Thursday, July 26, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part IX

Editor's Note: This is the ninth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Ohio State Buckeyes

Tidbits … Ohio State has won an astounding 31 league crowns since starting play in the Big Ten in 1913. 16 of those titles have been outright. From 1968 to 1979, the scarlet and gray won at least a share of the title every single year – except 1971. The Buckeyes have won 62 games in six seasons under Jim Tressel – an average of 10.3 wins per year.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), BCS / 12-1, 8-0 (1st), BCS Title Game
2005 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st), Capital One / 10-2, 7-1 (T-1st), Fiesta
2004 Prediction / actual: 10-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose / 8-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo
2003 Prediction / actual: 11-1, 7-1 (1st) / 11-2, 6-2 (T-2nd)
2002 Prediction / actual: 11-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 14-0, 8-0 (T-1st), National Champs
2001 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 7-5, 5-3 (3rd)

Returning Starters: 4 offense, 5 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: LT Alex Boone, OG Steve Rehring, RT Kirk Barton, DE Vernon Gholston, LB Marcus Freeman, LB James Laurinaitis, CB Malcolm Jenkins, PK Aaron Pettrey, P A.J. Trappaso

Key Losses: QB Troy Smith, WR Ted Ginn, WR Anthony Gonzalez, RB Antonio Pittman, C Doug Datish, OG T.J. Downing, DT Quinn Pitcock, DT David Patterson, CB Antonio Smith, SS Brandon Mitchell

Looking Back ... The 2006 campaign was all it was cracked up to be… well, almost anyway. A stunning, blow-out loss in the national title game was the only blip on the radar for the Buckeyes last season. That result just goes to show you why games are played on the field and not on paper. As tough as it was to swallow that bitter pill, one has to assume that the 1 v. 2 win over arch-rival Michigan and the otherwise unblemished run to the title game were worth the pain of the eventual last game debacle

Ohio State truly did all that was expected of them through the 2006 regular season. Big wins in big games (at Texas and Iowa and home versus Penn State and Michigan). Huge margins of victory almost everywhere that it was expected. A defense that was among the best in the land, at least until the last two games of the season. An offense that produced a Heisman Trophy winner and some first round NFL talent. The national championship loss left some hearts broken, but firmly cemented Jim Tressel and the Ohio State football program as a legit year-in and year-out contender in college football.

Outlook - Offense ... Until the power outage in the title game last January, the OSU offense was a potent, efficient machine. The lowest offensive output of the regular season was 17 points in a dud on the in Illinois. The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in scoring offense (34.6 ppg) and were second in total offense (384.5 ypg). The distribution of the ball was fantastic, with Ginn and Gonzalez combining for 1515 yards receiving and 17 scores and Pittman churning out 1233 yards and 14 touchdowns. Troy Smith was nearly flawless in leading the attack all season long. So, this entire recap begs an enormous question – who the heck is going to fill the gapping holes left by graduation and early departures? Can Ohio State truly reload or do the Buckeyes need to pull it close to the vest and rebuild a little bit first? Can OSU replace seven starters and not skip a beat? Stay tuned…

Ohio State is one of the many around the league faced with replacing its quarterback - and folks, Troy Smith wasn’t just any quarterback. The shifty Heisman winner had a load of weapons in is cache but was truly the heart and soul of the Buckeye attack. Too boot, back-up QB Justin Zwick has also departed, leaving OSU with very little in the experience department. The returnee with the most appreciable experience is fourth-year junior Todd Boeckman. Boeckman has earned the starting nod and will get a chance to put all the time he has into the program to game-time use. He doesn’t need to be a Troy Smith clone – and he won’t be one. He has much more size, a great arm and for his size possesses excellent mobility. All he has to do is run the offense smoothly and efficiently and limit the mistakes. Do that, and the OSU offense should be fine.

If Boeckman falters the next in line to get a shot is sophomore Robbie Schoenhoft. It might not seem fathomable that there is a bigger QB than Boeckman (6-5, 235) on the roster, but Schoenhoft fits that bill. At 6-6, 240, Schoenhoft has tremendous size and an NFL-caliber arm, if not the mobility or experience in the system. Still, he has taken a few game snaps and means that there is little fall off from the starter to the bench in case of injury. The wild card in the mix might be redshirt freshman Antonio Henton. Henton doesn’t have quite the arm of the other two but is an explosive runner and a true dual threat. Look for him to get some time when the flow of a game allows for it as he is more than likely the longer term future for the Buckeyes at quarterback. In any case, look for the offense to play it a little closer to the vest early in the season as Boeckman, Schoenhoft and Henton (sounds like an insurance agency) adjust to their much more prominent roles in the Ohio State offense. Once the trio becomes well-adjusted, look for a solid, if also somewhat predictable offensive attack from Jim Bollman and staff. The goal will be to play mistake free and take what comes, probably more so than the past few seasons.

The loss of a leader and player the caliber of Smith might not hurt as much if the Buckeyes were not also replacing a two-year 1,000 yard-plus rusher in Antonio Pittman. Pittman left a year early for the NFL and while his departure might mean a slower start to the running game early, it will be more than fine as the season moves along. Why? Three words: Chris “Beanie” Wells. The big sophomore with breakaway speed tallied a solid 576 yards and seven scores last year in a back-up role and is poised to be the next great OSU tailback. Beyond Wells is another Wells – Maurice. Mo Wells was rumored to be this close to transferring but stuck it out and will see plenty of carries as a smaller, change of pace type back. He wasn’t eye-popping as a sophomore after a nice freshman campaign, but he will get his shot. That is, unless (or more likely until) freshman Brando Saine gets comfortable with the offense at this level. Saine was Mr. Football in Ohio last season and is lightning fast, with a world of potential. Beanie Wells might be able to match Pittman’s output himself, but even if he doesn’t, don’t fret. This trio should easily help the Buckeye backfield rush for 2,000 yards this fall.

The most unheralded position on any offense is the fullback. Don’t think for a second that any of the great OSU tailbacks would forget his fullback in a Heisman acceptance speech. Dionte Johnson has been patiently bidding his time the past few years as Stan White, Jr. ruled the roost. Now it is the senior’s turn. The son of former Ohio State and New York Giants great Pepper Johnson, Dionte won’t get many (if any) carries but he is a bruising blocker. His backups are Trevor Robinson and Brandon Smith. Write these names down. Not because they will be stars in the stats column, but because they will be players to watch as the Wells, Wells and Saine break big plays all season long.

Keeping with the theme of replacing NFL talent, the wide receiving corps will undergo a transformation this fall as well. Three have departed, most notably the game-breaking speed demon Ted Ginn, Jr. and the soft, glue-sticky handed, tough Anthony Gonzalez. The pair leaves a 110-catch, 1515-yard, 17 touchdown void in the passing game. Never fear, however, because perennial contenders reload and man do the Buckeyes have the talent to do just that.

