Iowa CITY, Iowa - Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz has mentioned several times in the last few weeks that he was unsure of what he had at wide receiver before the season. He was confident senior Marvin McNutt would produce but uncertainty surrounded the rest of the corps.
The wide outs have emerged as a team strength through the first four game of the season. In addition to questions at that position being answered, the Hawkeyes have juggled players on an inexperienced defense to find what they hope is the right fit.
Iowa came into the season having to replace a lot of talent that used up its eligibility the last two seasons. Many of those players moved on to the NFL.
As a developmental program, it can take a month or so to assess what you have when you're given many unknowns. What might look right in practice, appears differently in games. And, guys rise up and get better.
That's why Ferentz likes where this year's bye week fell - at the end of the non-conference season, a third of the way though the campaign.
"We're a team that's clearly in a developmental mode right now," Ferentz said on Tuesday's Big Ten Coaches Teleconference. "It's probably a little bit like we were back in '08. That being said, this comes at a real good time for us.
"We know more about our team and our personnel now than we did a month ago. It gives us a little chance to maybe re-think what we're going to do and how we're going to move forward."
We've seen five defensive starters changed in Week 3, we've witnessed more shot gun and no-huddle on offense than we've seen cumulatively in 12 years under Ferentz and the Hawkeyes seemed comfortable against ULM in varying defensive formations and personnel.
It will be interesting to see the results of the evaluations and subsequent applications of what the coaches pull from the tape during the bye week. Until we do, let's look back at what we saw in the first third of the season. Perhaps that will give us some foreshadowing of what to expect over the last eight games.
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QUARTERBACK: James Vandenberg entered this season with some high expectations. From analysts like Matt Millen gushing over him to the fans looking back fondly at his 2009 start at Ohio State, failure didn't appear to be an option for the Keokuk Cannon.
Well, Vandenberg has lived up to the advanced billing, at least statistically. The redshirt junior has posted a 158.1 passer rating, completing 62.8 percent of his passes for 1,095 yards and 10 touchdowns against one interception.
Vandenberg has escaped some damage. An ill-advised pass against ULM fell harmlessly to the ground when the defensive back dropped what could have been a Pick-6.
Vandenberg isn't fleet of foot, but that's never been his game. He does possess a rare mix of arm strength and touch we've not seen before in the Ferentz Era.
GRADE: A- Still makes some rookie mistakes and needs to continue getting better feel for rush. Not much to pick on, though.
RUNNING BACK: Often the horse Iowa rides to success under Ferentz, the position has struggled with consistency through four games. The coaches also haven't identified a backup for Marcus Coker.
Coker started his season inauspiciously with three fumbles in his first five quarters of play. The opener against Tennessee Tech featured heavy rains, but the true sophomore didn't use that as an excuse. He also didn't dwell on injuries suffered during camp that have lingered into the season.
Ferentz felt comfortable with true freshman Mika'el McCall being Coker's caddy coming into the campaign. That setup quickly ended when the Chicago native suffered what could be a season ending leg injury. He was running well in place of Coker, who was pulled after fumbling twice in Game 1.
Coker ran cautiously after his giveaways. He looked less tentative the last two weeks. Against ULM, he broke free for 113 yards and two scores on 18 carries.
True freshmen Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri appear to be Coker's backups. Jason White gets listed as the No. 2 on the two-deep, but he only has two carries and often lines up in the slot when he's in the game.
Bullock started the season as a slot receiver, but returned to the backfield after the McCall injury. He did not carry against Iowa State, had one rush against Pitt and toted it seven times for 18 yards in Week 4.
Canzeri turned heads against ULM with five carries for 30 yards. With his redshirt being removed in the fourth game of the season, coaches have seen what they needed to see to make him a part of the offense going forward.
Coker is the power back, Bullock is somewhere in the middle and Canzeri is the stereotypical change-of-pace, quick back. Coaches now must figure out how to best utilize the trio.
Iowa has reduced the role of the fullback and gone to more three-receiver looks. That means these guys need to be able to block even more than past players at this position.
Iowa ranks 68th in the country in rushing yards. That number needs to come up with a defense still going through growing pains.
GRADE: C Coker and Bullock have four fumbles. Need more consistent production from this position.
WIDE RECEIVER: As mentioned above, the receiver unit has surprised and produced. McNutt, Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley have positioned themselves to be the most prolific passing trio in the Ferentz Era.
In 2004, Ed Hinkel (63), Clinton Solomon (58) and Warren Holloway (29) combined to catch 150 passes, the most during Ferentz's tenure as head coach. Kevin Kasper (82), Kahlil Hill (58) and Ryan Barton (18) were next with 148 in '00.
McNutt (25), Davis (19) and Martin-Manley (14) are on pace to finish with 174. McNutt would need to pick up his rate to reach Kasper's single-season record of 82.
The '11 trio has dropped very few passes. The only glaring drop came in triple overtime at Iowa State when Davis let one slip through his hands.
One thing about the previous trios in Hawkeye history mentioned above is that they all were pretty good blockers. While McNutt does well in that area and Davis is improving, Martin-Manley needs to step up that aspect of his game.
Iowa's receiving triumvirate this fall also has accounted for 10 of the team's 17 touchdowns. It has piled up 880 yards.
GRADE: A- Some pass plays have looked terribly out of sync early on. That can't all be on Vandenberg. Blocking also needs to improve to help running game. Would take what they've given through first four weeks for rest of season, though.
TIGHT END: The position has clicked along like a well-oiled machine for most of the Ferentz Era. The same production was expected coming into this season or at least few people gave much thought to it being an area of concern.
Derby has moved into the starting lineup after walking onto the team. He's played well and better than expected. He's easily been the most consistent blocker.
Herman started the season at No. 1 and most observers figured he'd slip into that spot seamlessly as others have at the position for Iowa. It just hasn't happened for the senior and that's disappointing.
Fiedorowicz came into the Iowa program with a high-recruiting ranking (Scout.com No. 2 TE nationally '10). He hasn't reached those expectations and won't until he blocks better and carries out a higher percentage of assignments.
True freshman Ray Hamilton has worked mostly on special teams. He has gone through training camp and four weeks of the season and maybe gets a longer look during the bye week.
GRADE: D Derby keeps this from being an F.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Expected to be the rock this season, the front has played pretty well. Has it lived up to the preseason billing of being among the best in the Big Ten and possibly the nation? I haven't gotten there yet.
Don't get me wrong, the Hawkeyes have scored 30 points in four consecutive games for the first time since 2002's undefeated conference run. The offensive line deserved a lot of credit for that.
Much like the rest of the team, the front started clicking in the second half of the Pitt game. It dominated last week against ULM. I was disappointed with the run blocking up until that point, though.
Iowa returned four starters on the unit. And while Matt Tobin struggled at times through the first four games, it wasn't like the Hawkeyes faced a who's who of nationally defensive powers.
Iowa also has been susceptible to the blitz with guys coming through untouched. I won't put that all on the front. The Hawkeyes have played a lot without a fullback and spread it out more. Some of the blown assignments clearly have been on the line, however.
I really like Adam Gettis. I think he's having a fine senior year.
GRADE: B Maybe I was expecting too much based on past performance and what was coming back.