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The Epilogue 2013: The Offense

Where do we go from here?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

As always, fistjabs to MGoBlog, from which we blatantly steal this format.

Departures, in Order of Importance

1. Brett Van Sloten, RT. You don't just replace offensive line experience, and Van Sloten leaves Iowa with that in spades. He has 42 career offensive line appearances and 25 starts, both team highs for 2013. And while Iowa preferred to run behind Scherff and Boffeli on the left hand side this season, the occasional problems on the right side were far more often due to Blythe and Walsh than their senior bookend. At 6'7 and 300 pounds, he should have a shot at a pro career. Not bad for a guy who only got his offer when another lineman decommitted to go to East Lansing.

2. C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE. I don't think Polish Hat ever quite reached the level of freakish superstardom that we had always hoped he'd achieve. In his junior season -- the one in which we were supposed to be worried about him turning pro -- he caught more passes than any Iowa tight end since Dallas Clark and somehow racked up just 433 yards. Last season, with a better quarterback but more options in the passing game, Fiedorowicz became Jake Rudock's end zone security blanket. He caught just 30 passes for 299 yards, but he also hauled in six touchdown catches. Greg Davis never really seemed to learn how to effectively use him as anything more than an underneath option and decoy. That was probably his fault. In the end, he got 91 catches for 899 yards and 10 scores over four years. We were expecting those numbers in one. This was probably our fault.

3. Conor Boffeli, LG. Boffeli spent three seasons as a do-it-all interior lineman, always a bridesmaid on the opening depth chart and only becoming a bride late last season when the line had been so decimated by injury that Ferentz had no other options. He started three times, moved to the top of the depth chart at left guard for his last season, and held his own next to Brandon Scherff all season. Boffeli was always going to be a project -- he came to Iowa as a tight end and spent three seasons just trying to reach offensive line size -- and getting one solid season of production is about what we expect from guys like this.

4. Don Shumpert, WR. Early this season, Don Shumpert became the poster boy for Iowa's wide receiver struggles. Despite dropping approximately 96 percent of all passes thrown in his direction, he kept starting. Later in the season, he had some moments: Two catches for 69 yards against Purdue, two catches for 35 against Wisconsin, but he was largely marginalized by midseason in favor of other, younger receivers. He finished with 15 catches for 182 yards on the season.

5. Jordan Cotton, WR/KR. We're going to get to the Class of 2009 later this week, but Jordan Cotton pretty much sums up the entire class. He redshirted, he disappeared for two years, he caught one memorable touchdown pass in 2012, and he was effectively out of the offense by Week 2 in 2013. Cotton's one and only career touchdown came on a flea flicker against Minnesota last year. His 12 catches for 172 yards in that campaign left us believing he could be a contributor as a fifth-year senior. Instead, he caught two passes in the season opener against Northern Illinois and never caught another. Four seasons, 15 catches, 234 yards. Cotton was a solid kick returner who nearly took one to the house against LSU, but as a receiver, he was a non-entity.

6. Nolan MacMillan, OL. NoMac damn near broke into the lineup at tackle as a redshirt freshman, and then he spent the next four years injured. He was drafted in the first round of the CFL Draft last season -- the Canadian draft only applies to players from Canada -- and will probably go do that for a while.

What's Left, Also in Order of Importance

1. Jake Rudock, QB. Given the apparent lack of confidence shown by Ferentz when he refused to put Rudock on the field once during his redshirt freshman season and the three-way quarterback battle that raged through August, Rudock had a good, solid first season at the helm. He completed 59 percent of his pass attempts for nearly 2400 yards. He did it without a 300-yard game -- his season high was 256 against Northern Illinois in his first game as a starter -- and on just 27 attempts a game. Iowa let Rudock throw 30 times just once in the season's last six games; Rudock rewarded the coaches with three interceptions in that game.

The primary concern stemmed from one of the most pleasant surprises about Rudock's game. In the first five games of the season, he ran for 128 yards and five touchdowns, hardly Weisman-like production but enough to keep defenses honest. And Rudock was a better player when he was on the move; Iowa responded by moving the pocket and letting him have run-pass options that never existed for James Vandenberg. But Rudock was dinged up in the Michigan State game, and later left the Wisconsin game with a bad leg. He was never the same again. His running production tanked: He only managed 90 yards on the ground over the final eight games and failed to score a rushing touchdown. The pass production went south a few weeks later, as Rudock only broke 200 yards passing once in the season's last five games. He missed time in the regular season finale at Nebraska and the Outback Bowl for lingering issues. None of this is good news.

