While we try to figure out this mystifying football team and anticipate the return of our postseason-aspirant basketball team, there's another team that's worth discussing: the Iowa wrestling team. They'll be going after their fourth national championship in the past six years, so it behooves us to preview that quest. In the spirit of our Assume the Position series of football, we bring you A Winner Is You!, a weight-by-weight breakdown of the Iowa wrestling team, counting down from the weight we have the most confidence in to the weight we have absolutely no clue about. Enjoy!
THE KNOWN QUANTITY
A year ago, Iowa had a slugfest on its hands to determine the starter at 285. In one corner, we had the incumbent, Blake Rasing, who went 18-7 in 2010-11 and won a Big Ten title. In the other corner, we had the challenger, Bobby Telford, a redshirt freshman with an impressive recruiting pedigree (he was one of the top heavyweight prospects in the 2010 class) and an excellent record during his redshirt year, but no experience competing at the highest levels. As we know, Telford won the job; his explosiveness and potential won out over Rasing's experience (aside from a 4-match spell in the middle of the season when Rasing reclaimed the starting spot). This year, Telford enters the season as the unquestioned starter and one of Iowa's top hopes for a strong performance at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.
Telford had an up and down season in his first year as a starter; he went 26-9 overall and was Big Ten runner-up and an NCAA All-American (he placed 5th at the NCAA Tournament). His year started out brilliantly, with 15 straight wins (including eight bonus point wins). Then he lost four matches in a row... and his starting job. The exact reasons behind the switch to Rasing were never fully clear -- there was some talk that Telford was battling an injury, but there was also the simple truth that Iowa had a capable backup available and a starter that was underperforming, so why not try something different? To be fair to Telford, the four losses were also to pretty strong competition. He lost to Northwestern's Mike McMullan (the 3rd place finisher at the 2012 NCAA Tournament), Central Michigan's Jarod Trice (who likely would have been an All-American last year if he hadn't been redshirting), Oklahoma State's Alan Gelogaev (who also would have been an All-American last year if not for a late-season injury that kept him out of the NCAA Tournament), and Nebraska's Tucker Lane (a solid wrestler who was the 11th seed at the 2012 NCAA Tournament).
Telford was much improved upon his return to the starting lineup, highlighted by the tear he went on through the Big Ten Tournament, making it all the way to the finals before falling to eventual Big Ten and NCAA champion Tony Nelson. Telford had another strong showing at the NCAA Tournament, losing in the quarterfinals to eventual NCAA runner-up Zach Rey of Lehigh and wrestling back to finish 5th. Along the way, Telford picked up some solid wins -- he beat McMullan earlier in the season and Michigan's Ben Apland and Penn State's Cameron Wade at the Big Ten Tournament -- but struggled against the top guys in the division (Nelson, Rey, Gelogaev, Trice, Oregon State's Clayton Jack). He went 0-7 against those five wrestlers, losing by a combined score of 26-7.
He struggled with just about everything in those matches (and in a few others): he couldn't escape his opponents' rides, couldn't hold them down long enough to pick up a riding time point (or just erase a riding time advantage for his opponent), and couldn't get to his own offense and get any takedowns of his own. Telford won the starting spot over Rasing because of his more aggressive approach and his greater ability to score points; against some of the better heavyweights, though, he too often resembled Rasing -- tentative and unwilling to shoot, except in the last 30-60 seconds of a match. Other than the 10-2 loss to Gelogaev, Telford was able to defend himself well and fend off opponents' shots, but his own shots were just as ineffective. Certainly, low-scoring, defensive wrestling is pretty much the norm between top-notch heavyweight wrestlers, but for Telford to take the next step forward in his progress and establish himself among those other elite wrestlers, he's going to need to prove that his own offense is good enough to score takedowns against those elite opponents. Put simply, Telford needs to make "the leap" from a very good wrestler of promise to a very good wrestler who actually lives up to that potential. It won't be easy, but Telford's freshman season was promising enough to warrant such expectations.
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
Much like 133 this year, Iowa's depth at 285 went from enviable to non-existent; unlike 133, the prospects for future depth here are also pretty dim at the moment. As noted, a year ago, redshirt freshman Bobby Telford wrested the starting job away from returning senior Blake Rasing. Although he lost his starting spot, Rasing didn't go anywhere -- he stayed with the team, provided an invaluable training partner for Telford, and also stepped in for a few meets while Telford dealt with injuries and a brief losing streak. Rasing wasn't the most exciting option, but he was a reliable and proven option -- nice to have in your back pocket.
This year, Iowa has no Rasing, nor any other particularly viable options behind Telford. The only other heavyweight listed on the official Iowa roster is... Artie Bess, a true freshman out of Illinois. He wrestled at 220 in high school last year and, based on his profile pic, still looks to be a little on the lean side. I think it's safe to say he needs a redshirt year to get well-acquainted with the strength and conditioning program here. If something were to happen to Telford, Iowa would probably try to have one of the other upper-weight wrestlers (perhaps Tomas Lira, if he doesn't win the starting spot at 197) bump up and fill the spot. Or we could ask a football player to try and fill in again (as Jordan McLaughlin did a few years ago); Austin Blythe was a dynamite wrestling prospect in high school and it's not as though he's likely to be busy after Thanksgiving this year.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
Telford may need to get better just to repeat his 2012 results at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, given the quality of the opposition this year. Four of last year's eight All-Americans are back this season (including three of the top five), and they're being joined by Missouri's Dom Bradley (2011 Big Ten champion, 3rd place finisher at 2011 NCAA Tournament), Trice (two-time All-American), and Gelogaev (an All-American at 197 in 2010 and a surefire All-American in 2011 and 2012 if not for injuries). So yeah: heavyweight is going to be a fierce division this year.
In the Big Ten, Telford and McMullan will be battling to overtake Nelson, the current king of the hill. That won't be easy, although Telford didn't get embarrassed by Nelson last year -- he lost a pair of 2-0 decisions because he couldn't get any of his own offense going. His match with Gelogaev went far worse (10-2), in part because Gelogaev is a far more dangerous wrestler. Regardless, the Big Ten and (especially) NCAA Tournament will be littered with potential landmines for Telford this year.
THE KEY MATCHES
12/1/12: #13 Matt Gibson, Iowa State (non-conference dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/4/13: #18 Peter Capone, Ohio State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/13/13: #3 Alan Gelogaev, Oklahoma State (non-conference dual; Stillwater, OK)
1/18/13: #12 Ben Apland, Michigan (B1G dual; Ann Arbor, MI)
1/20/13: #16 Mike McClure, Michigan State (B1G dual; East Lansing, MI)
1/26/13: #1 Tony Nelson, Minnesota (B1G dual; Minneapolis, MN)
2/16/13: #19 Ernest James, Edinboro (non-conference dual; Iowa City, IA)
Telford isn't currently slated to see much of the rest of the InterMat top-10 this season (prior to the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments) -- just Nelson and Gelogaev in dual meets. He'll also face a handful of wrestlers ranked in the teens of InterMat's top-20, but it would be nice for Bobby to get a bit more experience on the mat against some of the guys he'll likely have to get through at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments to claim top honors. On the other hand, this schedule sets up well for him to put together an impressive record, which should lead to some favorable seeding down the road at those tournaments.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
Telford was one of the most celebrated recruits in Iowa's top-ranked 2010 class and while he had some ups and downs during the regular season last year, the final results speak for themselves: Big Ten runner-up, NCAA All-American. That's pretty good for a redshirt freshman. Given the level of quality in the heavyweight ranks this year, I think just duplicating those accomplishments would be impressive enough and I think that's very much within Telford's grasp this season.