The running game has the Wells’ the passing game has the Brian’s. As in Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. The duo hauled in 46 catches for 639 yards and seven TDs last fall and will step in and try to provide the same clutch play and game-changing effort as Ginn and Gonzalez. Robiskie has good size (6-3, 195), soft hands, good speed and an attitude and work ethic that coaches drool over. Hartline has the same height, if a little less meat on his bones and tremendous speed. He’ll be an impact player as well. Ray Small is a flier on the outside and could play a huge role in stretching the defense this fall. He might not have the jaw-dropping, eye-popping speed and skill of Ginn, but the sophomore will get his chance. After this trio, the depth chart is a little up in the air, that is aside from Albert Dukes and Devon Lyons. Both have been in the program but have yet to break into the playing group. That should change this fall as Dukes is tough and fast and Lyons has the size, speed and athleticism to be a standout. A newcomer to keep a close eye on is Taurian Washington.

As with the quarterback and tailback position, the key is for the experienced receivers to step it up a notch and for the depth chart to produce like the new starters did as backups last season. There is no question that OSU has talent, size and speed all over the place but the overall corps might be a little light on depth, which will need to be addressed once fall practice ensues. What helps the aerial attack is the return of tight end Rory Nichol. Nichol was under-utilized last season, understandably so when you consider all of the weapons that the Buckeyes had on offense. He could be a nice safety valve for Boeckman, especially early in the season. He is a proven, reliable receiver and a nice blocker as well. His ability to provide match-up problems is also a nice ace to have in the hole. 6-7, 255-pound sophomore Jake Ballard will see plenty of PT this fall as well. He has great size and hands and he turned heads in spring ball with his ability to snare passes and put on knockout blocks. A third name to keep watch for is Andy Miller. This is how it goes with the likes of Ohio State. You start out wondering how in the heck they will replace the talent that is gone and after a few paragraphs, you’re convinced they might not. Time will tell, but even with key members of the receiving corps gone, the scarlet and gray should have a very productive season with what is left in the cupboard.

Ohio State’s strength coming into the season is the experience of the offensive line. True, two solid starters have departed but both tackles return as does the left guard. Juniors Alex Boone (LT) and Steve Rehring (LG) anchor the all-important left side of the line. While maybe not the best left-side tandem in the Big Ten, the pair is close. Both are 6-8 and run over 320 pounds. Boone is considered by some the best offensive line prospect (for the next level) since Orlando Pace Rehring has great quickness for his size and is versatile enough to play inside or outside. He too has NFL written all over him. The other returning starter is right tackle Kirk Barton. At 6-6, 310, the senior is just a touch smaller than his left side counterparts and every bit the pass blocker. While not thought to have as much next-level potential, he gives the Buckeyes tremendous balance up front.

The return of this top trio should make the transition at center and right guard a smooth one. Sophomore Jim Cordle is a rising star and replaces Doug Datish at center. What he lacks in size (6-4, 285) he more than makes up for in speed. As he settles in and gets a rhythm with his quarterback, this line will be that much better. Filling out the starting lineup is junior right guard Ben Person. Person was a solid, two-year backup to T.J. Dowling and he knows the position well. He should jump right in and provide consistency from day one. The key will be to continue to develop the depth that has made OSU so great along the front line the past several years. Every year someone gets dinged up and a young player defies the unwritten rule that it takes linemen the longest to adjust to the college game. Said players this year are Connor Smith and Bryant Browning. The second string also has some players with experience in the mix. Juniors Kyle Mitchum and Joe Skinner bring versatility and skill to the guard and tackle positions respectively. Skinner in particular is a lineman with a boatload of potential, as of yet untapped. If this pair can spell the starters effectively, the Ohio State line should be among the best in the conference and Coach Bollman can release the hounds.

I can honestly say that I would very rarely - if ever – put as much faith in an offense faced with replacing every key skill player from a near national championship season as I am the OSU offense. The sky is the limit with this group. I will not predict the same sustained, pounding efforts from last season, but I will say that after a few weeks, we could possibly be ending any speculation on who will step up or how the offense will look after undergoing such an overhaul. The success of the offensive attack will be predicated on early growth and consistency. Get things done in a mistake free manner when the getting is good (first four of five games) and by the time the big games roll around, we could be looking at a well-oiled machine.

Outlook - Defense ... Eleven games into the 2006 season, the Ohio State defense was as nasty, stingy and unbeatable as a defensive coordinator could dream. The Buckeyes had given up a maximum of 17 points (at Iowa) and a total, TOTAL of 69 points in the other ten games combined. Then something broke. A wheel fell off. Michigan exposed the scarlet and gray defense for 39 points in a wildly celebrated, highly memorable 1 vs. 2 showdown. Some thought, okay, that was a blip on the radar. Not so much. Florida proceeded to put up 41 in the national title game and suddenly the defense that had given up 86 points in 11 games (7.8 ppg) saw that total nearly double in two contests. The goal this season will be to field the same sort of defense that made it an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses in the first eleven battles last season. Do that, and this team will turn heads on a national scale yet again…

The biggest task the defense is faced with this season is replacing three rock solid starters in the front four. Pitcock, Patterson and Richardson have moved on, leaving some sizeable shoes to fill. The good news is that defensive end Vernon Gholston is back. Gholston was an extraordinary playmaker last fall, tallying 49 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He anchors a line that is very much in the position to reload and not rebuild.

Why can it reload when so many others that lose as much must build from scratch? Four names: Wilson, Rose, Denlinger and Worthington. Lawrence Wilson is a junior end with tackle-type size. He’s been waiting for his turn to step in and turn heads and now he will get his chance. If Wilson should falter, Robert Rose, a big, fast, powerful sophomore will be there to pick up the slack. Rose made noise as a freshman and will see plenty of time on the field this fall. Doug Worthington is a 6-7, 275 former defensive end with tremendous quickness. He needs to bolster his run defense and stay healthy, but he will do some nice things on the inside this fall. Todd Denlinger is a true tackle at 6-2, 280. He showed excellent promise last season and should step right up to the plate and knock it out of the park.

The rest of the depth chart is strong as well. Alex Barrow is fast and big and will spell Gholston at end. Nader Abdallah is a space-eating junior that needs to be more consistent to see the field frequently come fall. Dexter Larimore and Ryan Williams round out the main group of players who will work for playing time. Like I said, the great programs simply reload and Ohio State has done just that where it needed to the most. There is an established playmaker in Gholston, loads of talent in Wilson, Rose, Denlinger, Worthington, Barrow and Abdallah and all signs point to another stellar season from the Buckeyes front four.

What will continue to make the OSU defense one of the more feared units in the land is the caliber of linebackers that take the field each and every game. Most consider Penn State to be Linebacker U, but Ohio State has a pretty solid argument that it produces equally as many standouts at the position. It seems like every year, the Buckeyes cart out three LBs who possess NFL size, speed and talent. The Bucknuts lose one starter (John Kerr) but have more than enough horses in the stable to replace him. It all starts with James Laurinaitis who seemingly came from nowhere last season to contend for all the top postseason honors that are bestowed upon the very best linebackers in the land. The junior registered 115 tackles, four sacks and a team high five interceptions a year ago and should only be better. Imagine that, or for opponents - fear that!