He should be fully healed for next year -- there was no indication of a long-term issue with Rudock's knee, or anything else for that matter -- and another year wiser. And he'll be the starter until Beathard or someone else definitively proves he's due a chance. Whether that could happen is another topic.

2. Brandon Scherff, LT. There are a few things that Brandon Scherff is not and will never be. Brandon Scherff will never be Bryan Bulaga or Riley Reiff. He is not the technician that either of those two players were; he is force over form.

Scherff is far more Robert Gallery than either of those two. Gallery was a weight room legend who spent his final season turning himself from an NFL right tackle prospect to the No. 2 pick in the Draft. And while the plaudits over Scherff's draft stock in December always seemed more home-grown than national, my guess would be that Ferentz made the Gallery pitch to him in Denison: You could go from second round to second pick.

He didn't come back to tread water. Scherff needs to maintain that bulldozer run blocking and show technical improvement against speed rushers in pass blocking. Is there any denying that this guy, who has held every top weight room mark since his freshman year and has steadily built himself into a professional lineman over the past three seasons, can do just that? It could be a special year for Scherff and, by virtue of that, the Iowa offense.

3. Mark Weisman/Jordan Canzeri, RB. Weisman proved to be Iowa's most effective running back when the line was dominant; when given a hole in the interior line or a sealed edge, Weisman could get there, run over a linebacker or safety, and gain solid yardage.

Of course, that was predicated on Iowa's line being dominant, and Iowa's line went from "dominant" to "merely above average" right around Michigan State. There were still exceptions: Nebraska, Purdue, and Michigan struggled against the Iowa front, not coincidentally in the last three games of the season. But Iowa's offense floundered in October when the line couldn't open holes wide enough, or for long enough, to let Weisman get through. Enter Canzeri, who became Iowa's most dynamic running back in the second half of the season. He was the speed and elusiveness to contrast Weisman's power, and the contrast of the two rejuvinated the Iowa attack just in time.

Iowa's line should be similar or modestly approved in 2014, but the Hawkeyes are likely going to need the same two-style approach to make the running game work; only one new back is joining the team for 2014, and the chances of him or any of the existing backs usurping Weisman and Canzeri would appear slim. If Canzeri's struggles with pass protection and fumbling can be resolved so that he can be used more frequently as an every-down back and take the heat off of Weisman, all the better. But Iowa's running attack in 2014 should look a lot like it did in 2013, and Weisman and Canzeri are the reasons why.

4. Austin Blythe, C. Blythe has turned in a pair of solid-if-unspectacular seasons, one at guard and another at center. He seems to understand the job as Iowa's center, not always an easy task given Iowa's zone blocking scheme and frequent audibling, and his third year as a starter should be a significant step forward. If you can't replace experience on the offensive line, Blythe is going to be extremely valuable for the next two years.

5. Kevonte Martin-Manley, WR. Barring some sort of McNutt-like improvement from Tevaun Smith, KMM will be Iowa's top wide receiver for a third consecutive season in 2014. His numbers have been relatively steady throughout: 40 catches, 388 yards, 5 touchdowns in 2013, all close to his 2012 and 2011 output. Martin-Manley is a typical Iowa wideout: Undersized, under-recruited, a step slower than you'd expect of a top wideout, but a relatively solid possession receiver and absolute overachiever.

I say "relatively solid" because Martin-Manley caught a case of the drops this fall, a condition that was going around in Iowa's receiver corps throughout the season. He had been sure-handed before this year, and should be expected to return to that level in 2014. For the moment, it's a blip. Twice and it's a problem.

6. Ryan Ward, RT. Ward looks set to become the Next Great Iowa Offensive Lineman, and the inevitable move to left tackle would generally be set up by a season at left guard. But with Van Sloten headed to the NFL, Iowa's usual bevy of tackles looking woefully thin, and Andrew Donnal's ability as a tackle long since determined, Ward might be the only option at right tackle for 2014. He doesn't have the bulldozer size of guys like Van Sloten and Kyle Calloway, but he'll do in a pinch.

7. Ray Hamilton, TE. Cobra Kai inherits the top tight end spot from Fiedorowicz. The glass ceiling created by Polish Hat has relegated Hamilton to TE2 throughout his career, a spot mostly used for blocking. In that role, Hamilton has shined. When Iowa went to a tight end-heavy set during Ohio State and in later games, Hamilton took on an expanded role and showed off the skills that made him a four-star prospect in high school.

