Spring football is finally upon us, which means... yes, we need to start thinking about football. Oh come on, it won't hurt that much. Probably. You know, just to be safe, you might want to go stock up on the alcoholic beverage of your choice before reading further. It's okay, I'll wait.
You're back? Great! Let's get started. Here are five things we're wondering about the Iowa offense as spring football kicks off. (SURPRISE! It's an onside kickoff!)
1) Who will emerge from the QB battle?
We'll have much more about this later on, but the biggest question surrounding the Iowa offense this year is who will be taking snaps this fall. James Vandenberg famously took every single snap in the 2012 season, a folly that will hopefully not be duplicated this fall. Spring practice represents just the first skirmish in what figures to be a long battle for the starting QB job; regardless of what happens this spring, there will be be competition for the job during fall practice this August and we could easily see the competition linger on into the season, with Iowa trying different quarterbacks in the early going to see who clicks.
That is, unless one of the three contenders vying for the starting job blows the other two out of the water this spring. I'm not exactly sure what would entail -- bombing away on the Iowa secondary in April is quite a bit different from doing the same thing in live action this fall -- but it could happen. I guess. As noted, there are three primary challengers for the starting job: SO Jake Rudock, JR Cody Sokol, and RS FR C.J. Beathard. Sokol a (JUCO transfer) and Beathard both redshirted last year, while Rudock served as Vandenberg's primary back-up, a job that involved holding a clipboard and... well, holding a clipboard. Again: no one other than Vandenberg took a single snap last year. We know nothing about Sokol, Rudock, and Beathard beyond their highlight videos and a few brief glimpses of them at open practices last season. Whoever picks up Greg Davis' offense the fastest is likely to win the job, but who that might be is anyone's guess at this point. Still, this will be the position battle to watch this spring.
2) Who the hell is going to catch passes this year?
Meanwhile, no matter who takes over at quarterback, someone is going to have to catch his passes. Beyond Kevonte Martin-Manley and C.J. Fiedorowicz, we have no idea who that might be. Iowa brought in five new receivers in this year's recruiting class, to go along with the four they brought in last year and the handful that were already on-hand. The transition from big, physical Soup-approved receivers to small, shifty Davis-approved receivers has been rocky, to say the least.
We'll have to wait until summer to see how the new recruits fit into the mix, but in the meantime spring should provide a few more answers about the options currently available. KMM is Iowa's leading returning receiver, but is he equipped to be Iowa's primary receiver? He doesn't exactly fit the mold of past #1 WRs at Iowa (see: McNutt, DJK, Hinkel, Solomon, etc.), but then again that mold may no longer be particularly relevant. Still, KMM is the closest thing we have to a known quantity and he's been solid through two seasons at Iowa: 30 catches for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns as a freshman, 52 catches for 571 yards and 2 touchdowns as a sophomore.
The bigger question is who can step up next to KMM. Don Shumpert caught 6 passes for 29 yards last year, but was basically a non-entity in the passing game after the Iowa State game (literally, he caught no passes after that game). Jordan Cotton emerged after that, catching 12 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown (the glorious flea-flicker score against Minnesota), but was honestly much more explosive in the kick return game than he was the passing game. Freshman Tevaun Smith, the Canadian Missile, saw his redshirt get burned, but caught just 3 passes for 31 yards. Smith remains an intriguing option, given his fantastic speed. The only other receiver to catch a pass in 2012 was Jacob Hillyer (who literally caught a pass for 15 yards last year), but he seems very much like a hold-over from the previous wide receiver philosophy and it's hard to know where he fits into the mix now. Beyond that, we're left with the freshmen who redshirted last year: Cameron Wilson, Greg Mabin, and Maurice Fleming. Morehouse seems to think one or both of Mabin and Fleming will be switching to defensive back*, which would give Iowa even fewer options to play with at wide receiver this spring. The wide receiver depth is virtually guaranteed to get shaken up after the new recruits arrive this summer, so ending spring with your name atop the WR depth chart may not mean a whole lot -- but it's still a starting point.
* And, indeed, Fleming is a back-up defensive back on the new spring depth chart.
3) What's going on at running back?
