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.
Click here to see our offensive report card.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Anybody who felt this group would not endure growing pains didn't watch the first 12 seasons under Ferentz. Three Hawkeye defensive linemen - Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug - were drafted by the NFL in April. They all have played quite a bit for their respective teams.
Not many schools, if any, could proceed without at least a hiccup with that type of attrition. A developmental program like Iowa often takes a big hit when it happens.
Iowa came into the season with few meaningful reps under the belts of anyone outside if seniors Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns. It has shown, especially against Iowa State and for the first half of the Pitt game.
And while the unit has improved with the rest of the team during the last six quarters, it's hardly out of the woods. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Tom Nardo still needs to show he can post gaudy numbers in the conference, not just against ULM.
The coaches definitely pushed the right button by moving Nardo into the starting lineup at tackle and swinging Dominic Alvis out to end. Lebron Daniel excelled coming off the bench the last two weeks.
It could be fun to see how the defensive coaching staff helps out this unit. I'm just not seeing this group consistently getting a pass rush or chasing down mobile quarterbacks.
I like the 3-4 look they showed quite a bit against ULM. It helped containment and in pass coverage.
It also would be nice to see Carl Davis improve as the season goes along. He could help in stopping the run and spelling Daniels and Nardo.
Iowa ranks 55th nationally against the rush at 132.50 yards given up per game with two of them coming against Non-BCS opponents. You'd like to see that number drop.
C- It's a concern. The overall performance against the two BCS-Level opponents left a lot to be desired.
LINEBACKERS: This group has been compromised by lingering injuries to its best player - LEO Tyler Nielsen. After dealing with a vertebrae injury last season, the fifth-year senior hasn't been able to shake off an ankle sprain suffered at Iowa State in Week 2.
I'm not knocking on his replacement, Anthony Hitchens. I think the true sophomore has a fine future. He's just not yet in Nielsen's league.
What I'm hoping is that Nielsen gets healthy during the two off weeks that the coaches will use more 3-4 with Hitchens as the extra backer. As I said above, I like that alignment from what I've seen of it so far.
Middle man James Morris has been solid with a lot more being asked of him in Nielsen's absence. He has shown a tendency to overrun plays and miss tackles, which he has to clean up.
WILL Christian Kirkey, like Morris and Hitchens, a true sophomore, has been a pleasant surprise. Few people knew what to expect from him coming into the season as he battled Hitchens for the spot.
Kirksey has gotten caught up in pass coverage as has Morris. But they're built better to stop the spreads than most of the previous players at those positions in the Ferentz Era and have performed well doing it, overall.
The linebackers have to be better in run support. They're a bit lighter than past Hawkeyes and will be tested against Penn State. It's more about missed tackles than poor positioning, though, so there's hope.
GRADE: C A unit on the rise, growing pains likely ahead in the league. Need to be better in breaking down opponents and wrapping up.
While things looked much better the last six quarters (yes, most things looked better over that time), the first two periods against Pittsburgh were atrocious. Yes, the Panthers schemed well for Iowa, but there were blown assignments we hadn't witnessed since the early Ferentz years.
Switching Micah Hyde back to corner has been very positive. Castillo just looked overmatched and was picked on by the opposition.
Bernstine has played as well, or better, than anybody on the entire defense. His tempo has been contagious. Iowa's defense had its edge back physically against ULM and I think the Des Moines native played a big role on it returning.
Miller suffered through a tough first half against Pittsburgh. He bounced back versus ULM and enjoyed a strong game.
Shaun Prater has put forth a good senior season to this point. It could have been real interesting back there had he chosen to leave for the NFL after last season.
GRADE: C Can't dismiss the first two and half games but the future is looking brighter.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kick coverage has again been an issue despite success against ULM. Iowa went into the bye week ranked 94th nationally in kick coverage defense at 24.04 yards per return.
Conversely, the Hawkeyes sit at 38th in the country at punt coverage defense. The Hawkeyes are allowing 5.2 yards per return.
Kicker Mike Meyer ranks in a tie for 6th nationally among place kickers having made 80 percent of his attempts. The true junior is 8 of 10.
Overall, Iowa's special teams have been improved over the first four games of last season. And they've shown potential to be even better.
Hyde, Bernstine and Keenan Davis have been steady on returns.
GRADE: B If the kick coverage continues to improve, this could be the best Iowa's been at this phase in some time.