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EDWIN COOPER RETURNS AND IOWA'S MIDDLEWEIGHT GRAB BAG

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Options, options, we got options.

Tyler Finchum (Daily Iowan)

Wrestling season is still a few months away, but we can make some pretty confident assumptions about a good chunk of next year's lineup, especially at the lighter and heavier ends.  We know that Thomas Gilman and Cory Clark are going to hold things down at 125 and 133, thanks to IAWrestle's interview with Ryan Morningstar earlier this month.  (Morningstar also intimated that Iowa has "questions at 141," which is curious (and concerning) because it's not really clear who Iowa has as a viable option at that weight other than the inconsistent Josh Dziewa.) At the other end of the weight spectrum, we know that big Bobby Telford will be starting at heavyweight and, barring a shock redshirt, Nate Burak will be manning 197.  We can also assume with a pretty good degree of certainty that Nick Moore (165), Mike Evans (174), and Sammy Brooks (184) will slot into the starting lineup.

But at 149 and 157 things look like one giant mess.  149 has, of course, been a persistent conundrum for Iowa since Brent Metcalf graduated.  Brody Grothus' wins (one apiece) at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments last year were Iowa's first wins in those events since Metcalf was stalking the mat in black and gold.  157 joins its middleweight companion as a potential problem weight for Iowa this year, thanks to Derek St. John's departure last year.  St. John, a four-time All-American and 2013 NCAA Champion and current assistant coach at North Dakota State, filled that starting spot very ably for four seasons, but there's no sure replacement behind him.  Iowa's middleweight uncertainty is spreading -- it's contagious.

Iowa's added a few new faces (or new-old, in one case) to the middleweight scene this off-season, courtesy of transfers.  We already wrote about Iowa native Eric DeVos transferring to Iowa from Penn and we heard rumblings a month ago about Iowa welcoming Edwin Cooper back to the fold.  Cooper joined Iowa a season ago, but never made it to Iowa's lineup after an run-in with the authorities before the season began.  He ended up transferring to Upper Iowa University, where he went 42-4 and posted a runner-up finish at the NCAA DII Tournament. But then Cooper himself indicated that he'd be taking another crack at Iowa this year:

We were still a little skeptical, given what happened last year, but Iowa released their official roster for 2014-15 and Cooper's on it... so it feels pretty legit.  One presumes that any off the mat issues Cooper may have had have now been cleaned up to Tom Brands' satisfaction.

At the moment, Iowa appears to have six -- maybe seven -- wrestlers vying for two starting spots.  I think they could all wrestle at either weight, so it's just a matter of seeing who the most effective wrestlers are at 149 and 157 and going from there.  It's still too soon to say how things will shake out, but let's take a look at the contenders:

BRODY GROTHUS, JR (149)

2013-14: 24-12 (varsity starter/backup, Iowa), Big Ten Tournament DNP (1-2), NCAA Tournament DNP (1-2)

Record vs. Competition (2013-14 only): 0-1 versus Edwin Cooper (7-4), 1-0 versus Connor Ryan (1-0), 0-1 versus Brandon Sorensen (4-2)

Notable Wins: Win By Fall (1:38) #8 David Habat (Edinboro), Win By Decision (3-2) #2 Jason Tsirtsis, Win By Decision (9-5) #3 Josh Kindig, Win By Decision (17-14, TB1) #7 Eric Grajales

2012-13: 6-8 (varsity starter/backup, Iowa)
2011-12: 18-6 (unattached, Iowa)

Grothus is the incumbent at 149, having manned this spot for Iowa after a 4th place finish at the Midlands Championships.  The Midlands -- and his first few weeks as a starter after that -- were clearly the highpoint of Grothus' season.  He knocked off three top-10 opponents in the span of about three weeks, including two guys (Kindig and Tsirtsis) who went on to be NCAA finalists at 149.  After that heady win over Kindig, Grothus went just 5-7 the rest of the way, with the only real highlight being his 17-14 barnburner win over Eric Grajales.  He put together matching 1-2 finishes at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, failing to place at either event.  For what it's worth (probably not much), Grothus lost to Cooper early in the season at the Luther Open.

