Looking Ahead

Once again, the Hawkeyes will say good-bye to a talented group of seniors. That exit could create doubt in the minds of Iowa fans heading into 2012. HI Publisher Rob Howe shows that things might not be as bad as some folks believe.

A four-hour layover at O'Hare Airport gives a person time to think. It also confirms a hate for travel.

The Hawkeyes still weigh heavily on a lot of our minds. Fresh off of Friday night's 31-14 loss to Oklahoma, many of us are analyzing what might be in store for Iowa in 2012.

It seems that common views of next fall call for more of the same as what we've seen in the last two seasons - 8-5 and 7-6. That's understandable when you're still stinging after the Hawkeyes dropped three of their final four games.

The Insight exposed many of the same weaknesses we've seen in Iowa the last two years. It appears the Hawkeyes can't get out of their own way a lot of the time and breaks have gone the other way.

With that said, there's hope. It might not mean a return to a BCS bowl next year, but Iowa brings back some nice pieces.

Offseason talk likely will surround quarterback James Vandenberg. It's the most scrutinized athletic position in the state. His 1-5 road record this season already has some fans wondering if the position should be opened up for competition with highly-touted freshman Jake Rudock and JUCO transfer, Cody Sokol.

Rudock and Sokol will get a chance to show their stuff this offseason. They won't beat out Vandenberg.

Vandenberg struggled at times this season, no question. The redshirt junior also was excellent in stretches. That was par for the course as first-year starter.

Vandenberg is smart, a tireless worker and talented. He's more disappointed in his shortcomings than are any of the fans. He'll improve this offseason. Book it.

Another hot spot for analysis will be the defensive line. Graduation after the last two seasons leaves the unit with large unknowns across the board.

The key to this group taking a step forward will be the emergence of young players. Can guys like Carl Davis, Darian Cooper, Mike Hardy, Riley McMinn, Jaleel Johnson, etc. emerge to be more than role players? Perhaps, we see A.J. Derby pull an Aaron Kampman/Matt Roth and move from linebacker to pass rushing end.

There's also likely to be some discomfort at running back if Iowa loses one or both of the two suspended players at the position to transfer. For the record, I think leading rusher Marcus Coker returns, while Mika'il McCall will be toting the rock at another school next year.

Beyond that, I think the Hawkeyes sign at least one strong back in the '12 recruiting class, if not two. Jordan Canzeri is an all-around running back that can serve as a change of pace option and receiver out of the backfield. A healthy Brad Rogers at fullback also is worth it's weight in gold.

No one player will fill the shoes of Marvin McNutt, arguably the school's all-time beat receiver. But Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley will be a year better and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz just is starting to scratch the surface of his immense talent. Iowa will be furnished with plenty of options at both positions.

The offensive line likely will be replacing three starters if left tackle Riley Reiff foregoes his senior year for the NFL. Still, young guys like Brandon Scherff and Brett Van Sloten come in with a few years in the system and some on-field experience. Conor Boffeli can play guard or center. Austin Blythe is a phenom.

Iowa boasts a deeply talented, although largely  inexperienced, secondary behind returning starters Micah Hyde and Tanner Miller. Nickel Back B.J. Lowery probably will slide into a starting corner spot. Nico Law or Collin Sleeper should be in the mix for the No. 1 strong safety spot.

If healthy - a big if the last two seasons - the linebacker position could be deep and the most athletic it has been in what will be 14 seasons under head coach Kirk Ferentz. Christian Kirksey, James Morris, Anthony Hitches and Quinton Alston provide a strong Top Four along with veterans Shane Dibona and Dakota Getz returning from injury. Derby could be a factor at LEO if he sticks at backer.

The Hawkeyes will replace their starting punter for the second year in a row. Expect true freshman Connor Kornbrath to win the competition to take over for Eric Guthrie.

Mike Meyer comes back at place kicker after two solid seasons. If freshman Marshall Koehn can handle kick offs, Iowa likely will see a much-needed improvement in that area.

The Hawkeyes also would benefit from better special teams play. That step forward is conceivable with all of the young guys to see time on those units the last two years.

Iowa also doesn't face a murderous schedule next season. Road games at Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern likely will prove difficult, but the Hawkeyes play host to Iowa State, Penn State and Nebraska.

While a lot could change between now and September, eight or nine wins in '12 are a realistic goal for Iowa. If things break right, a double-figure victory total is not out of the question.

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