by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Coming off a mediocre 2011 season in which Iowa went 4-4 in Big Ten play for the second straight year, the Hawkeyes are in a state of change. Longtime HC Kirk Ferentz is breaking in a pair of new coordinators (Greg Davis was hired in from the University of Texas while Phil Parker was promoted from within). So, with half of last season’s starters are gone, there is room for pessimism. However, the Hawkeyes could be flying under the radar in 2012, as several of the key components are in place for another bowl appearance.

Sr. QB James Vandenberg (right) threw for 3022 yards and had a 25-7 TD-interception ratio last year. Sr. WR Keenan Davis, who missed the last portion of spring with an injury and was dropped from the two-deep, had 50 catches a year ago and should be a force on his recovery. The defense has a pair of linebackers who tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each last season. The 2ndary has at least one high-quality building block in all Big 10 CB Micah Hyde.

But Ferentz has holes to fill elsewhere, as some major players were lost. Marvin McNutt was a record-setting wide receiver for the school, but he’ll be catching passes from Michael Vick in Philly in August. Left tackle Riley Rieff went on the first round to the Detroit Lions. In all, six Hawkeye starters were drafted into the NFL. And the challenge of making a transition to new directors on both sides of the ball is a first for Ferentz and an obstacle that can’t be minimized.

In recent seasons playing running back for Iowa is akin to being a drummer for the fictional heavy metal band “Spinal Tap”...for whatever reason, the job tends to suffer a lot of casualties. Two such vacancies occurred in the offseason, as first all-Big Ten RB Marcus Coker’s bowl-game suspension after allegations of sexual assault became a permanent situation and he transferred to Stony Brook. Then soph Jordan Canzeri, a strong candidate to take over the lead runner’s position, injured his ACL in the spring and is likely through for the season, or at the very least until November. In the last few seasons Hawkeye RBs have gone by the wayside in bunches, as Jewel Hampton, Shonn Greene, Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher were all either injured, suspended, cut from the program or transferred to other schools. Into the breach went soph RB Damon Bullock in the spring. Bullock made a splash, rushing for 121 yards in the spring game, and claimed the starting job, but if history is any indicator, incoming frosh hotshots Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill as well as soph De’Andre Johnson will be needed at some point.

HC Kirk Ferentz and brand-new o.c. Davis are in need of some help in the offensive line, especially at left tackle, to keep Vandenberg in an upright position. Even with a pair of NFL draftees protecting him, Vandenberg went down 29 times last season as the Hawkeyes ranked 78th in protecting the QB.

The Hawkeye defense was average (at best) in 2011, allowing 24 ppg, the most since 2000. Although LBs james Morris & Christian Kirksey and CB Hyde return, the 2ndary was terrible last season, as it lacked speed and allowed 228 ypg, ranking 72nd in pass efficiency defense. The rush defense wasn’t good, either, allowing more total rush yards and a higher per-carry average than any Hawkeye defense in a decade. The defensive line is a major work in progress, as holdover starting DE Dominic Alvis is coming off a November ACL injury and DT Carl Davis missed the spring with a knee injury. The cupboard’s a little bare up front, despite the presence of a healthy DT Steve Bigach and the jumpstarted spring development of soph Louis Trinca-Pasat. Despite CB Hyde’s presence, the 2ndary didn’t look fast enough in spring, and with the defensive line problems, it’s going to be a challenge for d.c. Parker to conjure up a pass rush to put pressure on opposing QBs and take it off Iowa’s defensive backs.

Summary: Ferentz (that’s Kirk, the head coach, not to be confused with son James who’s the center or son Brian who’s the offensive line coach) has been here before. Twice in his tenure he’s built up the team to two or three year crescendoes, taking them out of the darkness to a 30-7 run from 2002-2004, and then rebuilding from a lull in ‘05-‘07 for a 20-6 mark in ‘08 & ‘09. Interestingly, in 2004, Iowa was very short on returning starters (just nine at that time), but managed to win 10 of 12 straight-up and failed to cover just three times that season. We’re not calling for a repeat performance, but we’ll give Ferentz a bit more rope before we hang a “go-against” label on the Hawkeyes.


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