THE SENIORS ARE GONE. The roster is smaller, missing the next incoming crop from Hawkeyes. There's a few early signees that will participate this spring. (James Daniels, Brett Waechter and Brady Reiff started their careers early.) With a trim roster and no games for which to prepare, this is our chance to see some of the younger group on the roster and what they can do.
Certainly, there's a long list of players that have shined in spring practices (open to the public Aprill 11th in Des Moines and April 25th in Iowa City) but never made a splash when it mattered. Peter Pekar was a star last year. Andre Harris and Derrick Mitchell (now a running back?) are a couple others from last year. But, we're going to guess at which will sustain some spring success and be a role player if better next season. Here are my picks for spring breakout players.
JON WISNIESKI Soph TE
Wisnieski was a four-star in-state commit from West Des Moines Dowling. He sat out his first season adding weight and suffered an ACL injury that cost him all of last year. He's added the size and is now listed at 6'4" 247 pounds per the Iowa official roster. Departed senior Ray Hamilton was listed at 6'5" 252.
Current starter and senior Henry Krieger-Coble will miss time this spring rehabbing an injury and that's perfect for Wisnieski to slide into that role on the line as Iowa's lead blocking TE. Wisnieski was buried on the depth chart and will have to fight off walk-on sophomore Peter Pekar for this role but he has the tools to do it.
MATT NELSON RS Frosh DE
Nelson arrived to Iowa last year and immediately was assigned to the training table. He's an unusual prospect on the DLine because of his size (he's 6'8"). He's added some necessary pounds to play at the Big Ten level during the off-season and already finds his name listed as 2nd string DE behind senior Nate Meier.
If Nelson can prove he's ready for the big show, he'll give Iowa some flexibility with Nate Meier. Nelson can add some bulk and length to the outside and perhaps play obvious rushing downs while Meier could move to his role as a rush end on passing downs.
NATE BAZATA Soph DT
Bazata saw his first career action last season as a red-shirt freshman. He's played in nine career games and recorded four tackles. He's an obvious pick here, perhaps, because he is listed as a starter at defensive tackle this spring.
Bazata can make Hawk fans take a double take of the field. He plays a lot like the man he's replacing, Louis-Trinca-Pasat. He may be a placeholder for Darian Cooper but Cooper's still rehabbing an injury that cost him all of last season. It's possible Cooper is nothing more than a role player in 2015 and subs in for Jaleel Johnson, the starter opposite of Bazata.
MILES TAYLOR Soph SS
Taylor, another obvious pick because he's listed as the starter at strong safety, saw action as a true freshman. He impressed the staff enough to immediately earn playing time on special teams and played in all of Iowa's 13 games in 2014.
Looking at the depth chart, it looks like Taylor is winning the job by default. His listed back-up is walk-on RS frosh Brandon Snyder. However, Iowa has veteran Anthony Gair currently behind Jordan Lomax at free safety and if Taylor didn't earn the spot, Gair would have slid over.
CJ HILLIARD RS Frosh RB
Hilliard is now one of many running backs that will get touches this spring. If Ferentz holds true to form, Jordan Canzeri will get limited touches, especially in live contract drills for the fans. Hilliard is 5'10" 195 but runs like a bigger back and might be the best option behind LeShun Daniels for that bigger back role on Iowa's roster.
Iowa is going to try Jonathan Parker in more of a slot role this spring and with Canzeri out, someone has to be the spring workhorse. Derrick Mitchell and Marcel Joly will also get some time in the backfield but Hilliard has a year of scout team running back under his belt. Iowa adds Eric Graham in the fall and Hilliard's true place on the depth chart may be 5th but this is his chance to break into and stay in that top four.