It doesn’t stop with Laurinaitis. Marcus Freeman is a big, fast junior linebacker with unbelievable potential. He bounced back nicely last season from a knee injury that shelved him in 2005 and is poised to be an even bigger factor this fall. Former JUCO superstar Larry Grant moves from a backup role to the starting lineup and reminds me of another stellar JUCO linebacker that played in the Big Ten and now in the NFL – Julian Peterson. He is a freakish talent with size, strength and speed that has to have NFL scouts drooling. Two of the other top subs from last year return in Curtis Terry and Ross Homan. Terry has experience (senior), nice size and great speed. He can play the outside almost like a big safety. Homan saw significant time as a true freshman a year ago and will again provide solid backup play on the outside. Austin Spitler and Thaddeus Gibson round out an absolutely fabulous playing group. Eat your heart out Penn State. You have some studs in the middle of your defense too, but all the way around, this is probably the best of the best.

Ohio State must replace two starters in the secondary this fall, but remember, we all wondered how they’d replace the four starters they lost after the 2005 campaign too. Um, well, they fared okay. The scarlet and gray pass defense ranked third in the Big Ten last year and hauled in an astounding 21 picks. While Brandon Mitchell was a big part of that at safety, the return of starting corner Malcolm Jenkins and strong safety Jamario O’Neal will balance out Mitchell’s departure. Jenkins is a bona fide NFL cornerback. With great cover skills, solid tackling ability and things you can’t teach – like size, football IQ and speed, Jenkins should be a star this fall. He will likely be flanked by sophomore Donald Washington, who got eight starts last season (when OSU started in the nickel package). He too has size, speed, smarts and playmaking ability. O’Neal isn’t flashy nor is he always as consistent as you’d like but he is a big hitter with experience. He tends to gamble at times but is great in run and support a he provides leadership and pop to the lineup. In an ideal situation, O’Neal would roam around more as a free safety. That could come to fruition if Anderson Russell, the SS starter at the onset of last season comes back from injury better than before. In the meantime, Kurt Coleman will try to fill the shoes of the departed Mitchell.

As with the rest of the lineup, the beauty of the secondary is the bounty of talented options in the backup slots. Aaron Grant, Nick Patterson, Grant Schwartz and Tyler Moeller are all in the mix at safety. Moeller might be the one to watch as he transitions from linebacker. He is a potential show stopper and one heckuva hitter. At corner there is just as much talented depth. Led by the lightning fast Chimdi Chekwa and returning lettermen Andre Amos and Brandon Underwood, OSU is stacked with cover corners as well. The only overall concern might be the continuity early in the season. There is ample talent – obviously – but it needs to gel with two new starters breaking in. I fully expect that to happen sooner than later and for the Buckeyes to match last year’s eye-popping statistical output.

Every year, Ohio State loses top notch talent to the NFL and every year a new guy steps up his role from the previous season or comes from nowhere to become the next star. No wonder the Buckeyes are a perennial contender nationally. The defensive front needs the most seasoning, followed by the secondary, but the early slate more than allows for that to happen. Expect great things from this group as a whole including some major improvements over the 40 points per game they allowed while going Swiss cheese D against Michigan and Florida. Defense wins games in the Big Ten and with the offense needing more time to build, look for this defense to carry the load early and often.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Ohio State is in great shape in the all-important kicking game. The Bucks have quietly fielded some fantastic punters and place-kickers over the past several years and 2007 is no different. Punter A.J. Trapasso returns and has a solid, accurate leg. He is a huge asset in the field position game. Aaron Pettrey won a battle that went to the wire before the 06 campaign and after a rough start, came through nicely. He will only get better with a strong, accurate leg. The return game takes a hit with the departure of Ted Ginn, but Ray Small has some special abilities as well and may help ease that pain.

9/8 – AKRON
9/15 – at Washington
9/29 – at Minnesota
10/6 – at Purdue
10/13 – KENT STATE
10/27 – at Penn State
11/10 – ILLINOIS
11/17 – at Michigan

Key Games: 9/22 – at Washington, 10/27 – at Penn State, 11/3 – Wisconsin, 11/17 – at Michigan

Prediction ... Ohio State should roll at home most of the season. The only tough battle in the ‘shoe is Wisconsin. The non conference slate is decent at a glance. Akron and Kent State are two of the better teams in the MAC East and Washington will be a nice early season road test. The Buckeyes skip Iowa and Indiana this year, two teams that should be decent. The key stretch will be the trip to Penn State followed by the visit from Wisconsin. The Michigan game might not get the hype of last year’s battle, but you bet the Wolverines will be hungry for payback for the way OSU has owned them of late.

OOC: 4-0
B10: 6-2 (losses at Penn State and Michigan)
Overall: 10-2, 3rd in the conference, Capital One Bowl berth

Friday, July 20, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part VIII

Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Penn State Nittany Lions

Tidbits … Penn State has won two conference crowns since joining the Big Ten in 1990 (started league play in football in 1993). The Nittany Lions are 85-60-2 against Big Ten teams all time (in and out of league play) and carry a losing record against only two squads – Michigan and Wisconsin. PSU is 8-2 in bowl games since joining the Big Ten (25-12-2 overall).

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 9-3, 6-2 (T-3rd), Capital One / 9-4, 5-3 (T-4th), Outback
2005 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (T-7th), Music City / 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Orange
2004 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Music City / 4-7, 2-6 (9th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-9th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 9-3, 6-2 (T-1st) / 9-4, 5-3 (4th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 5-6, 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Anthony Morelli, RB Austin Scott, RB Rodney Kinlaw, WR Derrick Williams, WR Deon Butler, WR Jordan Norwood, C A.Q. Shipley, LB Dan Connor, CB Justin King, SS Anthony Scirrotto, PK Kevin Kelly

Key Losses: LT Levi Brown, RB Tony Hunt, DE/LB Tim Shaw, LT Jay Alford, LB Paul Posluszny, P Jeremy Kapinos

Looking Back ... Isn’t it funny what decades of success will do to a fan or sports writer’s perspective? If you read up a bit on recaps of the 2006 season in State College, many would call it unspectacular, a dud, and a disappointment. Hello. Back to reality here folks. Penn State went 9-4, finished in the top half of the Big Ten, beat up on an SEC powerhouse in the Outback Bowl and set the table nicely for 2007.

True, 2006 was not the repeat of 2005 some had unfairly expected. But that’s the key – unfairly expected. Penn State had to replace late bloomer Michael Robinson and some other key players on the roster. Most programs don’t simply plug and play at will when it comes to the quarterback position. No, the Nittany Lions did not beat anyone big – until the win over Tennessee. Yes, there were some struggles (OT to beat Minnesota, a somewhat uninspired comeback win over Michigan State). But the bottom line is wins. Joe Paterno has 363 of them in 41 seasons at Penn State. He’s going to add a chunk more in 2007…

Outlook - Offense ... 2006 was an average campaign – at best – for the Penn State offense. Tony Hunt was the only real consistent performer and in fact was by far and away the highest ranking producer for the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten. The passing game was way too average given the talent that was (and remains) available. The running game was good but all in all, Penn State struggled to score at times and never really kicked it into gear. If the Nits are to take a step forward this year, it will have to be on the offensive side of the ball. Anthony Morelli has a full season of calling the shots under his belt. Austin Scott returns and should ease the pain of Hunt’s departure. The offense as a whole brings back eight starters and plenty of fire power. Now, can the chips fall into place to use that weaponry to its fullest extent?

