Thursday, August 17, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews – Iowa Hawkeyes

Editor's Note: This is the last in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Catch the other ten in the right nav. Next up is a recap, followed by the start of Get Gamm...

Team: Iowa Hawkeyes

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st), BCS / 7-5, 5-31 (T-3rd), Outback
2004 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (3rd), Capital One / 10-2, 7-1 (T-1st), Capital One
2003 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 10-3, 5-3 (T-4th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th) / 11-2, 8-0 (T-1st)
2001 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 2-6 (T-10th) / 7-5, 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Drew Tate, TB Albert Young, TE Scott Chandler, LG Mike Jones, C Mike Elgin, DE Ken Iwebema, LB Edmond Miles, FS Marcus Paschal, PK Kyle Schlicher, P Andy Fenstermaker

Key Losses: WR Ed Hinkel, WR Clinton Solomon, WR Matt Melloy, LB Abdul Hodge, LB Chad Greenway, CB Antwan Allen, CB Jovon Johnson

Looking Back ... Coulda, shoulda, woulda. A glance back at Iowa’s season brings into play each of the aforementioned. Iowa coulda taken out Michigan in a tense overtime loss. Iowa definitely shoulda had the W against Northwestern. With just those two changes in fate, the Hawkeyes woulda gone 7-1 in the Big Ten, good enough for a third share of the conference crown in four seasons. But football is a fleeting game. Sometimes the pigskin bounces your way, other times it doesn’t. It was that kind of year for an Iowa team that had to completely rebuild its defensive front but that shined brightly on offense.

Despite a 7-4 record, the same 7-4 that Michigan had when the bowls came calling, Iowa wound up in yet another New Year’s Day bowl (Outback) while Michigan went to the Alamo Bowl. That says something for a program not all that far removed from an abysmal three year run with three, one and three wins in each respective campaign. So does the way Kirk Ferentz and his staff continue to churn out title contenders each and every year, despite the countless rumors that abound each off-season about which NFL gig Ferentz is going to lurch for. 2005 looks like a down year compared to the recent success of the program. If anything it can serve as a reminder of how hungry a team needs to stay to be at the top year in and year out. Even with some coulda, shoulda, woulda, Iowa was in the mix in ’05 and this fall is looking every bit as rosy…

Outlook - Offense ...When you think of Iowa football, what comes to mind? For me it is three yards and a cloud of dust. Hayden Fry. Ball control offense. Take shots every now and then but win with a conservative, limit the turnovers type offense. That hasn’t been the case of late and certainly not heading into this fall. True, the Hawkeyes lose three highly valuable and underrated wide receivers as well as their big time production. However, when you return a quarterback like Drew Tate, a tailback like Albert Young and an offensive line that can flat out dominate, how can you not assume that this team will come out with both guns a blazing?

Raise your hand if you remember who the 2004 Big Ten Player of the Year Award went to. Anyone? Anyone? The answer: Drew Tate. Yet, the senior is considered one of many very good starting quarterbacks returning in the Big Ten this fall. Most think Troy Smith or even Drew Stanton is better. But are they? That could be debated for days but the fact is, Iowa is my pick to win the berth to the Rose Bowl because of the presence of Drew Tate. Yep, he’s that good. The only signal caller in Iowa history that will likely stand ahead of Tate – statistically speaking – is Chuck Long. Tate can do it all. He has a solid arm, is a great decision maker and can scramble to make something out of nothing. He is accurate, precise and above all, a leader. Even if something were to happen to Tate, there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Senior Jason Manson has settled into his role as a backup and actually may see time as a receiver this fall. The “next” Drew Tate is the player to look for in early season mop-up duty. Jake Christensen was highly touted as a part of the 2005 recruiting class and after a year to soak it in and now a chance to see some playing time, he’ll ensure that Iowa doesn’t miss a beat into the future. In the meantime, Iowa boasts one of the best all-around QBs in the conference and that will be a key to this team’s success in 2006.