MIKE KELLY, SR (149/157)

2013-14: 10-5 at 149, 0-1 at 157 (varsity starter/backup, Iowa)

Record vs. Competition: 1-0 versus Connor Ryan (6-1), 1-0 versus Edwin Cooper (6-5)

2012-13: 10-8 (varsity starter/backup, Iowa)
2011-12: 5-1 at 157, 10-13 at 149 (varsity starter, Iowa), Big Ten Tournament DNP (1-3)

Of all the names on this list, seeing Kelly's name listed as a starter would probably induce the most sighs from Iowa fans.  As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt -- especially when the results you're familiar with weren't very exciting.  Kelly has spent time as a starter for Iowa in each of the last three seasons for Iowa, with little to show for it.  2011-12 is the only year in which he's finished the season as the starter at 149 (he went 1-3 at the Big Ten Tournament and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, despite the Big Ten being granted 10 automatic qualifying spots at 149 that year); in 2012-13 he was replaced by a bumped-up Josh Dziewa for the Big Ten Tournament and a year ago Grothus took over the starting gig after the Midlands Championships (Kelly DNP at Midlands).  Kelly doesn't really have any significant wins on his ledger (unlike Grothus); instead, his claim to fame is keeping it close and "almost winning" (or "barely losing") several matches against quality opponents.  But at some point those losses need to turn into wins, right?

Conventional wisdom on Kelly has been that 157 is natural weight and  that he's been sucking down to 149 the last few years to give himself a better shot at starting (he wasn't supplanting DSJ at 157) and to help the team.  But we really don't know how he'd do at 157; his track record at 157 in college includes a 3rd place finish at the Lindenwood Open four years ago and one match last year (a 17-6 manhandling at the hands of #6 Taylor Walsh).  So would he be better at 157?  Well, maybe -- we just don't have any evidence to base that claim on.

BRANDON SORENSON, RS FR (149/157)

2013-14: 10-3 at 157, 14-1 at 149 (redshirt, Iowa)

Record vs. Competition: 0-1 versus Derek St. John (8-2), 1-0 versus Brody Grothus (4-2), 2-0 versus Connor Ryan (7-3, 2-0)

Notable Wins: Win By Decision (7-6), #12 Zach Neibert

Brandon Sorensen enters his redshirt freshman season at Iowa with more hype than anyone since probably Cory Clark or Thomas Gilman -- or maybe even Mike Evans.  While redshirting a year ago, Sorensen put together a very strong season, going 24-4 overall and highlighted by a 3rd place finish at the Midlands Championships (the best finish of any Iowa wrestler there).  Sorensen knocked off a ranked wrestler at Midlands (#12 Zach Neibert) and narrowly lost to another one (#8 David Habat).  He started the year at 157 lbs and went 9-3, looking solid, but not exceptional.  He switched to 149 for Midlands and stayed there the rest of the year, going 14-1.  His only loss was to Habat and six of his fourteen wins included bonus points.  Again, finishing first at the Flash Flanagan and Grand View Opens is nice, but the quality of the competition does merit the usual caveats.  But Sorensen looked very strong at Midlands and there's been a lot of good buzz about him for quite a while.  Sorensen looks very talented and it would be a genuine surprise if he didn't start at one of Iowa's two middleweight openings.

ERIC DEVOS, SO (149/157)

2012-13: 4-5 at 141 (unattached, Penn)

Remember what I said about Kelly being an enigma at 157?  Well, DeVos is an even bigger mystery.  He's listed at 149/157, but as best I can tell, his entire college wrestling career consists of nine matches at 141 lbs for Penn in 2012-13.  Needless to say, I don't think those results have a lot of predictive power for DeVos this season.  By the same token, it doesn't seem fair to place too much hype or pressure on DeVos right now -- we literally have no idea what to expect from him.  Results at early-season tournaments don't always have a lot of predictive power, either, but at least they'll give us some idea of what DeVos might be capable of for Iowa.

EDWIN COOPER, JR (149)

2013-14: 49-4 (Upper Iowa University), runner-up at NCAA DII Tournament

Record vs. Competition: 1-0 versus Brody Grothus (7-4), 0-1 versus Mike Kelly (6-5)

2012-13: Did not compete
2011-12: 32-1 (Iowa Central Community College), JUCO national champion

We meet again, Mr. Cooper.  A year ago, we thought Cooper might be the answer to our questions at 149; unfortunately, his run at Iowa was cut off before it ever got started and he spent the year in the DII ranks at Upper Iowa University.  He was an NCAA runner-up there.  He faced a few of his future teammates at the Luther Open early in the season, beating Brody Grothus (7-4) and losing to Mike Kelly (6-5).  I wouldn't necessarily put a lot of stock into results that early in the season, though.  Cooper wouldn't have come to Iowa if he didn't think he had a good chance to start, so it stands to reason that he's going to enter the season as one of the favorites to claim a spot.  The critical question is whether he can prove to be a better option for Iowa than Grothus, Kelly, or Sorensen.  Cooper definitely has plenty of potential and the hope is that training in the Iowa room will help him unleash that potential on the rest of the Big Ten -- and the nation.

