by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Iowa HC Kirk Ferentz is playing it low-key this season, as his Hawkeyes have to replace a good deal of talent (13 starters are gone from last year’s squad). Change is in the air, and experimentation is the order of the day, “We’ve got a lot of moving parts and we’ll have a lot of moving parts through the month of August. My guess is...we may have some moving parts into September as well,” says Ferentz.

The Hawkeyes have talent, but they are thin. Iowa is a team that always seems to get into some sort of off-field trouble in the offseason, and this year was no exception in Iowa City. Both rising soph RB Adam Robinson (last year’s leading rusher) and WR Derrell Johnson Koulianos (had exhausted his eligibility; 46 catches last season) were dismissed from the team after being arrested on drug charges. In an unrelated bizarre story, 13 Hawkeyes were hospitalized due to a workout-related outbreak of rhabdomyolysis, a muscle disorder. Further, there were rumors flying that many players on the team had been “beating” school-imposed drug tests rather than “passing” them legitimately. Controversy is nothing new to the calm & collected Ferentz.

Offensively, QB James Vandenberg, who owns almost all the Iowa high school passing records, will be the key guy. Vandenberg replaces Ricky Stanzi, who ranked 12th in the country in pass efficiency last season. Vandenberg reportedly has a better arm than Stanzi, and he has last season’s top target, WR Marvin McNutt (53 catches, 16.2 ypc) back in the fold. Vandenberg was less than impressive two seasons ago when he took over for an injured Stanzi in three games late in the 2009 season, completing just 47.6% with 2 TDS and 5 ints. against Northwestern, Ohio State and Minnesota. In 2010, the junior triggerman played very briefly in blowout wins over Eastern Illinois, Iowa State and Ball State, attempting just 8 passes. Iowa o.c. Ken O’Keefe must find another viable pass-catching threat in order to keep the defenses honest against NcNutt. Soph Keenan Davis, a 6-3 wideout who made 11 catches last season, was the main target of development in the spring. Vandenberg should have time to mature, as he won’t be required to be the centerpiece of the attack early on.

The Hawkeyes return four starting offensive linemen, including second-team all-Big Ten left tackle Riley Reiff. The vet OL will be blocking for soph Marcus Coker, who flashed 1000-yard potential in gaining 5.5 ypc on his 114 carries as a true frosh in 2010. Coker was the offensive MVP of the game when he ran for an Iowa bowl-record 219 yards in the Insight.com win against Missouri. The RB situation is thin behind Coker due to Robinson’s dismissal, but a fairly easy preseason schedule should see Iowa with a 3-1 mark when the Hawkeyes visit Penn State Oct. 8. However, the fact that starting fullback Brad Rogers might not get clearance due to a heart problem makes the Iowa attack look a bit iffy.

The Iowa defense returns just 4 starters, but renowned d.c. Norm Parker knows how to put together a stop unit, and he’s done a good job in the past rebuilding units after heavy graduation. In 2008, Iowa held foes to just 13 ppg despite returning only five starters. Parker is trying to piece the puzzle together, giving CB Micah Hyde (all-Big Ten honorable mention in 2010) a shot at the free safety spot. The defense will benefit from the return to full health of LB Tyler Nielsen, and DT Broderick Binns has plenty of experience to reclaim one of the starting DL jobs (although not counted as a returning starter, he’s started 18 games in the last three years). Another returning all-conference honorable mention player is DT Mike Daniels, who was second on the team in sacks. Sr. CB Shaun Prater was first team all-league in 2010, and he’ll be counted on to shut down the opposition’s lead receiver. It remains to be seen who will end up where, but Parker knows what it takes to be successful in the Big Ten.

Summary...Iowa boasted a top-ten defense last season, and the talent is on hand for Parker to duplicate that ranking in 2011. The offense is a bit of a different story. There’s little or no depth, and Vandenberg is an unknown quantity despite his prep credentials. The Big Ten schedule is generally kind to the Hawkeyes, as they get “Legends” competitors Northwestern, Michigan St. & Michigan at home, so the finale at Nebraska might be played with a berth in the first Big Ten conference title game on the line. It’s difficult to see Vandenberg improving enough to be a major factor against the Blackshirts at Lincoln, but another bowl appearance should be in store for Iowa.

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