All potentially great teams have more than a good, experienced quarterback in common. They have a game breaker at tailback. Iowa is no different. It’s hard to believe that Coach Ferentz had to be coaxed into offering a scholarship to Albert Young, who was fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards as a sophomore (first in rushing yards in conference games only) and is poised to take those numbers up yet another notch. Young is a talented runner and a good receiver as well. The nice thing is, the 5-10, 210 pound junior is not the only back in the Iowa stable. Junior Damian Sims has tremendous speed and sophomore Shonn Greene is a bruiser, offering the Hawkeyes a great mixture of speed, finesse and strength out of the backfield. Of course the most underappreciated players on any offense are the fullbacks. Iowa has two of the best in the Big Ten in Tom Busch and Champ Davis. Both are solid blockers with surprising ability as soft-handed receiving options as well. Look for the Iowa running game to lead the way for this offense given the amount of talent available. But also look for the backs to act as decoys for what should also be a really good aerial attack…

It is true that Iowa lost a lot of experience and production from last year’s receiving corps. Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon combined for 86 catches, 1,318 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and will be missed. So will Matt Melloy. But, waiting in the wings are some fast, athletic playmakers just waiting for a chance to shine. Calvin Davis, Herb Grigsby and Andy Brodell can flat out fly and Eric McCollom is a very promising possession type wideout. Davis is a senior that has made some contributions over his career and now will get a chance to step into the spotlight. With his speed and ability to stretch the field he’ll get every opportunity to be Tate’s go-to guy. If that number one option isn’t Davis, it will be Herb Grigsby. Grigsby came on strong at the tail end of the 2005 season and should put up some solid numbers this fall. The potential star of the corps, however, is Andy Brodell. The sophomore is not only the fastest of the lot, he is also a big target. Junior Eric McCollom is a smart, athletic receiver that has also spent time at quarterback. The true weapon for the passing attack might actually be tight end Scott Chandler. The 6-7 senior could well lead the team in receptions this fall. He may not be a dominant blocker, but the former wide receiver can stretch the defense and is the sort of target any Big Ten quarterback would love to have. The other two tight ends that will see some time are sophomore Tony Moeaki and senior Ryan Majerus. However it all shakes out, there are plenty of options for Drew Tate and combined with Albert Young and company, it will make for an explosive attack.

It can be accurately said that all good D1 programs have potential stars (or proven stars) at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. After all, don’t you have to in order to have sustained success? That said, the glue that holds it all together is the front five. Yep, the big uglies up front. The guys that make buffet owners cringe. Iowa might just have the best offensive front in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes certainly have the best depth and the most talent in the two- and three-deep. The core of the line are seniors Mike Elgin, Mike Jones and Marshal Yanda. Elgin has played center and guard and will quarterback the line from the center position this fall. Yanda can play guard or tackle but looks to settle in at right tackle. Mike Jones is one of the top guards in the conference. Add in sophomores Seth Olsen (guard) and Dace Richardson (left tackle) and you have yourself a line that could help this offense produce some huge numbers. The better news is all of the young and promising depth. While definitely young – three of the second stringers are sophomores, two are redshirt freshmen – the potential here is endless. Senior Lee Gray, who returns from an injury is going to have to battle to keep one of the youngsters out of the mix. The most talented prospect looks to be Dan Doering but the reality of it is that this team is set up front for years to come and should dominate early and often in ’06.

Outlook - Defense ... To continue the thought from the offensive overview… when you think of Iowa, you think not only solid, productive and maybe sometimes conservative offense (at least in the day), you think of eleven defenders lining up each willing and able to make every offensive opponent pay on each and every play. Guys who can get after the quarterback. Linebackers who ring bells with their hits. Defensive backs that get blood on their nose stopping the run but have enough finesse to knock away passes and create turnovers. It took some time in 2005, but that came around for Iowa. But just like last year saw some personnel turnover that took some adjustment to, this season will see more of the same. That means the defense will need to grow up a little early, in order to make it a 50-50 proposition when the big games roll in.

Last year’s big question mark is now the unquestioned strength of the defense. It was sink or swim - and at times, mostly sink – for the Hawkeye front four in 2005. That was then. Now that junior ends Ken Iwebema and Bryan Mattison and sophomore tackles Matt Kroul and Mitch King have learned the strength and speed necessary to make plays in the Big Ten, Iowa quietly fields one of the best defensive fronts in the conference. Iwebema should easily post double digit sacks this fall. He has tackle size to go with end speed and he is the anchor of this group. Mattison is quietly as productive as Iwebema. He might not get the accolades but his presence is a huge plus for this line. Matt Kroul is the run stuffer of the group. He moved to tackle from linebacker last season and after getting used to the nuances, became a very steady player. Mitch King is another former linebacker that might be small for a tackle, but who uses that to his advantage. King is a great inside pass rusher and he will be cut loose this season. One thing for Iowa to have sustained success this season is to make sure the backups produce and can be reliable enough to provide a solid rotation. Sophomores Ryan Bain and Alex Kanellis and redshirt freshmen Vernon Jackson and Justin Collins will get early season opportunities to get into the game and will need to grow up fast if Iowa is to stay tough as nails up front over a 12 game season. If that happens (more likely when) look for Iowa to dominate football games on both sides of the ball.

