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2011 Iowa Football Fall Practice Preview: Five Questions On Offense

We did this for spring ball, so it seems natural to dust it off again now that fall practice is almost upon us.  As before, these are not intended to be in-depth breakdowns of each position -- that's Assume The Position's bread and butter  These posts are intended to give us a refresher on various positions and identify some of the key questions that still need to be answered before the season gets underway.

1) Who backs up James Vandenberg?

It was obvious after spring ball (and, really, the writing had been on the wall since 2009), but this depth chart, as well as multiple stories this summer, makes it abundantly clear yet again: the keys to the Iowa offense have been handed over to the Mandenberg.  It's still decidedly unclear how good he'll be -- coaches, players, and writers (oh, and Matt Millen, too) love him, but his past on-field performance has been as middling ('09 jNW, '09 Minnesota) as it has magnificent (most of '09 Ohio State).  It's also unclear how long of a leash he'll have if he does struggle; Jake Christensen famously got the entire 2007 season, despite repeated struggles (although, to be fair to Jake, there were a lot of flaws on that 2k7 Iowa offense).  I'm not sure Vandenberg will have that luxury; Christensen benefited from having no other accomplished quarterbacks on hand to challenge him in 2007* -- Ricky Stanzi and Arvell Nelson were redshirt freshmen and Marvin McNutt was a true freshman. 

* Which is not to say that at least one of them shouldn't have gotten a look anyway -- they should have -- but it was easy to see why the coaches were reluctant, too.

The 2011 back-up aren't exactly battle-tested but they seem like more viable options than Iowa had in 2007.  John Wienke has no in-game reps of significance, but he's been in the Iowa offense as long as Vandenberg, so he's well-drilled in its ins and outs.  A.J. Derby is in the same spot that Stanzi and Nelson were in 2007 (redshirt freshman), but he seems to be improving rapidly at QB and posed a serious threat to Wienke for the QB2 job in the spring (and should do the same in the fall).  There's also incoming freshman Jake Rudock; like McNutt in 2007, he's a true freshman who will (very) likely spend the fall under a redshirt, but unlike McNutt he arrives at Iowa as a much more polished QB.  Again, it's unlikely that a true freshman will supplant Wienke and Derby on the depth chart, but if Rudock's talent lives up to his hype... you never know.  And it's not completely unheard of for a true freshman to serve as QB2 in the Ferentz Era: see Drew Tate in 2003.

The outcome of the QB2 race could have long-lasting implications, too.  If Derby wins, it likely cements his stay at quarterback, since he'd be one blindside hit away from becoming Iowa's next starting quarterback.  It might also be the final nail in the coffin for Wienke's Iowa tenure and see him transfer out in search of more playing time.  If Rudock wins, it might spell the end of Derby's stay at QB; it's one thing to stay there when there's a clear path to being "The Man" (even if it's in a year or two), but if he's behind two guys (including a guy who would have more eligibility than him)?  Then leaving him at QB starts to seem less reasonable.  If Wienke wins the gig, it probably has the least effect on the roster, since it doesn't really change much: barring injury or prolonged poor play, we're likely waiting until 2013 to see the next new Iowa starting quarterback anyway, by which point both Wienke and Vandenberg will be gone.  My hunch is that fall practice ends the same as it begins, with Wienke and Derby sharing the QB2 role on the depth chart -- the critical question will be which one actually comes into the game if/when Vandenberg is off the field.

2) Who backs up Marcus Coker?

Back-up questions are also the order of the day at the other major backfield position.  Barring predations from AIRBHG --

/knocks on entire Amazon rainforest

/what's left of it anyway

/lonely tear rolls down cheek

-- Coker seems pretty entrenched as Iowa's starter for the next 2-3 years.  But whether AIRBHG wreaks his usual havoc or not, there's always room for a back-up to get carries, even in an Iowa offense that loves to heavily feature a lead back when possible.  As of the current depth chart, that back-up is still listed as Jason White, the latest recipient of the Paki O'Meara Memorial Award For Service As A Walk-On Running Back.  It's possible White hangs on to that job and emerges as Iowa's latest walk-on success story, but the competition for RB2 is about to get a lot more fierce.  Until now, White's main competition has been DeAndre Johnson, a redshirt freshman who's been battling back from an explodey knee in his senior year of high school.  Now three more scholarship running backs will be arriving on campus to fight for carries: Mika'il McCall, Damon Bullock, and Jordan Canzeri.