PATRICK RHOADS, JR (157)

2013-14: 14-3 (unattached, Iowa)

Record vs. Competition: Went 0-1 versus Derek St. John (3-1)

2012-13: 3-2 at 149 (unattached, Iowa)
2011-12: 6-4 (redshirt, Iowa)

Rhoads has wrestled the last few years in the considerable shadow cast by Derek St. John at 157 lbs, but he has a shot to claim a starting gig this year with DSJ out of the picture.  Rhoads put together a nice season a year ago, going 14-3 and claiming titles at the Flash Flanagan and Grand View Opens.  As with so many guys who put up eye-watering records while wrestling unattached, though, caveats about competition apply -- Rhoads wasn't beating the best of the best at those events.  Still, he made a nice improvement between his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons and if he's made another leap heading into his junior season, he could definitely push for a starting spot this year.

CONNOR RYAN, SO (149)

2013-14: 25-7 (unattached, Iowa)

Record vs. Competition: Went 0-2 versus Brandon Sorensen (7-3, 2-0), 0-1 versus Mike Kelly (6-1), 0-1 versus Brody Grothus (1-0)

2012-13: 3-2 at 141, 7-3 at 149 (redshirt, Iowa)

Ryan is one of Iowa's younger options here, but he hasn't garnered quite as much buzz as guys like Sorensen, likely because he hasn't had notable success against current college stars and because he wasn't a hyped recruit when he came to Iowa.  He's had some solid results at 149 over the last two years, including a 25-7 mark last season.  Those results do come with some pretty big caveats, though: he hasn't really recorded many notable wins yet and he's struggled against fellow Iowa competition.  Winning the head-to-head battles at Iowa isn't the be-all, end-all (Tyler Clark famously beat Tony Ramos a few times at 133), but it certainly helps.  I would characterize Ryan as an extreme long shot to start this year, but he might be a name to watch for the future if he continues to develop and improve.

* * *

Of course, the bigger question than who will be starting for Iowa at 149 and 157 is this: will they be any good?  Brody Grothus notched Iowa's first Big Ten Tournament wins at 149 in four seasons last year and managed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament (something Iowa had failed to do in the post-Metcalf era), but he didn't exactly do a whole lot in either tournament  and he certainly never sniffed the podium.  And that's they key: can any of these guys become legitimate All-America threats?  DSJ was one of Iowa's two best wrestlers a season ago (along with 133 lb NCAA and Big Ten Champion Tony Ramos), so replacing him was always going to be a tall task.  It's probably asking too much for any of Iowa's 2014 options to immediately become title contenders.  But you can get solid points for making the podium -- points that may come in very handy for Iowa if the team title race is tight.

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There's a bit of a clear-out at 149 this year, with three seniors from last year's Big Ten Tournament top-8 moving on (and persistent rumors that Nick Dardanes may move back down to 141).  Tsirtsis and Sueflohn look like a heady combination at the top of this class, but there's room for someone to make a splash at this weight, too.

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157 looks like an absolute bear, though.  7 of the top-8 at the Big Ten Tournament a year ago are slated to return -- the only absentee is our own DSJ.  While some of those 7 guys may shift weights, it certainly looks like there will be plenty of returning firepower at this weight in the Big Ten (as well as nationally), which ought to make it harder for whoever Iowa slots in at 157 to make some noise at this weight.

* * *

So who starts?  I'd be lying if I said I knew.  I think the three best options here are likely Cooper, Sorensen, and Grothus... and it's unfortunate that 149 seems to be the best weight for all three.  Can one of them be effective up at 157?  Can Mike Kelly enjoy a senior season turnaround up there?  These are the questions we need to see answered.

I would be pretty surprised, frankly, if Sorenson didn't start at one weight.  Sorenson is the least-experienced wrestler among this crew, but he also has probably the highest talent ceiling and he wrestles an aggressive, attack-happy, points-scoring style that should win Brands' favor.  As for the other spot... I don't expect it to be settled very early and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Brands delayed any sort of final decision until after Midlands at the end of December.  I have a hunch that Mike Kelly will start the season as Iowa's guy at 157... but he won't end the year there.  Someone from the list above will supplant him during the season.  Who will replace him?  I'm going to put a few chips down on Patrick Rhoads.