On paper, running back looks like the one position on Iowa that's relatively set, considering that Iowa is slated to return last year's reading rusher, Mark Weisman. But nothing in the Iowa offense is that simple. Injuries (as usual) contributed to Iowa's running back situation a year ago (Weisman was basically the last man standing), but Iowa enters spring with a healthy contingent of running backs, which offers some new possibilities. Weisman is very much in the mold of the bruising, power-running rusher that Kirk Ferentz seems to covet (see: Coker, Marcus and Greene, Shonn), but Greg Davis seems fond of smaller, quicker running backs who can also catch the ball out of the backfield. As it turns out, we have a few running backs who fit that bill, too -- Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. Will Iowa use both types this season? Can they do so without telegraphing what's coming from a mile away?
Iowa also has to deal with the absence of Brad Rogers, our beloved Cambus, who decided to hang up his cleats after a recent back surgery. Weisman was a pretty salty fullback himself before he thundered into our hearts at halfback, so might we see him back at fullback for more snaps this year? Could we see a backfield with both Weisman and Bullock (or Canzeri) and the option to hand off to either man and keep defenses off-balance? There's also Barkley Hill and Mike Malloy to consider, assuming they're fully recovered from the ailments that limited them last year. AIRBHG's latest cycle of doom and destruction hasn't yet begun, which means Iowa finds itself with several possible options at running back. No doubt we'll be down to giving 30 carries a game to walk-on Andre Dawson by Halloween, but for now hope springs eternal and it will be interesting to see how the carries are divvied out this spring and who impresses.
4) Will there be any surprises along the Iowa offensive line?
Iowa has to replace two starting offensive linemen from a year ago, three-year starting center James Ferentz and perennial whipping boy (turned-pretty-OK-at-times) offensive guard/tackle Matt Tobin. Two other linemen with starting experience, Andrew Donnal and Brandon Scherff (perhaps Iowa's best lineman last year), went down with season-ending injuries in Iowa's calamitous loss to Penn State last year, although both are expected to be available this spring (or summer, at the latest). The hottest battle figures to be for Ferentz's center job; OG Connor Boffeli was listed as Ferentz's back-up on the two-deeps last year, but OG Austin Blythe has been talked about as a future center in the past and JUCO OG Eric Simmons also projects as a possible C.
Whoever emerges as the starting center will likely have a trickle-down effect on the rest of Iowa's offensive line jobs. Boffeli and Blythe ended the 2012 season as Iowa's starting guards, but obviously a new starting guard would need to be found if either takes over as center this year. Scherff and Brett Van Sloten figure to be Iowa's starting tackles, regardless of how the interior line situation shakes out. One other wrinkle here is Iowa's recruiting; over the last few years, Iowa's strongest recruiting has been along the offensive line, so there are several talented prospects waiting in the wings here. Incumbent linemen rarely lose their jobs at Iowa, but the position battles this year figure to be extra-fierce. Will Nolan MacMillan finally be healthy enough to contend for a starting job again*? What about Donnal, Jordan Walsh, and Ryan Ward, 4* recruits all -- could one of them crack the starting line-up? Donnal and Walsh both saw action last year. There's definitely the potential for some shake-ups along the offensive line this year.
* Considering that he's going to miss spring ball with YET ANOTHER INJURY, don't hold your breath on this one.
5) Can The Polish Hat get a sidekick?
Initially, I was going to pose a question about the impact of Iowa's now-completely overhauled offensive coaching staff and what the additions of RB coach Chris White and WR coach Bobby Kennedy might have on the team... but, honestly, we aren't really going to be able to gauge that until the games get underway this fall. So let's take a look at the tight ends instead. As Morehouse noted, C.J. finally began to play like the player we hoped he could be at the end of last season -- 29 of his 45 catches came in the season's final six games. The explosiveness could use a little work (9.6 ypc is disappointing, especially for a guy with his obvious physical tools), but hopefully everything comes together for Fiedorowicz in his senior season.
But who is going to help out The Polish Hat at tight end? "Cobra Kai" Ray Hamilton disappeared for long stretches last season and by the end of the year it seemed that he'd been supplanted on the TE depth chart by Zach Derby, Ray Duzey, and Henry Krieger-Coble). Krieger-Coble made a few nice plays against Michigan (3 catches, 24 yards, 1 TD), but for the most part the race to be the Hat's understudy looks wide open. Again, C.J. is a senior, so you'd have to think that whoever emerges as the second option at tight end this year will be the favorite to be the main tight end in 2014. We might get some idea of who that will be this spring.
TOMORROW: The defense.