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

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