Penn State is one of the few programs that welcomes back its starting signal caller from 2006. Anthony Morelli was a highly touted recruit that has not yet lived up to expectations, but hey, this is Penn State, where we all know that the seniors rule the roost and shine when they finally get that last shot at stardom. Well, that’s what the fans and coaching staff are hoping anyway.

If you’re a gambler, it is a pretty safe bet that Morelli will produce more, likely far more this year than last. He’s big, has a strong arm and great talent. What he was lacking last year, and early in his career was the confidence to take the reins and run the show. He finally did that in the Outback Bowl victory and is poised to have a Michael Robinson-like breakout senior year. There is no doubt that he is surrounded by solid playmakers. It is now simply a matter of taking charge and showing what all the fuss was about when he signed his LOI. That means the only real question here is who takes the snaps if Morelli gets hurt? Junior Daryll Clark is cut in much the same mold as Morelli. He saw some limited time last season and stayed a notch above some youngsters through spring ball. Out of the three fighting for third string status – Pat Devlin, Paul Cianciolo, and Kevin Suhey – Devlin probably has the edge and according to Coach Paterno, might have the best upside of all the QBs in the program right now.

The biggest loss for the Penn State offense is the departure of Tony Hunt. Hunt shared time with Austin Scott a few seasons ago, and then burst back on the scene after an injury in the Orange Bowl following the 2005 season. His 1,386 yards and 11 touchdowns will not be easy to replace. The good news? Austin Scott has the experience and the talent to replace those numbers. The biggest concern is that Scott tends to let the injuries bother him and then they seem to pile up and snowball out of control. The senior, much like Morelli, has yet to live up to his recruiting hype and needs to be the man this fall or he will end up as a bust. On a positive note, Rodney Kinlaw gives the Nittany Lions a speedy change of pace as the backup. There is no reason why Kinlaw and Scott cannot combine to put up the numbers that Hunt did a season ago. If they sputter a bit, don’t be surprised to see freshmen Brent Carter and Evan Royster get a shot. While young and green, both have solid “make-you-miss” ability and will be household names for PSU fans sooner than later.

Changing pace a bit … a player who may not churn out big time statistics but who will play a meaningful role in the ground game is senior fullback Matt Hahn. Hahn isn’t the powerful blocking fullback that you may be used to seeing done the classic blue and white uniforms for Penn State, but he is another option for the offense. He has decent hands and can run the ball a bit, even if the fullback is seeing less overall playing time in JoePa’s offense these days. His backup is more of a true blocking back. Dan Lawlor could also see a few passes thrown his way as Penn State tries to keep the opposition on its toes. The Nittany Lions should get some very solid production out of the backfield. If they do, look out, the PSU offense will be sound all the way around. If not, things could bog down at times, especially in the big games that face the Nits this fall.

For my money, the unquestioned strength on the offensive side of the ball is the receiving corps. It is loaded with talent, speed and depth. Four of last year’s top five receivers return and with Morelli stepping up and getting better, opposing secondaries beware. Junior Derrick Williams is poised to breakout after showing flashes the past two seasons. He is a threat to catch, run and return the ball with blazing speed and a high football IQ. His only trouble has been inconsistency, but that is often the case when teams are breaking in a new signal caller as Penn State was last fall with Morelli. He will be joined in the starting lineup by Deon Butler. Butler is a threat to stretch the defense with great speed and reliable hands. He has been a consistent performer and his presence means that teams cannot simply double-team Williams.

The depth here is as good as it gets. Jordan Norwood, Chris Bell and Terrell Golden all have solid experience, led by Norwood – who was second on the team in receptions a season ago. Norwood is extremely quick with a knack for getting open. Golden and Bell have good size but Bell should move ahead of the more experienced but seemingly “stuck in the mud” (as far as development goes) Golden. No matter how you slice it up, five receivers – four of whom are arguably good enough to start most anywhere in the conference – is a nice luxury to have.

It only gets better when you toss in the tight end picture. Sophomore Andrew Quarless had a fantastic freshman campaign and is cut in the mold of the dream NFL tight ends of the last five to seven years. He is big and fast with good hands. If he gets the blocking part down pat, he will be among the best in the nation at his position. Mickey Shuler is what you might say a fullback playing tight end (H-back) but he is coming along in his development and is probably a better blocker at this point than Quarless. That means he too will see plenty of time on the field this fall. Overall this group of receivers and tight ends has plenty of star power and has the potential to put up record numbers this fall…

As much as it takes a good quarterback and talented skill players to make an offense go, how good an offense gets really depends on the play of the offensive line. Penn State must replace two starters from a solid if not spectacular ’06 unit. Levi Brown was a top ten draft pick and leaves a sizeable void at left tackle. Also gone is left guard Robert Price. The good news is, the Nittany Lions seem to have a couple of guys chomping at the bit to settle in and make folks forget Brown and Price.

Before we get to the left side replacements, let’s start with what is returning this fall. The anchor of the line is A.Q. Shipley. Shipley is on the preseason Rimington Trophy watch list and should be the leader of the line this fall. He was the only offensive lineman to start every game last season and was an integral part of the successful rushing attack. To his right is returning starter John Shaw. Shaw started on the outside last year but to balance out the depth, has moved to guard. His versatility is key, however, so don’t be surprised to see him play both guard and tackle this fall. Rich Ohmberger started last season at right guard but will fight Lou Eliades for the starting slot at left guard. Even if he slips to second string, he too provides some versatility because he can play on either side of the line.

The number one question, of course, is who will replace Brown at left tackle. Gerald Cadogan played some left guard in the past and appears ready to be the next great left tackle. He is an excellent run blocker with great size and range. On the right side, there is Dennis Landolt, who had a fantastic spring and can play either side. He might in fact have the most upside of all the linemen. The only real issues up front center around the depth. Elijah Robinson was forced to hang up the helmet after suffering a neck injury that uncovered a more serious issue with his spinal canal. That really hurts the depth right out of the gate. The “retirement” of Robinson actually played a role in Coach Paterno going after some JUCO talent, something he doesn’t usually like to do. Ako Poti provides a body up front, but whether or not he has an impact remains to be seen. Mike Lucian is a converted defensive end that can run block quite well. Austin Hinton is a career backup with the potential to see some time at tackle. Other than that, it’s thin, most alarmingly at center. It will be vital to find a good seven or eight man rotation when camp starts in August and to uncover a backup for Shipley – just in case. If Penn State gets good play here, as it traditionally does, it could be a great season for the offense. If not, it’ll be up to the defense to keep things close.

