Known commodities: Sophomore running back Marcus Coker is coming off a season that saw him pick up 622 yards in only seven games.
Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater return in the defensive backfield. Hyde is the leading returning tacklers after notching 82 stops last season. Both had four interceptions on the season.
In their first chances to play last season, linebackers Tyler Nielsen and James Morris both flashed the potential to continue the Iowa tradition of excellence at that position. Morris finished fourth on the team with 70 tackles.
Mike Daniels is active and capable of making plays on the defensive line, as is Brodderick Binns.
Major questions: How will James Vandenberg do replacing three-year starter Ricky Stanzi at quarterback? Who will be his targets aside from Marvin McNutt? Who will start at the guards? Can they rebuild a defense that faltered down the stretch last season?
Spring game recap: The Hawkeyes closed out spring practice with an open practice on an unseasonably cool April 16. Reportedly, the top performer of the day was receiver Keenan Davis, a 6-3, 215-pound junior who was a four-star recruit at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) George Washington. He showed good hands and athleticism on the last day, indicating he should be ready to fill the role vacated by Derrell Johnson-Koulianos’ exhausting his eligibility.
“We’ve made strides, but we’ve got a long way to go yet still,” head coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters afterward. “So as long as the guys understand that, I think we’ll be OK.”
Issues addressed: Ferentz entered spring without a three-year starter at quarterback, but he had reason to be more at ease than most coaches in that scenario thanks to the great potential junior Vandenberg has flashed during cameo appearances during two seasons as a backup.
“He’s hardly a grizzled veteran,” Ferentz said in reference to a player who logged two starts at the end of his freshman season in 2009 that included an overtime loss at Ohio State. “That was a great experience and I thought he did a real admirable job in a very challenging circumstance in Columbus. That’s all going to help, but I think the thing I was most impressed with was how James prepared last year. I think all of us had total confidence in him. We looked at the situation as being one good football player stuck behind another good football player. We’re all excited to see him perform this year and what he can bring to our team.”
Meanwhile, running back seems to be a position where the Hawkeyes can never seem to have enough good players.
Marcus Coker is back after a 622-yard freshman campaign, but the Hawkeyes are in need of capable backups to help keep his load from getting too heavy this fall. In the spring, senior Jason White and redshirt freshman De’Andre Johnson put their best feet forward to try to earn that right, but Ferentz told reporters in Iowa City he could envision getting some help from the class of incoming freshmen.
The general consensus is an offensive line that returns starting center James Ferentz – the coach’s son – and tackles Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics has the potential to be very good, but the head coach sounded like he wants the group to remain grounded.
“The three guys with experience are all capable of getting better,” Ferentz said. “If we’re going to have a good football team, we’re going to need that to happen. I think that group will be fine, but we’re not there yet.”
Defensively, the Hawkeyes need new blood at every level, but hopes are high that veterans such as defensive linemen Daniels and Binns along with linebackers Morris and Nielson can step up.
“There are some younger guys you haven’t heard of and there are some older guys like Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns who have been around and played a bit, they’re going to lead the front and do a good job,” Nielson said. “We expect big things from them in the fall.”
Morris looked like a budding star after injuries pushed him into the lineup as a freshman last season.
Advanced statistical revelations*: The Football Outsiders numbers and I had the same view of the 2010 Hawkeyes: They had 10-win talent. Their adjusted scores gave Iowa wins over Ohio State, Arizona and Wisconsin, all games they had to have felt like they should have had in real life, too.
The advanced stats saw the offense better and the defense worse than the traditional numbers did. The passing game was pretty good on standard downs but terrible on third while the run game was decent overall (Iowa has been surprisingly inefficient running the ball the past two seasons compared to the perception of the Hawkeyes). Also of note: The offense got steadily worse as the game went along.
Defensively, the Hawkeyes were just what you would expect: Teams did not want to mess with the rush defense and had a hard time going deep, but they found some success with ball-control passing.
Pro prospects**: McNutt has everything talent evaluators want in a sold NFL-caliber wide receiver with the exception of great speed. He is a big guy with good hands who can win one-on-one battles and knows how to work a zone. Helpful as a blocker, too.
Though undersized for the next level, Daniels is “a typical overachieving Iowa DT who is going to make a lot of plays this year as a senior.” Strong guy is very active.
Binns is a long, strong-armed guy with a good anchor against the run who is just OK as a pass rusher.
Nielsen is better against the pass than the run. Looks tight when asked to make plays in space and isn’t real physical.
Prater has long arms NFL scouts will like and good speed but could stand to add some bulk.
Issues remaining/other thoughts: This should be an interesting year in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes lost a lot of well-known players to graduation, but they left behind a very disappointing season. On top of that, several of the new guys don’t seem that new, and there are a couple of big-name holdovers.
The biggest question for my money is who will replace playmaker Tyler Sash at safety? That is particularly key in a bend-but-don’t-break defense such as Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker prefers. Prater might have it in him.
Can they ramp up the pass rush?
Will one of their young studs at tight end step up to fill that important place in the Hawkeye ‘O’?
*SBNation has spent the summer previewing teams across the country using Football Outsiders’ advanced stats. They’ve started a movement not unlike SABRmetrics in baseball, and while I don’t agree with all of the tenets they are establishing, I find them often informative and always interesting. This is just my takeaway from the lengthy preview for this squad.
**These are culled from evaluations published by Wes Bunting of The National Football Post. He goes in-depth on a handful of draft-eligible players on every team, and I have significantly boiled them down, so I recommend you read the whole thing.