don't rule out a return from Mossbrucker. 

5) Uncharted territory: competition at punter.  On the other hand, the other specialist spot is seeing competition for the first time in a very long time.  Ryan Donahue was a rock for the Iowa special teams unit from the moment he stepped on the field (OK, he was a rock after he sorted out the shank issues that plagued him in the early part of his career), so replacing him will be no easy feat -- and it's of particular importance for a team that puts as much stock into the "PUNTING IS WINNING~!" concept as Iowa.  In one corner we've got Eric Guthrie, the senior walk-on from Nevada, Iowa (by way of San Salvador!) who has all of one career punt to his name (a 32-yard effort against Iowa State in 2010).  In the other corner we've got Jonny Mullings, the 23-year old (!) redshirt freshman from Australia (by way of Ottumwa and, uh, England).  Mullings has the looks, the accent, and the rugby past to make girls and boys swoon; unfortunately, he lags behind in the "playing American football" department.  Which is kind of a big deal, since he's here to play American football.  He's the punter of the future, but the future (and its fantastic Aussie accent) may be delayed a year.