From a play-making standpoint, I am intrigued by the Penn State offense. There is potential for a very strong one-two punch at tailback. The receiving corps has to make most in the conference green with envy. It all depends on whether Morelli makes a Michael Robinson like step to the next level and how consistent and injury-free the front five plays. If all the chips fall correctly, this could be a potent attack. If Scott gets hurt, Morelli plays so-so and the line struggles, the Nittany Lions will do the same. Chance are though that it won’t all go to hell in a hand basket anyway, so look for PSU to have a better offense campaign in ‘07 than a season ago.

Outlook - Defense ... What happens when you lose three-quarters of your starters up front and one of the best linebackers to ever don the Penn State blue and white? You reload. Hey, they don’t call it Linebacker U for nothing you know. Despite losing Tim Shaw, Jay Alford and Ed Johnson up front and all-world middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, the Nittany Lions should be every bit as good as last season’s fourth ranked defense. Why? There was plenty of talent left behind to go with budding talent as of yet untapped. Make sure the chin straps are extra tight, Penn State will get after you this fall…

Part of what makes the PSU linebackers so good year after year is the solid front four that forces plays in front of them. Heading into this season, the coaching staff needs to replace three solid starters from 2006. Tim Shaw converted from linebacker to end last season and leaves a seven-sack void at left end. Jay Alford and Ed Johnson were space eaters inside, very good tackles who could change plays at the point of attack.

The only returning starter from last season is Josh Gaines. The junior will more than likely move over to the left side after starting on the right side last season. While not a pass rusher in the mold of Shaw or Tamba Hali, he is solid and will get a chance to show his stuff. Phil Taylor is slotted to replace Alford. He is a house at 6-4, 337 and will clog things up nicely in the middle. He will not be as much of a threat to get into the backfield like Alford, but has good strength and skills. Abe Koroma might be the best long term prospect of the bunch. He is big, strong and has room to learn and get better as he is only a redshirt freshman. The final starter might wind up being the big play producer this fall. Sophomore Maurice Evans saw some time as a true freshman and made his share of plays. He’s bulked up but is every bit as quick and is poised to break out. He was unblockable at times this spring – which is either an indictment of a shaky offensive line or a sign of his prowess. I’ll bank on the latter.

Much like its counterpart the offensive line, the biggest concern here is the depth. Chris Baker is a question mark due to off the field issues (temporary expulsion from school) but will otherwise be in the mix at left tackle. Jared Odrick is a smaller, quicker tackle who might be the best backfield force up the middle when all is said and done. Aaron Maybin is a promising youngster with the potential to become a quality defensive end. Who fills out the rest of the depth is up in the air heading into camp, but some names to watch are Chris Rogers and Eric Latimore.

The line doesn’t have to be spectacular because of the experience behind it, but that things are a bit uncertain is a little concerning heading into fall practice. If Baker is out of the mix, someone is going to have to step up at tackle. Evans will be a force but is going to need rest. All Larry Johnson is asking for out of this group is to be steady, make plays and let the linebackers and secondary get after it. Do that, and Penn State will be fine. If not, the promising points above might become moot…

Let’s get this out of the way, the linebacking corps is flat out loaded this season – again. You’d think that losing the likes of Paul Posluszny would mean a little retooling is necessary and maybe a step back is in order. If so, you’d think wrong. Let me reintroduce you to Dan Connor. A 6-3, 233 lb senior, Connor arguably had a better season last year than Posluszny. He was right behind him in tackles (113 to 116), had more sacks (5 to 3) and was second on the team in interceptions. Connor will be one of the best, if not the best, linebackers in the nation this year. He will move to the middle to fill Posluszny’s spot and needs 126 tackles to reach 400 for his career.

Penn State has more to offer than just Connor. Junior Sean Lee was third on the team in tackles last season and will finally get a little bit of notice around the conference. He tallied 90 tackles, 8 TFLs and 5.5 sacks a season ago and should be even more productive this go around. Joining Lee as the third starter will be either Navorro Bowman or Tyrell Sales. Bowman is young and inexperienced but might be the fastest linebacker in the lot. Sales has been a spot starter over his career and a special team’s playmaker.

Perhaps as impressive as the starting lineup in the middle of the defense is the depth. Sales or Navorro will come off the bench on the weakside. Jerome Hayes won’t beat Lee for his gig (and won’t likely get the chance anyway due to his temporary expulsion) but is probably the best second stringer in the corps. Junior Dontey Brown might start for most Big Ten teams but playing behind Connor means he’ll have to bide his time. Still, he is more than capable of stepping in and filling Connor’s shoes if he gets hurt or needs a rest. One more name to throw in the mix is Josh Hull. Add it together and you have a unit that goes seven deep with starters talent. Makes you worry less about the front four when there is so much talent at linebacker…

The front four is a bit questionable, the linebacking corps among the best in the nation, so what about the secondary? Three starters return (potentially) with free safety Donnie Johnson the only departure. Johnson will be missed but is likely to be replaced by one of the starting cornerbacks from last season, Tony Davis. Davis is a solid tackler and a ball hawk (he had 13 PBUs last year) and despite being a little small for a safety (6-0) he has great range. The other starting safety is one of the best in the game. Anthony Scirrotto is a defensive coordinator’s dream at strong safety. He has football smarts, size and big play ability, even if he lacks blazing speed. He had six picks and was the fourth leading tackler on the team a season ago. The question is whether or not he avoids major repercussions from the same spring off-the-field incident that landed him a temporary expulsion (along with Baker, Hayes and fellow DB Lydell Sargeant). He faces felony charges in court in August. If he is kicked off the team, Penn State goes from having a great secondary to a decent defensive backfield – at best. He’s that good.

With Davis moving over to safety, that leaves a void at one corner spot. Before the ruckus that occurred in the spring, it looked certain that the newest starter at cornerback would be Lydell Sargeant. It still looks like that will be the case as charges were dropped against him. However, he is one of the four serving a temporary expulsion. If he doesn’t get further discipline, the former wideout should grow into a nice replacement for Davis. If it isn’t Sargeant, A.J. Wallace will get the nod. Wallace is a fantastic kick returner and brings explosive speed and good size to the corner position. The other starting spot is nailed down. Justin King is a lock-down cover corner. Teams routinely throw away from him – a sure sign of respect. King has the tools to play in the NFL and will again get a chance to shine in the secondary this fall.

Depth might be the only semi-question with this group, particularly at safety. Assuming everyone that got into hot water is back, the starting group is very good. Wallace or Sargeant should develop nicely to compliment King, even if the ideal world would see Davis staying at the corner position he left to play free safety. Redshirt freshman Cedric Jeffries is a big backup strong safety with a world of potential. He is in line to step in for Scirrotto if need be or could even allow for Davis to play corner. Others in the mix are Brendan Perretta (CB), Brent Carter (RB who saw time at CB in spring ball), Spencer Ridenhour (FS), Knowledge Timmons (CB) and Willie Harriott (CB). The bottom line is simple, the front four has plenty of support in a potentially best in conference secondary.