Hamilton certainly has the skills to be a pro tight end, and could actually be a better fit for what Iowa does: He's an outstanding edge blocker and has shown flashes of receiving ability. Iowa's going to need both in 2014.

8. Jordan Walsh, RG. Walsh had the up-and-down season expected of a first-time interior line starter in Iowa's zone blocking system. He was occasionally overwhelmed -- particularly against Michigan State's aggressive front seven -- and frequently needed help from Blythe and Van Sloten. He also improved throughout the year, and was doing solid work by mid-November. He'll be a starter for the foreseeable future, and the staff likes his talent and work ethic. Continued improvement is to be expected.

9. Tevaun Smith, WR. Smith started to emerge as a viable receiving option in the second half of the season, and ended up catching 24 passes for 310 yards. Those included the catch that set up the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Northwestern and a critical catch against LSU. He's big, he's physical, and he has enough speed and agility to make defenders miss and get yards after the catch. Finally, a glimmer of hope at wideout.

10. Andrew Donnal, LG. Five years in, and the jury's still out on Donnal. He's probably too tall to play guard -- he's listed at 6'7, and you don't want a guy on the interior line who gets in the way of your quarterback's vision -- but he's also not solid enough as a tackle to play anywhere else. He plays high, and he plays without leverage, and he's frequently outmaneuvered by speed rushers. There's a possibility that Iowa puts him at right tackle this year and moves Ward to the interior line, but that doesn't look particularly likely.

11. Damond Powell, WR. Powell didn't arrive on campus until August, and the staff proceeded with caution. We were told he needed time to learn the offense and the routes. We were told he was raw and needed finishing. And then we saw him blow away Minnesota on a screen pass, and any caution held by the fanbase was thrown to the wind. Of course, it also caught the eye of other opponents, and Powell became a marked man every time he entered the game, largely a decoy used to open coverage for underneath routes.

Iowa's offensive staff has been harping on the need for big plays since Greg Davis arrived on campus two years ago. They have a guy who can do that. Now they need to find a way to get him the damn ball.

12. Damon Bullock, RB/WR. Bullock spent most of spring talking about moving to receiver, then spent the fall as a backup halfback. His one big play -- a reception in the flat against Michigan State that he took for a 47-yard touchdown -- showed he has ability in the open field. Unfortunately, Iowa was dedicated instead to running him headfirst into the line over and over, and Bullock never got much going. He doesn't have Mark Weisman's power to exploit a slowly-developing zone play, and he doesn't have Jordan Canzeri's ability to decisively hit the hole after taking the handoff. It's the worst of both worlds.

He's certainly a capable contributor when given the proper opportunity, namely the ball in space with a couple of blockers. Given Davis' propensity for swing passes and outside screens, that should be butter. Much like Powell, he needs some creativity from the staff to make him successful.

13. Jake Duzey, TE. Duzey had one of the plays of the season, an 85-yard touchdown catch against Ohio State where he outran the entire Buckeye secondary to the end zone. Much like with Powell, it made him an immediate fan base fetish object. Unlike Powell, Iowa continued to find applications for Duzey. He finished the season with 270 yards on 19 catches, almost all of which came in the second half of the season.

It will create an odd dynamic for Iowa's offense in 2014: A first-string tight end who excels at blocking and a pass-catching hybrid in the traditional blocking role. How the Hawkeyes handle it will mean a lot for where the offense goes, particularly if the tight end-heavy sets they used late in the year are going to continue into next season.

14. Adam Cox/Macon Plewa, FB. The space for a fullback in Iowa's offense is still greater than that of 95 percent of FBS teams, but it's fading. Cox and Plewa split time as the blocking back in 2013, and while both are occasionally used to catch passes out of the backfield, that role should remain unchanged.

15. C.J. Beathard, QB. Sex Cannon is probably the second-string quarterback -- Ferentz has only promoted one underclassman quarterback above a returning signalcaller, Jake Rudock played far better than that other Jake, and even that took a month of waffling -- but Rudock has shown two things that make Beathard important: First, Rudock missed time in three games due to injury, requiring Beathard as a competent backup. Second, Rudock's injuries eventually immobilized him, and his immobility rendered him less effective. When Rudock was again knocked out against LSU in the Outback Bowl, he had gone just 9 for 22 passing for 102 yards to that point. Beathard entered and, frankly, outplayed the starter.

