By Dan Ringgenberg
Since Iowa’s 2009 Orange Bowl Championship run, the Hawks have struggled to find consistency and an identity, watching their win total slip from eleven in 2009 to seven last season.
Entering James Vandenberg’s final season running the offense, headlines surrounding the team have focused primarily on the problems at running back and the youth of the defensive line.
After a 2011 season marred by running back curses and painful losses to the likes of Iowa State, Minnesota and Penn State, Iowa scrounged their way 7-5 regular season record (4-4 vs. the B1G), culminating in a lopsided 31-14 loss to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl.
This season, the Legends Division has three other teams besides Iowa who feel they have a legitimate chance at making the B1G Title game, making for a difficult conference schedule.
Despite the grim predictions and jokes about a “cursed” running back position, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in the 2012 season.
This is a team that may suffer a slip-up against a weaker opponent early due to inexperience, but they also have the talent on both sides of the ball to pull off a few unexpected wins.
Follow the Leader
Keokuk’s own James Vandenberg put up big numbers in his first year as a starter for the Hawkeyes, finishing the 2011 season with 3,022 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions.
Entering Vandenberg’s senior season, however, the Iowa offense is facing questions about how it will perform after graduating top receiver Marvin McNutt (Philadelphia) and changes at the running back position.
Despite less-than-stellar predictions for his offense this season, I see Vandenberg proving the skeptics wrong and combining his signature accuracy with another year of maturity at the helm to lead this team.
The running back situation isn’t as big of a disaster as everyone thinks it is: there is still plenty of raw talent in incoming freshman Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy.
With McNutt gone to the NFL, the #1 receiver title and the bulk of the receptions fall into the lap of Sr. WR Keenan Davis, but don’t be surprised if you see the return of the Iowa Tight End passing game this season with 6’7” C.J. Fiedorowicz ready to live up to his expectations in his Junior season as a legitimate offensive threat and NFL talent.
Another newcomer on offense to look out for is RS Freshman WR Jordan Hillyer, a 6’4”, 205 lbs. receiver who holds his high school’s all-time records in receptions (180), yards (2,879) and touchdowns (27). Hillyer is now on the depth chart at WR, surpassing Don Shumpert and putting him in the 3rd – 4th receiver spot to start the season.
These big targets will provide enough of a mismatch for the accurate Vandenberg to take advantage of, and that doesn’t even factor in sophomore receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley.
Another thing to note: James Vandenberg leads all returning Big Ten quarterbacks in passing yards entering 2012.
No More Time for Running Back Woes
Since 2002, 14 Iowa running backs have left the program with eligibility left.
De’Andre Johnson was dismissed from the program a month ago and Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill both tore ACL’s in spring practice. It’s time to move on.
Despite the unsightly attrition of the 2012 RB depth chart, the position still has talented underclassmen ready for their chance to earn their share of carries this season.
While Damon Bullock will start the season at the top of the depth chart, the true surprises may come from the two true freshmen Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy.
While it’s true Bullock is the only back with any college experience, Garmon and Malloy have been impressive in their short time in Iowa City and figure to both get looks this season as true freshmen.
Garmon, a 6’2”, 200 lbs. 4 star recruit out of Erie, Pa., rushed for 1,050 yards and nine touchdowns his HS senior season.
Before Michael Malloy suffered a serious knee injury his senior season, he rushed for 1,668 yards and 29 touchdowns on his way to all-state honors as a junior at Heelan in Sioux City.
With FB Brad Rogers offering the only real depth at the RB position, the options are scarce, but the youth is talented and will have an opportunity to perform. Of the many things that drive Coach Ferentz crazy, fumbles by running backs are near the top of the list. Expect the back that performs well without becoming a fumble concern to secure this job.
New Faces in New Places
In addition to the changes at the RB position and coaching staff, the 2012 Hawkeyes have plenty of underclassmen in both starting and key backup positions who will have an impact on the 2012 season.