If Penn State didn’t have as many holes to fill in the defensive front, I would anoint this the best defense in the league. Even with some patching to do, this could well be another one of those stifling Nittany Lion defensive units. Playmakers abound, from Evans to Connor and Lee to Scirrotto and King. Pick your poison when you face the Nits. Look for the total defense to be among the top three in the Big ten and for the turnovers to pile up quicker than last year with a group of ball-hawking game changers in each position group.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Penn State enters the season with good and bad news on special teams. The good news? There are a boatload of good return men and place-kicker Kevin Kelly is back. While he was 22 for 34 on field goals a season ago, he has a great leg and hopefully, the PSU offense will be finding the end zone more often instead of having to settle for field goal attempts. The bad news is that the league’s leading punter, Jeremy Kapinos has departed. His 40.0 net average led the conference and he was third overall at 41.8 yards per kick. Replacing a punter is an underrated task. Another Jeremy is primed to step into the role. Jeremy Boone had a nice spring and the coaching staff hopes that will carry over to game play this fall.

9/15 – BUFFALO
9/22 – at Michigan
9/29 – at Illinois
10/6 – IOWA
10/20 – at Indiana
10/27 – OHIO STATE
11/3 – PURDUE
11/10 – at Temple
11/17 – at Michigan State

Key Games: 9/8 – Notre Dame, 9/22 – at Michigan, 10/6 – Iowa, 10/13 – Wisconsin, 10/27 – Ohio State

Prediction ... Despite dropping Big Ten doormats Northwestern and Minnesota from the slate, Penn State has a doable schedule. Why? The only true test on the road is at Michigan. MSU usually plays the Nittany Lions tough at home, but all of the other toughies are at Beaver Stadium. It starts when Notre Dame comes to town for some payback. Then in a five week run, there are four home dates with Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue. It all sets up for a potentially great season for the blue and white. In fact, I think the only thing that will slow this team down is a late season upset in East Lansing.

OOC: 4-0
B10: 5-3 (losses to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State)
Overall: 9-3, T-4th in the conference, Outback Bowl berth

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part VII

7/19 Update: Brewster sends a message, four Gophers released.
7/19 Update: Wisconsin suspends RB Lance Smith.
7/17 Update: Issues for Minnesota Football.

Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Iowa Hawkeyes

Tidbits … Iowa has been to six straight bowl games, one of only three programs in the Big Ten to be able to claim the same. The Alamo Bowl berth in 2006 ended a four year streak of New Year’s Day bowl appearances. Iowa was one of only four teams in the nation with that claim. After last season, only one of those four – USC – has kept the streak alive. They say that continuity is key. Well, Iowa has only seen five assistant coaches leave during Kirk Ferentz’s nine year stay.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose / 6-7, 2-6 (T-8th), Alamo
2005 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st), BCS / 7-5, 5-3 (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: 9 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: RB Albert Young, RB Damian Sims, WR Dominique Douglas, WR Andy Brodell, C Rafael Eubanks, DE Ken Iwebema, DT Matt Kroul, LB Mike Klinkenborg, CB Adam Shada

Key Losses: QB Drew Tate, OG Mike Jones, OG Mike Elgin, TE Scott Chandler, LB Ed Miles, S Miguel Merrick, S Marcus Paschal, PK Kyle Schlicher

Looking Back ... Talk about a total tale of two seasons. Heading into a prime time, highly anticipated early season battle with Ohio State, Iowa was 4-0 and on a roll. The loss to eventual national runner-up OSU didn’t seem to hurt the Hawkeyes much at the time, as they put a beat down on Purdue the following week. However, after that 5-1 start, Iowa won just one of its last seven games and that was over MAC foe Northern Illinois. All the high hopes of a fitting last season in a spectacular career for Drew Tate went out the window in exasperating losses to Indiana, Northwestern and rival Minnesota.

Despite going “Michigan State” on the second half of the season, Iowa managed a bowl berth and helped the Alamo Bowl set a record for attendance, and ESPN for viewership of a bowl game on its network. That the Hawkeyes managed to get the bowl berth and then played a great game in a late loss to defending national champ Texas is something everyone in and around Iowa City is hanging their hat on heading into 2007. The bowl bid was proof of how far Kirk Ferentz has taken the Iowa program after an abysmal stretch in the late 90’s. The question heading into 2007 is, can Iowa rebuild where it sustained personnel losses and build on the positives of the 2006 campaign? Or will the second half swoon lead to a hangover and more disappointment in 2007?

Outlook - Offense ... Iowa had a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde effect going on offense last season. The Hawkeyes ranked middle of the pack in scoring offense – 23.8 ppg and on the ground – 143.5 ypg, but was solid through the air (2nd at 239.8 ypg) and overall (3rd at 383.3 ypg). The tipping point was the turnover margin. Iowa coughed the ball up a ghastly 31 times, only slightly better than Illinois (35). The good news is that several weapons return. The bad news? Drew Tate, who finished his career as second all-time in several categories, is gone. Three key members of the offensive front have also departed, as has second-leading receiver Scott Chandler. Iowa has some rebuilding to do and how that process goes will define the success of the program for 2007.

Another program has to say goodbye to a long time (three year) starting quarterback named Drew this fall. Michigan State and Iowa bid fare-the-well to Drew Stanton and Drew Tate, two gamers who did all they could to carry their teams to success. Tate undoubtedly was more successful in that manner, but in reality, after he burst onto the scene as a sophomore - leading Iowa to a co-Big Ten title - he never seemed to wield the same influence. Don’t get me wrong. The guy was the epitome of a college quarterback. He was a gamer. His style was gritty, tough, and he was a great leader. But he couldn’t do it all by himself and it sort of seemed like, at times, his teammates sat around and watched instead of playing their role. That’s neither here nor there however, as Tate has departed and a new signal caller will take the helm.

With Tate and career backup Jason Manson no longer in the program, the spotlight shines directly on sophomore Jake Christensen. He is the only quarterback in the program with experience and the job is his to lose. Christensen had the luxury of starting a game last season – the only win in the second half debacle – and saw time in five games. That experience will be invaluable heading into 2007. While not as mobile as Tate, he has a solid arm and shouldn’t have to be spectacular with the skill players around him. The interesting thing heading into fall camp is whether a pair of talented redshirt freshmen can overtake Christensen. Arvell Nelson is a playmaker that hails from the same high school as former OSU quarterback Troy Smith. He has a slight edge for the second string spot over Richard (Ricky) Stanzi, another athlete with a potentially bright future ahead of him. The key here is experience. Obviously there is talent on the depth chart, but it will be sink or swim if Christensen gets hurt of fails to pull away from the pack. Again, the good news is, Iowa only needs to get good play from this position in order to have a bounce back season…

Last year’s weakness actually wound up producing arguably the best tandem of Big Ten receivers that you’ve never heard of. Junior Andy Brodell and sophomore Dominique Douglas really turned some heads over the course of the 2006 season and come in ready to carry the load in 2007. Brodell is a 6-3 speedster who caught a third best 39 balls for an eye-popping 724 yards (18.6 ypc) and five scores. Douglas led the team in receptions with 49, a number that led the nation for true freshmen. Both came on particularly strong late in the season, which bodes well for the forthcoming campaign. The biggest loss here is at tight end, where Scott Chandler and Ryan Majerus have moved on. Chandler was Tate’s second favorite target (46 catches and six TDs) and a big target at that. Junior Tony Moeaki is ready to step in at tight end. He has seen extensive field time and is a great pass-catcher if only an above average blocker.