On paper, McCall looks like the biggest threat to wrest the RB2 job away from White; he has the greatest size (6'0", 215 lbs), star ranking (3*), and offers (Illinois, Minnesota, Syracuse, Purdue) of any of the contenders.  But that means little when he sets foot on the field and starts practicing.  This position will probably remain in flux for the entire fall practice period and on into the season; it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see multiple RBs getting chances to spell Coker in the early games.  The use of Canzeri will be particularly interesting to watch; Ferentz spent a fair amount of time at Media Days raving about Danny Woodhead, the standout D-II player who became a breakout offensive threat for the New England Patriots last year.  It was clear that he regretted passing on Woodhead in recruiting and he seems to see definite echoes of Woodhead in Canzeri.

3) How do the musical chairs at offensive guard shake out?

The only change from spring to fall was swapping sides: Adam Gettis and Woody Orne went from 1-2 at left guard in the spring to being 1-2 at right guard in the fall, while Nolan MacMillan and Brandon Scherff did the opposite.  What does that mean?  Beats me.  Maybe Ferentz thinks Gettis will work better next to Zusevics than Reiff.  I can't imagine there will be too much change here (and certainly not at the other offensive line spots) during fall practice.  Barring injury, Gettis and MacMillan seem pretty locked in as Iowa's opening day starters.  Whether or not they'll retain those jobs all year is another kettle of fish entirely.  There's been a lot of buzz around Brandon Scherff, but it seems like he'd really have to blow the doors off Gettis or MacMillan in practice to move in front of them right now.  The other interesting thing to note will be whether or not any new faces can crack the two-deeps during the fall practices; Matt Tobin, Conor Boffeli, and Brett Van Sloten have been listed as back-ups at LT, C, and RT for a little while now -- can someone like Andrew Donnal or Drew Clark unseat them?

4) Is there any change at wide receiver?

Nope.  Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis are still head and shoulders ahead of the pack as the top two wide receivers and it's anyone's guess how things will shake out behind them.  Right now, Kevonte Martin-Manley is slotted behind Davis and Steven Staggs and Don Shumpert are splitting time behind McNutt.  Who's the actual third wide receiver?  Good question.  It's whoever can best work as a slot receiver in Iowa's offense (which probably means it's really "whoever can best run an end around once a game"), which could be any of them at this point -- we haven't seen much of any of them outside of the Spring Game-Type Substance back in April.  It could also be guys not on the depth chart, like redshirt sophomore Jordan Cotton (whose Iowa career has been very quiet thus far) or perhaps even one of the incoming freshmen (Marcus Grant or Jacob Hillyer) if they can pick up the routes in Iowa's offense quickly and prove to be at least decent at blocking.  Suffice to say, there's a lot of fluidity in the wide receiver spot at Iowa right now.  We know what we have in Marvin McNutt.  And we know that Keenan Davis is going to get the most looks after McNutt.  Past that... TBD.

5) So when should we start engraving "The Polish Hat" on the Mackey Award?

Hold off until 2012.  The man, the myth, the interwebs legend known as C.J. Fiedorowicz is still slotted into the TE2 role behind the oft-overlooked Ed Brad Herman.  The buzz on the Hat has been positive and he should see considerably more work than last season (which, okay, wouldn't take much at all), but his time to shine is likely still a year off.  And, really, that might be just fine: it's not exactly fair for us to pine so openly and voraciously for Fiedorowicz when Herman has done nothing to warrant being dismissed as a non-factor.  Until now, he's been stuck behind Tony Moeaki, Brandon Myers, and Allen Reisner on the TE depth charts -- and all three of them might be suiting up for NFL teams this fall.  Herman looked good in limited doses last fall and he appears to have the speed, size, catching ability, and blocking aptitude to be Iowa's latest standout at tight end.  While we wait for the full blossoming of the Polish Hat Era, Herman really might not be such a bad fill-in at all.

Also, in news involving former tight ends, Jonathan Gimm has finally moved ahead of Brad Rogers on the fullback depth chart.  Ferentz has remained cautiously optimistic that Rogers will be able to rejoin the team, but even if he is medically cleared and able to return to the team, he's missed a considerable amount of practice and conditioning time.  It's difficult to imagine that he could miss all of that and still slide right into the starting fullback spot right away.  Hopefully he truly does get cleared and he's able to resume playing football, but it seems likely that it will still take him some time to get back up to speed, which means Gimm is probably going to have to be in action for at least part of this fall.