28 players on the depth chart are either sophomores or freshmen this season. Redshirt Freshmen Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh look to share time at OG, both looking like future stars on this line.
Sophomore Louis Trinca-Pasat impressed this spring and at camp and has vaulted himself to the starting DT spot and true Freshman Kevin Buford will be backing up Sr. Corner Back Micah Hyde. It will be critical for Buford to be ready to step in with Hyde also working as Iowa’s punt returner this season, a spot that could cause him to potentially miss some snaps on defense.
With Greg Davis entering his first season with Iowa after 13 years as offensive coordinator at Texas, this could be the wrinkle Iowa fans have been waiting for – no one knows how the previously predictable offense will change with the addition of Davis’s own play calling and philosophy.
It is easy to speculate the pass will be a bigger factor this season with the youth at RB, but the targets Vandenberg has at WR and TE made that assumption inevitable. With four of the first five games at home this season, it will be interesting to see if Davis feels any inclination to kick the tires on a few of his plays and players early in the season.
The Defensive Line Will be Tested
Only one starter returns to a unit that ranked seventh in the Big Ten in rushing defense last year. Dominic Alvis started eight of the first nine games of 2011 before tearing his ACL against Michigan, ending his season. He’s fully recovered and ready to lead this
inexperienced Iowa defensive front. In fact, Alvis and Steve Bigach are the only two linemen on the team who have earned a letter.
Expect to see time shared between Louis Trinca-Pasat and Darian Cooper at DT, as well as Senior Joe Gaglione fighting for back up time for Steve Bigach and Dominic Alvis at Defensive End with RS Freshman Melvin Spears out of Allen, Texas.
The experience in Iowa’s secondary will also provide an obstacle for this young D-Line by discouraging teams to throw the ball over the middle or challenge the Hawks veteran CB’s.
With veterans James Morris and Christian Kirksey anchoring the Line Backer position with Junior Anthony Hitchens, Iowa returns their top two tacklers from 2011, where they tied for the most tackles with 110 each.
CB Micah Hyde returns for his Senior season ranked as a Phil Steele Preseason B1G Conference 1st team CB, as well as his 5th overall Corner in the country.
B.J. Lowery will start at the other CB position, an experienced Junior who started 7 games in 2010 as a true freshman and 8 in a 2011 season delayed by a preseason injury that cost him the first five games of the season.
Not to put more pressure on the D-Line, but they will be facing the 13th, 17th and 22nd ranked offensive lines in the country, according to Phil Steele’s 2012 rankings. Also, don’t forget about the slew of QB’s in conference this season who love to run the ball as much as passing it.
Denard Robinson, Kain Colter, Taylor Martinez and MarQueis Gray will also be interesting challenges to handle for this line. It’s also going to be difficult for the youth to contain the quality of running back competition it will face in Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell and Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead.
This is an extremely difficult schedule to predict. It scares me to death saying “guaranteed 5-0” out loud, but I would be disappointed if the Hawks couldn’t clean up their non-conference schedule with the help of home field advantage to start this season off strong.
On the flipside, Iowa will face difficult conference away games against Michigan State, Northwestern and Michigan, as well as a rematch from last year’s inaugural matchup with Nebraska in Iowa City to close the season.
Realistically, based on the strength of schedule, this team is capable of winning 8 games this season, without a question. If Iowa finished the season with 8 wins and earn an Outback Bowl berth, I would be satisfied as a fan.
That said, there’s a fair chance Iowa could slip somewhere earlier in the schedule on top of the conference schedule. Even so, I don’t anticipate this team losing more than 5 games, giving them a 7 win floor.
If the Hawkeyes hope to have a say in representing the Legends Division this season, no games will be more crucial than both matchups in Michigan. While Iowa has taken 3 straight victories against Michigan and 3 of the last 5 against Michigan State, both games are away from Kinnick and both Michigan teams are fighting for a B1G Title this season.
7 wins – solid season. 8 wins – successful (and attainable) season. 9 wins – Don’t hold your breath, but I like to dream as much as the next guy.