He has an unhealthy faith in the power of his own arm that makes him throw downfield when open underneath passes would suffice, but Beathard has a gun and some decent quarterback skills and some swagger that Iowa needs at times. He's going to be an important part of this team going forward, even if he has to wait for playing time.

16. Mitch Keppy/Eric Simmons/Sean Welsh/Reid Sealby/Tommy Gaul, OL. Iowa has a parade of backup linemen who could factor in 2014. Keppy might be the most intriguing -- coaches have hinted at his accelerated development during a redshirt season -- and backup center Eric Simmons is probably in the best position to play in 2014, but all could see time. Given Ward's inexperience and Donnal's record of performance, it's not out of the question that one of these players breaks into the starting lineup in August; a guy like Boffeli would be in this group last season.

17. LeShun Daniels, RB. As expected in August, Daniels played as a true freshman, but eventually gave way to Canzeri; with Bullock still getting spot duty, there simply weren't enough carries for a fourth-string running back. Daniels is going to be the evolutionary Weisman at some point, but the staff's love for the current Weisman is going to prevent him from taking that job any time before 2015. If Bullock moves to wideout or some sort of hybrid role next season, there could be more room for Daniels. And, of course, there's the possibility that AIRBHG makes him the starter. Or a victim, for that matter.

18. Jacob Hillyer/Matt VandeBerg/Riley McCarron, WR. A trio of backup possession receivers could vye for playing time next season, as all showed glimmers of promise last year. They could also be passed by any of the freshmen who redshirted last season. Anything is possible here, really, as an Iowa passing game with KMM at the top needs speed and playmaking ability more than steady production.

19. Henry Krieger Coble, TE. HKC got lost in the shuffle in 2013, with Duzey passing him into the third tight end position and the duo of Fiedorowicz and Hamilton firmly ensconsed at the top of the depth chart. He's a more typical TE2 at Iowa than Duzey, and should get time in purely blocking situations. He also has enough pass catching ability to be a threat if Iowa continues down the Stanford path.

Three Signs of Hope

They All Come Back (Again). Iowa only lost five offensive players, and four starters, after 2012. Iowa loses only five players and three starters after 2013. That's math made easy: Iowa returns four three-year starters on offense in 2014 -- Scherff, KMM, Blythe, and Weisman -- a fairly rare occurrence for any program. The Hawkeyes also return third-year sometimes-starters Andrew Donnal, Jordan Canzeri, and Damon Bullock, and an pseudo-third-year-starter in Ray Hamilton, who has factored heavily in the Iowa offense as backup tight end for two seasons. Rudock, Walsh, Smith, Duzey, and Daniels all gained some level of experience in 2013; three of them will be second-year starters. This is the kind of thing that happens when two recruiting classes are decimated by attrition and leave one class to lift the program out of its problems: It causes a disaster when those players are inexperienced, but it later builds to one of the most experienced teams in the country. Iowa had an offense like this once before: 2002, when a boatload of returning starters paired with Brad Banks to turn Iowa's offense into a juggernaut. We're not expecting that this year -- despite replaying one of the Heisman runner-up's most famous plays against Northwestern last year, Rudock is not yet particularly Banks-like -- but the pieces should be there for across-the-board improvement.

When You Have Two Quarterbacks, You Sometimes Have Two Quarterbacks. Both Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard played well in their first seasons. Rudock was capable, level-headed, more athletic than expected, and knowledgeable in the offense. Beathard struggled in his first action, but grew as his in-game reps increased during November and set up a hint of a question under center by outplaying the injured Rudock in the Outback Bowl. There's not enough of a difference between the two to create or require an honest-to-God two-quarterback system, and even if there was, Ferentz would probably never do it; aside from the early waffling in 2008, Iowa's coaches have stuck to one quarterback ever since 2002, and Ferentz's steadfast protection of a quarterback's fragile psyche probably prevents any sort of rotation. But Iowa does open with some modest questions at quarterback, especially if the offense shifts downfield and needs Beathard's arm to properly function.

Year 3. The Davis-Ferentz offense looked even more Ferentzian in 2013 than it did in 2012, though the meld between the two made slightly more sense this season. Fans still aren't sold on Davis' offense -- finishing in the bottom half of the nation in scoring twice in a row and suffering a practical shutout at the hands of LSU in the bowl game will do that -- but at least it wasn't completely unwatchable. Davis had his own receiver coach, which apparently helped immensely; Iowa's wideouts were at least where they were supposed to be most of the time, a big improvement over 2012. But Iowa remained far too dedicated to the running game when it wasn't working and asked Rudock to make high-risk, low-reward throws in high-pressure circumstances. We're not giving up on the old Texan yet, but there is still ample room for improvement and creativity.

