The Iowa Hawkeyes return just nine starters from last year’s team, which underachieved massively as a preseason Big Ten favorite. New faces everywhere mean it could be a long year for head coach Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes in 2011.
Then again, Iowa has become a program that overachieves when people aren't expecting much of anything. Could this be yet another year in which the Hawkeyes ambush the experts and everyone else in the Big Ten?
One would do well to remember that nobody saw the unbeaten regular season in 2002 or the Orange Bowl-winning campaign of 2009. It was 2010 when Iowa had a bullseye on its back, and the Hawkeyes stunk up the joint. Now that the spotlight is far removed from Iowa City, could another Ferentz sneak attack be in the works? We'll see beginning with the week-one lid-lifter against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles.
Ricky Stanzi was a fixture in Iowa and his departure leaves a very big hole at quarterback for the Hawkeyes. Into his place steps junior James Vandenberg, who attempted just eight passes in 2010. Stanzi was a calm, experienced field general that could settle the Hawkeyes’ huddle. It’s not that Vandenberg isn’t or can’t become those thing, it’s just that no one has seen him play or experience game stress to see how he’ll perform. The Hawkeyes also lost leading rusher Adam Robinson to off-field issues. Robinson shared carries with Marcus Coker, who returns to take the tailback position by himself. Coker is a big running back (6’0, 230) who pushes the pile forward. He’s perfect for Ferentz’s preferred style of play. The team’s leading receiver, senior Marvin McNutt returns, but after him, there’s no one on the roster that caught more than 11 passes last year. At least one viable option will be needed opposite McNutt to keep defenses from keying on him too much.
The best thing the Iowa offense has going for it is a big, experienced offensive line. Ferentz was forced to play a pair of sophomores and a freshman on the offensive line in 2010 and should be rewarded for it this year. Iowa routinely produces excellent offensive linemen and this year’s candidates are the bookend offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics. Ferentz’s son James returns for his junior season at center. Four reserve offensive linemen that started games or saw significant playing time also return, so the line will be a deep group.
The Iowa defense will be virtually brand new in 2011. Just four starters return from last year’s unit that often held up when the offense was sagging. The defensive line has been hit the hardest by graduation. Just one starter from last year, senior defensive tackle Mike Daniels, returns for the Hawkeyes. Lebron Daniels and Broderick Binns, upperclassmen with little playing time to show for their time on campus, are tasked with replacing first round NFL Draft pick Adrian Clayborn.
The Hawkeyes’ strength will be in the secondary. Senior cornerback Shaun Prater is small but fearless as a tackler. He record six pass breakups and picked off four passes last season. Micah Hyde is another somewhat undersized (6’1 but only 185 pounds) defensive back who returns at free safety. Hyde is the team’s leading returning tackler. Experienced juniors Colin Sleeper and Greg Castillo will step into starting roles at corner and strong safety and should make the secondary a team strength.
All in all, though, Iowa shouldn't crack the top five in the Big Ten this year. Does this mean that's exactly what the Hawkeyes will do? Pay attention to the body language of the Hawks as they take to the gridiron for the first time in 2011.