The good news for the Iowa receiving corps is the depth – there is a ton of it with as many as six redshirt freshmen and sophomores in the mix at wide receiver and a reliable junior backing up the tight end position. The best bet to join Brodell and Douglas as a playmaker off the bench is sophomore Trey Stross. Stross gained some solid playing time as a true freshman, has great size and good hands and is poised to take on an increased role with the offense. Fellow sophomore Anthony Bowman is more in the mold of a slot receiver or scat back but should factor into the mix as well. The quartet of James Cleveland, Paul Chaney, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Ben Evans will also vie for time this season. Each has good hands and should help bolster this position. Brandon Myers, Michael Sabers, and Richie Amendola will provide the depth at tight end. No one here is a household name – yet – but you can bet that Douglas and Brodell will keep some secondary coaches awake as they prepare their defensive backs for this underrated one-two punch. If they can be as good, if not better, than I expect, Iowa could take total advantage of a break from the scheduling gods and make my prediction seem like a slap in the face…

The strength of the Iowa offense heading into 2007 should be its running attack. While not as impressive as it could have (or should have) been at times in ’06, Iowa has the ability to balance its offensive attack with a very good pair of tailbacks. Seniors Albert Young and Damian Sims combined to rush for 1,443 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and either is capable of putting up a thousand yards by himself (Young racked up 1,334 as a sophomore). Young rushed his way to 779 yards despite fighting injuries all season long. He also snared 30 passes and was the fourth leading receiver. This is where (and why) the offense should really improve in this category heading into the fall.

Young is the power guy with good speed, Sims the game-breaker with explosive speed. The duo combines nicely as a one-two punch. A steady diet of Young can batter the defense and loosen it up for a big gainer by Sims. With full health and a good offensive line paving the way (we’ll get to that below) there is no reason that Iowa can’t be one of the top running teams in the conference this season. Perhaps the only question mark here is the depth. Iowa has endured some injury-riddled seasons in the backfield over the years and with talented players like Shonn Greene leaving the program, Hawkeyes fans can’t help but feel a little nervous. Greene was a power runner with deceptive speed and solid experience and he will be missed. Sophomore Dana Brown is the only other returning back with experience. Brown or Paki O’Meara will have to step up as summer turns to fall to provide the insurance that Greene was to handle.

The running game is rounded out by the return of senior fullback Tom Busch. Busch has started 26 consecutive games at fullback and is arguably the best blocking back in the Big Ten. While not a real threat to carry the ball, he does have great hands and is a nice safety valve for the quarterback. Junior Jordan McLaughlin and redshirt freshman Brett Morse are converted linebackers – much in the mold of Busch and they provide the depth at fullback. If Iowa stays healthy at tailback/fullback – look out, it could spell big trouble for opposing defenses. The talent is there if not the experienced depth that teams like to have. Young, Sims and Busch would start for most any program around and will be counted on to be better than last year and lead this offense to solid production.

While it might seem that quarterback might be the biggest soft spot on this offense due to the overall lack of experience, the offensive line is the position group that will truly make or break the Hawkeye offensive attack in 2007. Three starters have departed and while Iowa has seemingly been an offensive line factory since Ferentz took over, the fact that the starting lineup is still in flux has to be a little unsettling for the coaching staff and fans alike. One thing is for certain, there is some NFL caliber talent to work with, namely in left tackle Dace Richardson. Richardson has the size, strength and talent to be the next great Iowa offensive tackle, but he needs to stay healthy. He battled injuries in 2006 and that cannot be the case this year with so much new talent in the fold.

While Richardson is the biggest talent, the anchor of the line is center Rafael Eubanks. The sophomore is already among the top centers in the conference but he too needs to stay healthy after getting nicked up last year. The only other returning starter – aside from Eubanks – is guard Seth Olsen. Olsen is a great run blocker and can play both tackle and guard, but should settle in at right guard as a key player in protecting lefty Christensen’s blind side. The other two penciled in starters at this point are sophomores Kyle Calloway and Andy Kuempel. Both go 6-7 and are 305 & 205 respectively. Calloway has tight-end like athleticism and will start at right tackle. Kuempel also has experience inside and outside, but is the starting left guard heading into fall camp.

One great thing about Iowa offensive linemen is that they are all cut out of the same mold, or so it seems. 6-6 to 6-7 and in the 295-315 range is pretty much the norm for this offensive front. The key will be churning out some experience and finding depth while getting this line to play with far more consistency in all phases of the offense than a season ago. Junior Alex Kanellis moves over from the defensive line to provide more toughness and athleticism. The converted defensive lineman started in the spring game and will see the field this fall. Rounding out the playing group is mammoth guard Wes Aeschliman (6-8, 315) and talented guard Dan Doering. Beyond this threesome, there is plenty of depth, with as many as six others vying for time in the mix (Blum, Aumaitre, Postler, Haganman, Meade & Vandervelde). Iowa has the horses, but can this group get the job done? That is the question as summer turns to fall…

On paper, I really like what I see in this offense. Quarterback is a little thin in the experience department for my liking, but the talent is there. The receiving corps will be better than last year and despites its inexperience a season ago, would up being pretty darn good anyway. There is a nice one-two combo at tailback and the line has plenty of talented players in the mix. The key will be balance and consistency. The Hawkeyes must do a better job protecting the pigskin and get more out of the running game to avoid another so-so season.

Outlook - Defense ... What you see is what you get. Iowa doesn’t throw anything fancy at you when it comes to defense. Statistically, the Hawkeyes were (in 2006) just about middle of the pack. But you better tighten the chin strap and ready yourself to be batted around. Iowa’s defense is tough, hard-hitting and disciplined. Mistakes are rare and big plays can be hard to come by. Glitz and glamour may not be a part of the Hawkeye defense, but you can be grit and determination are and that’s what makes Iowa such a tough team to play.

Iowa’s middle of the road performance in 2006 was a bit of a blip on the radar when it comes to a Norm Parker defense. For starters, the defensive front was dinged up – mainly during the second half swoon. But, with all four starters returning to the line, each with solid skills and experience, it should be back to making opposing offenses dizzy in 2007. The front four is led by senior end Ken Iwebema. Iwebema can wreck havoc behind the line of scrimmage and the development of fellow senior Bryan Mattison as a playmaker at the other end spot last fall means offenses will not be able to simply go away from him play after play. Mattison had 10.5 tackles for loss and a team high 6.5 sacks last fall. Each player should contend for postseason honors and help to shore up what was a lackluster effort in 2006.