Three Reasons for Panic

Greg Davis, Gainfully Employed Offensive Coordinator. The counterpoint was evident against Michigan State, Wisconsin, LSU, Northwestern and the first half of Michigan: Iowa's offense remains far too conservative against good defenses, where the Hawkeyes' standard collection of slow-developing runs and screen passes were largely ineffective. Athletic, experienced defenses had no problem shutting this offense down, and Iowa's response was to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. The Hawkeyes found something new against Ohio State that apparently worked, but we never saw that same dynamic offense again. There is room for an effective and efficient offense that doesn't sacrifice Ferentz's pro-style principles; Alabama, Stanford, UCLA, and a handful of other teams show that it is possible. For whatever reason, Iowa doesn't seem that interested in doing such things, which puts undue pressure on the defense to perform. Davis has parameters set by the head coach, but those parameters should still allow for more than constant lethargy. Try again, Greg.

Right Flight. That right tackle spot could be a serious issue. With Iowa fielding a presumed first-team all-conference left tackle, defenses could simply shift away from the blind side and attack an inexperienced right tackle in Ward or an ineffective one in Donnal. Iowa's offensive line has the capability of being the best since 2009 (frankly, it could even be better than that). But one weak link could bring the entire line -- and the entire offense -- down, and Iowa's options to replace that link look fairly bleak.

Thunder, Lightning, and Something in Between. Even if Iowa loses a couple of running backs to attrition -- and that's a near-certainty at this point -- the depth at halfback should give Iowa ample options for running the ball depending on what opposing defenses try to take away. If defenses stay in two-deep against Iowa's passing game, the line can generally handle an opposition front seven and open holes for Weisman on the stretch. If they overload for the stretch, Canzeri (in particular) and Weisman can run the inside zone. If they load the box, it falls to the passing game to open things up. Whether Rudock can do that is one question -- he didn't against LSU -- but if it's just a question of working the zone game effectively, Iowa should have its answers.

Three Things That Could Change Everything

Brian Ferentz, NFL Coach. Two weeks ago, reports indicated that Ferentz was going to jump to an offensive line job with the Houston Texans. Since that time, the reports have both confirmed and denied that hire, and given Iowa's propensity for holding off coaching changes until after Signing Day, we won't know for sure until the Texans hire someone or March rolls around.

We Were Merely Freshmen. Iowa sat the vast majority of its freshman class last year, finally getting back to the redshirt system that it had built a decade ago and had to abandon during the attrition-addled years since. On paper, that was a solid Iowa recruiting class, light on four-star crown jewels but also missing the sort of two-star shots in the dark that have populated some earlier classes. While offensive and defensive line are traditional places for a redshirt to be used, Iowa could see a boost from any one of a half-dozen redshirt freshmen wide receivers.

The Breakthrough Workhorse (it's Daniels if it's Anyone). Of course, there are also the freshmen who played, on the offensive side nobody more than LeShun Daniels. Iowa's coaches like Weisman for his work ethic and leadership qualities, and it's hard to see any scenario where he is relegated to a smaller role unless someone steps forward as a fully-formed workhorse halfback. The guy who could do it: LeShun Daniels, who did enough to get playing time last year, has plenty of ceiling above him and time to learn the zone blocking scheme, and looked like a potential star in another year or two. It's been another year. Let's see if we have to wait for two.

Dartboard Guess

It has now been five years since Iowa's offense last ranked in the top half of the conference, and a dozen seasons since the Hawkeyes even came close to something dynamic on the offensive end. Iowa's attack is never going to be flashy or up-tempo or particularly productive. At its best, it is simply a mechanism to protect the defense by running down the clock, shortening the game, and getting the defenders as much rest as possible. At its worst -- think the first half of Michigan -- it's a three-and-out machine that Ferentz uses as a crutch to reinforce his coaching philosophy. At least Iowa used to go with a dynamic halfback who could convert solid offensive line play into chunks of yardage; they've stopped even attempting to do that, opting for replacement level halfback play on a team that is wholly dependent on the running game. Iowa could be quite good in 2014, but it will be despite, not because, of the offense.