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THE EXPANDED ROLE OF ROLE PLAYERS

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Kirk Ferentz probably isn't much of a Dungeons & Dragons guy, but he embraced the role player.

Matthew Holst

"Next man in." That has been the Iowa mantra for years and it has served the Hawkeyes well. It has allowed the coaches to focus on fundamental and a simple system that players can learn really well. Someone goes down with an injury, graduates, whatever…"next man in."

Iowa’s recruiting challenges have been well documented. Location, location, location, as they say. Iowa doesn’t land the 5-star players ready to be a full-service player as a freshman. They land the overlooked, developmental types, and that process takes time. Kirk Ferentz and Co. are superb teachers and developers of talent, and the guys they land, after 3 or 4 years in the system are usually ready to start, play every snap, and excel at everything. So "next man in" has also meant, "only play the starters," "seniority always wins," "next man doesn’t play until he has to."

Somewhere along the way, like the 4th quarter of games in 2010, Iowa found out the hard way that relying on a very tight rotation of only the trusted players can lead to them sucking wind on the sideline when the game is on the line. Or that only practicing one quarterback and having him crumple in the endzone while throwing an interception can lead to a perfect season vanishing.

Which brings us to the role player.

It’s not a new concept. Brad Banks was the "running quarterback" and Paul Chaney was the "only can run a fly route" guy and John Wienke was the "pooch punter"… But there has been a shift in how much role players are used at Iowa. Instead of protecting the inexperienced players by just not playing them or hiding them on special teams, now they are protected by just having to learn a single role really well. It serves another purpose too, as younger players can gain valuable experience in preparation for an expanded role in future years.

Take a look at the Raider package last year. Reggie Spearman, a 17-year old true freshman, was thrown into the mix to be a pass rush specialist. He wasn’t ready to be a full-service linebacker, but he was able to be really good in his specific role. Now he's ready to start, or at least play a lot. And you can also pair that role player with a defensive end like Mike Hardy, who's more of a DE in a DT body primarily in there to stop the run on first and second down. Third down, bring in the pass rusher.

I’m not sure who will be filling specialty roles on defense this year. Anyone who can generate a decent pass rush is likely to see the field and I could see the nickel back having an expanded role if the LBs aren’t as strong in coverage. Who emerges in those key specialty role on defense will definitely be omething to watch.

The same thing is happening on the other side of the ball. The TE rotation is deep and they’ve split up some of their responsibilities. TE is now 2 positions, the traditional Y and the "move back" or B-back or whatever they want to call it. Some guys are more the inline run blocker…a third OT that will go out for a pass on occasion.  And then some are more hybrid types…lining up in the slot, out wide, as a fullback.

We’ll probably find out shortly, but it sounds like C.J. Beathard could find his own role as well. And I'd be surprised if Damond Powell doesn't have a similar role to what he had last year.

Maybe the most interesting position rotation will be at running back. I was pretty sure it was settled that Mark Weisman would start, wear out the defense a little, Jordan Canzeri would rotate in, then Weisman would pound it out in the 4th quarter, and Damon Bullock would be used on passing downs. But after KF's presser on Tuesday, it sounds like Bullock and LeShun Daniels may have earned a larger share of the caries. It feels like the roles could sort themselves out pretty easily; Weisman will be the starter and used any time, Bullock can come in on passing downs, LeShun can be used in short yardage situations and the redzone, and Canzeri can get time as the change of pace option. We’ll see, though…I expect it will all get sorted out by B1G play.

In a way, I think a bunch of role players is more "Iowan" than "next man in" was. There aren't a lot of stars on this team (besides a couple of large tackles), but there are a good group of guys who all know their roles and can do a few things really well.