The biggest personnel losses heading into 2006 come in the linebacking corps. The two leading tacklers in the Big Ten have moved on to the NFL’s NFC North Division. Greenway and Hodge combined for 314 tackles and to say that they will be missed is a major understatement. That said, there is no time to look back and sulk when you have a Big Ten title to contend for. The good news is that the replacements have experience and join returning starter, senior Edmond Miles to form what should at least be an adequate unit. Miles is a big hitter and a great pass rusher. Perhaps more important, he has the ability to be the new leader of the Iowa defense. Juniors Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal are the players that will try to fill the shoes of Hodge and Greenway. Klinkenborg is big, tough and a solid athlete. Humpal is fast and has the talent to be a playmaker. The real concern here is depth. There just isn’t a lot of developed depth to rely on, so if the injury bug bites, what would otherwise be an ample linebacking corps could take a sizeable step backwards. Zach Gabelmann is a senior and does have some experience but most of his PT has been on special teams. Pat Angerer is a redshirt frosh with a lot of upside, but he’ll face the same trial by fire as the front four youngsters did in ’05. This group doesn’t need to be as productive as last year’s – not with the front four returning all of its starters – but it does have to be solid, make plays and avoid injury if Iowa is to be as good as I predict.

The defensive backfield is another spot that will have to rely on some new blood this season. Seasoned cornerbacks Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson have departed, leaving Iowa with a pair of juniors to take over. Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey both have great size (6-1) and some experience, though Godfrey is a converted safety that will have to learn to be a good cover man. Shada has good quickness and a nose for the ball and will likely assume the role as the guy that opposing QBs throw away from. The good news with the secondary is that unlike fellow contender Ohio State, who returns all four starters, Iowa brings back to polished, savvy veterans at the safety positions. Seniors Marcus Paschal (FS) and Miguel Merrick (SS) are good leaders and big hitters. Their presence should help bring along the new cornerbacks and add that all important strong back layer of defensive protection. The backups consist of a hodge-podge of players. Sophomore Bradley Fletcher could actually supplant Godfrey at one corner, giving Iowa more depth at safety. Senior Ma’Quan Dawkins is a former walk-on that will get a chance to play more this fall. Redshirt freshman Marcus Wilson and senior Devan Moylan fill out the depth chart at safety. One player to look for is freshman Justin Edwards. He could earn time at cornerback and give this unit even more depth. Overall, the Iowa secondary wasn’t as good in ’05 as it had been in ’04 but if it is at least as good this year as last, the Hawkeyes will be just fine.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Any team with title aspirations needs to have the whole package – offense, defense and yes, special teams. You’ve read that Iowa has the pieces in place with the offense and defense, but what about special teams? Let me ask this – when is the last time Iowa didn’t have a tremendous kicking game? If you don’t know who place-kicker Kyle Schlicher is, you will after you see Iowa play. Schlicher is money on field goals (he missed four last year and only nine in his career). Punter Andy Fenstermaker is a solid performer but he could stand to get some more yardage out of his kicks. All in all, if Iowa can replace Hinkel and Jovon Johnson in the return game, this unit could provide fireworks all season long for what will be an excellent football team.

9/9 – at Syracuse
9/23 – at Illinois
10/7 – PURDUE
10/14 – at Indiana
10/21 – at Michigan
11/18 – at Minnesota

Key Games: 9/16 – Iowa State, 9/30 – Ohio State, 10/21 – at Michigan, 11/11 - Wisconsin

Prediction ... Things are looking mighty rosy for the Iowa Hawkeyes this fall. It all kicks off with a couple of cupcakes before an underrated in-state rivalry game with the Cyclones. The black and gold hit the road to open the Big Ten, a perfect last chance to work out the kinks before Iowa’s game of the year – a visit from Ohio State. Win this one and take care of a fairly easy slate from there on out and Iowa is Pasadena bound. Of course the trip to Michigan is treacherous and you can never look past rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota, but this team is built to win the Big Ten, despite all of the attention given to the Buckeyes. It doesn’t hurt avoiding Penn State and Michigan State and playing three of the four “big” games at Kinnick. Look for Iowa to cruise to 11 wins and the ever coveted Rose Bowl appearance…

OOC: 4-0
B10: 7-1 (lone loss at Michigan)
Overall: 11-1, T-1st in the conference, Rose Bowl berth

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