March 21, 2011

Iowa looking for fresh start this spring

These aren't necessarily good times at Iowa.

First, the Hawkeyes saw the wheels come off a once-promising 7-2 start to the 2010 season by losing their last three regular-season games. A thrilling comeback win over Missouri in the Insight Bowl provided a bit of a salve.

But off-field issues also have dogged the Hawkeyes. Star wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was arrested in December on multiple counts of possession of controlled substances, keeping a drug house and unlawful possession of prescription drugs. Running back Adam Robinson, the team's top rusher with 889 yards and 10 touchdowns, was arrested for marijuana possession and dismissed from the program in January. Finally, 13 players were hospitalized in January with a muscle disorder caused by grueling workouts that made many question the school's conditioning tactics.

IOWA AT-A-GLANCE
Marvin McNutt led the Hawkeyes with 53 catches for 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Kirk Ferentz
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in Big Ten. Beat Missouri 27-24 in Insight Bowl.
Spring dates: March 23-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (4): C James Ferentz, WR Marvin McNutt, T Riley Reiff, T Markus Zusevics.
Defense (3): T Mike Daniels, CB Micah Hyde, CB Shaun Prater.
Special teams (1): K Michael Meyer.
The arrival of spring drills will be a welcome distraction to the off-field drama. But many questions dog the team as it opens spring drills.

Who will play quarterback with Ricky Stanzi gone? Who will make bring the heat with defensive end Adrian Clayborn departed? Are there two safeties to replace Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood?

Iowa also must figure out how to win close games, as its five losses last season came by a combined 18 points. More offensive consistency would help.

Here's a look at the Hawkeyes as they get ready to open spring practice.

Positions of strength

The offensive line should be strong. The Hawkeyes return three starters in Ts Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics and C James Ferentz, the coach's son. The staff will audition guards this spring, with Adam Gettis and Nolan MacMillan the favorites to win the spots. Each started at times last season while battling injuries. There also is depth on the line. Cornerback should be a position of strength with returning starters Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde. Prater was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season and the team's best defensive player, and Hyde was the defensive MVP of the Insight Bowl. Each can make plays: Hyde had two interception returns for touchdowns in 2010, and Prater had one. RB Marcus Coker looks like a future star, and Marvin McNutt is a legit go-to receiver. He led the squad with 53 catches for 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

Help is needed

A quarterback is needed with Ricky Stanzi gone. He went 26-9 as a starter, ranking second in school history in career wins. The defensive line will be a question mark after the departures of E Adrian Clayborn, E Christian Ballard, and T Karl Klug. T Mike Daniels is the lone starter back up front. Broderick Binns, who has started in the past, will be penciled in at an end spot. The rest of the front is unproven, so it's going to be a position that needs to develop quickly for a unit that was a disappointment in 2010 despite having veteran talent. The safety spots need work with the graduation of three-year starter Brett Greenwood and the early departure to the NFL of two-year starter Tyler Sash. There isn't a lot of experience at the position. Tanner Miller appears likely to replace Greenwood, and Jordan Bernstine could move from corner to strong safety.

3 guys to watch

RB Marcus Coker: The guy is a future star who broke out late last season as a true freshman. The 230-pound Coker was offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl after running 33 times for 219 yards. He started four games in 2010 and finished with 622 yards and three touchdowns.

FS Tanner Miller: One of nine true freshmen to play in 2010, Miller will have a shot to fill Greenwood's shoes as the quarterback of the secondary. Miller is a tremendous athlete who appears to be well-suited for the job.

QB James Vandenberg: He has first dibs on the quarterback job. Vandenberg (6-3/212), a junior, started two games in 2009 when Stanzi was injured and went 1-1, playing well in an overtime loss at Ohio State. Vandenberg has hit 47-of-95 passes for 515 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions in his career.

The pressure is on

WR Keenan Davis: It's difficult to say he has underachieved, but Davis, a former four-star recruit, has yet to make the kind of impact that everyone expected. Davis, a junior with good size (6-3/215), has just 15 career catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns. With Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Colin Sandeman gone, McNutt is going to get plenty of attention from opponents. Davis has to show this spring he is a guy who can make opponents pay if they focus too much attention on McNutt.

The buzz

Spring offers a fresh start for Iowa. Kirk Ferentz has work to do, with most of the heavy lifting coming on offense. The Hawkeyes must figure out a way to run better after ranking just eighth in the Big Ten in rushing (148.4 ypg). The offense as a whole needs to become more consistent. The defense needs to develop up front and find some safeties. If Iowa can adequately fill those holes, it has a shot to win a Legends Division that also includes Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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