What really makes Iowa so great up front is the inside play of juniors Matt Kroul and Mitch King. The pair is extremely active up the middle and can get after the quarterback as well. Kroul has started 25 straight games and King 19 of the last 25. They teamed up for 115 tackles, 17.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks last season and should have just as much, if not more success in 2007. Neither are that big for defensive tackles, but that allows both to use quickness and athleticism to get to tailbacks and quarterbacks – a tell-tale sign of a successful defense.

Adding to the upside of the line is the depth. While not as experienced as new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski might like, there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. The three most prominent names on the depth chart are probably Adrian Clayborn, Rashad Dunn and Ryan Bain. Clayborn - a redshirt freshman with a great motor – should end up being better than Iwebema long term and gets the luxury of learning from the NFL caliber pass rusher and his rock solid counterpart. Dunn is an offensive line transplant with a lot of upside. Bain is a junior that saw extensive time at both end and tackle last fall, filling in for the injured Iwebema and King. Others looking to crack the playing group are tackles Grant McCracken and Mark Mahmens as well as ends Chad Geary, Jared Oberland and Karl Klug. Depth is not a problem, but you can bet that the Iowa coaching staff would rather not have to use a lot of it, as that would mean another injury-marred campaign for what could otherwise be just about the best starting front line in the Big Ten.

Slowly but surely, Iowa is a program to be reckoned with when it comes to turning out linebacker talent. Penn State may be Linebacker U, but Iowa has had some sweet playmakers at the position over the last few seasons. Two of the three starters from 2006 return, with Ed Miles the lone departure. While Miles registered 100 tackles, the leading tackler from last season’s squad – middle linebacker Mike Klinkenborg – returns. Klinkenborg didn’t exactly make people forget Abdul Hodge, but he is a great run stopper if only fair in pass defense. His 129 stops ranked second in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation. He brings experience and toughness to the defense. Fellow returning starter Mike Humpal moves to inside linebacker this season and is a steady, dependable player. He probably took more heat than he should have last season, but he did have to replace now Minnesota Viking Chad Greenway. The outside linebacker slot is a bit up in the air, but spring game starter and converted tight end A.J. Edds seems to be the heir apparent. Edds saw some valuable time filling in for Humpal last season and has a leg up on a depth chart that is decent on numbers and a little shaky on experience.

Losing a player like Zach Gabelmann might not seem like much, since he wasn’t exactly producing huge numbers, but his value as a spot second stringer was unmatched. That task this year will be up to a bevy of young players with a lot of talent but little in the way of experience. Senior JUCO transfer Bryon Gattas and sophomore Pat Angerer saw a lot of the field last year and will need to step it up a notch as the most seasoned second teamers. Juniors Gavin McGrath and Jon Isgrig as well as freshmen Jeremiha Hunter and Jeff Tarpinian have plenty of potential and should get a chance to pick up playing time this fall. The development of at least a few of these greenhorns will be vital to the success of the Iowa defense.

The biggest area for concern on the defensive side of the ball is probably with the secondary. Both cornerbacks return, so that isn’t the issue. However, replacing safeties Miguel Merrick and Marcus Paschal might pose a problem, early on anyway. The pair combined for 149 tackles last season and a handful of interceptions, not to mention a combined eight years of letterman status. Really, replacing the safeties is similar to the task that faced the secondary in 2006, when the starting corners had to be replaced. That didn’t work out too bad, as Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey stepped in and filled the void admirably. Now the seniors will have to lead the revamped secondary and produce with consistency.

So then, who gets the nod at the safety positions? It really depends on who you ask – or so it seems. Brett Greenwood and Harold Dalton are two names that seem to rise to the top in many discussions. Greenwood is a redshirt freshman, former walk-on who is not flashy but has that “I have to constantly prove myself” style of play. Dalton has good size and excellent speed but has yet to even record a tackle in his career. That leaves the door wide open as fall practice kicks off. Marcus Wilson has the most returning safety experience and could well start the season as the first string free safety. It all depends on who steps up and proves his worth and reliability – as well as consistency – first. Bradley Fletcher provides experienced depth at cornerback while Justin Edwards and Drew Gardner will also fight for time on the corners. That bring us back to safety. Building depth is paramount. There are eight young players (freshmen or sophomores) in the mix but no one is standing out so far. Look for a Dalton-Greenwood-Wilson rotation to start with hopes for a relatively injury free season and/or plenty of time in early games for the newbies to get quality playing time.

I’d put the Iowa front seven with most in the Big Ten. There are a bunch of hard-hitters and cerebral players in the mix, each with the ability to make plays. The secondary scares me. That might not hurt Iowa as much in 2007 though as Michigan and Ohio State rotate off the slate and many of the teams are replacing quarterbacks. Still, guys like Kellen Lewis at Indiana and Curtis Painter at Purdue have to be licking their chops at the prospects of facing this group. If the back four steps up and the safeties emerge, this defense could be really, really good. If not, it will be another sub-par season by Iowa defensive standards…

Outlook - Special Teams ... Iowa has the unenviable task of replacing both starting kickers from the past few seasons. Kyle Schlicher left the program as fourth best all-time in scoring. Andy Fenstermaker didn’t have a particularly great senior season, but he was reliable. The good news is that the Hawkeyes appear to have the starting spots solidified heading into the 2007 season. Freshman Ryan Donahue was one of the nation’s top prep punters and redshirted last season, meaning Iowa should be set there for the foreseeable future. The place-kicking duties are still a little up in the air, but not due to a lack of talent. Sophomore Austin Signor and freshman Daniel Murray will vie for time. Signor is a big kid, 6-4, 230, and handled the kickoff duties last fall. He has a great leg but needs to be more consistent. Murray will be waiting in the wings if Signor falters. The return game is also a bit of a concern as Iowa averaged under 18 per return on kickoffs. It will be highly important to get the kinks worked out early as you can always count on games coming down to special teams play in the Big Ten…

9/1 – vs. Northern Illinois (Soldier Field)
9/15 – at Iowa State
9/22 – at Wisconsin
9/29 – INDIANA
10/6 – at Penn State
10/13 – ILLINOIS
10/20 – at Purdue
11/3 – at Northwestern

Key Games: 9/8 – Syracuse, 9/15 – at Iowa State, 9/22 – at Wisconsin, 10/6 – at Penn State, 10/20 – at Purdue

Prediction ... There are some decent question marks surrounding Iowa this fall, but there are also some real bright spots. First and foremost in the good column is missing Michigan and Ohio State. What a boon that is for a team that has to replace some key talent. On the negative side is replacing a long-time starting quarterback, two veteran safeties and a pair of kickers. Also, Iowa has no “jack you up” home games this year. Not a one. All the big games area on the road. A bowl game should be all but a certainty if the black and gold handle what appears to me to be the easiest home slate in the conference. Win a game or two on the road and it could be a really nice season.

OOC: 3-1 (loss at Iowa State)
B10: 5-3 (losses at Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue)
Overall: 8-4, T-4th in the conference, Champs Bowl berth