IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kirk Ferentz did it again. The Iowa coach took a team most everyone outside the program had left for dead and led it to a New Year's Day Bowl.
The Hawkeyes return to the field Wednesday to kick off spring ball. Unlike last year at this time, Iowa will deal with expectations with a lot of talent returning from a 2013 squad that won eight games, double its total from the previous season.
With a major stage in the team's development about to commence, it seems like a good time to broach some topics of interest with the newest edition of Iowa football. Let's take a look at the '14 Hawkeyes in our high-five feature:
1. Quarterback Competition - It was the talk of the town at this time last year and continued to be all the way up to Jake Rudock being named the starter midway through August camp. The Florida native opened all 13 games in '13.
Rudock started the season off strong with five touchdowns passing, four rushing scores and just three interceptions through the four non-conference games. While he still played well, at times, in the Big Ten, the redshirt sophomore threw for 13 touchdowns but saw 10 of his passes picked off. He also rushed into the end zone just once in conference play.
C.J. Beathard, who finished second in last year's quarterback competition, saw valuable time when Rudock went down. Results were mixed.
Beathard relieved Rudock in the Wisconsin loss and looked overwhelmed. The redshirt freshman completed just 4 of 15 passes and threw an interception without a touchdown. Against Nebraska, he was 0 for 2 but rushed for a score and he completed 4 of 7 passes against LSU in the Outback Bowl including a touchdown.
Rudock appeared much more comfortable in the offense than did Beathard, particularly against at Ohio State, where he tossed a career-best three touchdowns in a tough loss. His checks and engineering of the game plan put the Buckeyes on their heels for much of the afternoon.
That said, players improve at different rates. Perhaps Beathard makes up ground on Rudock in terms of playbook understanding. He looked much more comfortable against LSU than he did against Wisconsin, which showed his progress.
We don't know how the coaches will judge these guys or what, exactly, Beathard must do to wrestle the reigns away from Rudock. History doesn't help because we saw James Vandenberg hold onto his job when nothing much else could go wrong in '12 but Ricky Stanzi passed Jake Christiansen in '08.
The best guess is that Beathard would have to significantly outperform Rudock to overtake him. That's unlikely to happen in spring ball unless the incumbent is injured.
2. Linebacker Losses - Starters Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens played their final game at Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Their exit created the biggest question mark for the Hawkeyes heading into '14.
While there are upperclassmen vying to fill the void, very little game experience exists on the roster. That's a little scary. It also adds importance to this spring for players vying for starting spots at the position.
Quinton Alston, a fourth-year senior, enters April with an excellent chance to replace Morris in the middle. Former walk-on Travis Perry, a redshirt junior, has the inside track at the LEO as does true sophomore Reggie Spearman for the weak side.
The next month or so could play a significant role in determining who will push that trio. True senior Nico Law, a safety by trade, indicated on social media that he'll give linebacker a try. He can hit, cover and adds speed to the position.
Cole Fisher enters his redshirt junior year with special teams experience and offers versatility. Redshirt sophomore Laron Taylor comes into the spring having not seen the field for his first two years on campus.
Competition at this position could very well come from the redshirt freshmen class. John Kenny embarks on his second spring ball session after enrolling last January. Josey Jewell, who is on scholarship, along with walk-ons Steve Manders, Bo Bower and Drake Kullick look to break onto the depth chart. Four true freshmen will join the fray this summer.
The coach said on signing day in February that he wanted to create competition at the position. Kidd enrolled in January so it will get underway this week.
At kicker, the Hawkeyes look to replace Mike Meyer, who left the school as its second leading scorer. Marshall Koehn is Meyer's understudy. He will be challenged by JUCO transfer Alden Haffar this spring before true freshman Mick Ellis, who will be on scholarship, joins the mix in the summer.
Chris White revived Iowa special teams, to a degree, in '13. He and Ferentz clearly entered the off-season wanting more out of this phase.
4. Safety Dance - Three-year starter Tanner Miller finished up his Iowa career in the Outback. It opened up a spot in the back-end that will receive a lot of attention this spring.
Redshirt sophomore Anthony Gair, who has battled injury, could end up at Miller's free safety spot. A possibility also exists that classmate Jordan Lomax might slide into the strong slot with incumbent Johnny Lowdermilk switching to free, where he backed up Miller earlier in his career.
Lomax opened last season as a starting corner before injuring his hamstring in the season opener. True freshman Desmond King filled in there and captured the spot for good. Coordinator Phil Parker tried Lomax at safety during bowl prep and liked what he saw.
Parker likely will experiment with a number of combinations this spring in hopes of condensing the competition for August camp. The safety position also could be tied to the open corner position vacated by B.J. Lowery.
While Law tries out linebacker, he also could be in the mix at safety. He could end up being a hybrid.
A couple of redshirt freshmen, Malik Rucker and Solomon Warfield, hope to advance this spring. Walk-ons Kevin Ward, Paul Brown and David Tann will try to break through as will Greg Mabin, a converted receiver.
5. Catching On - The receiver position continues to undergo a transformation under coordinator Greg Davis and position coach, Bobby Kennedy. They're looking for guys to stretch the field and gain yards after the catch.
The Hawkeyes loaded up at the position in the '13 recruiting class in hopes of addressing the need. All but Matt Vandeberg red shirted.
The coaches raved about the progress made by that group. They were tempted to play some of them during the second half of last year but held out for what they anticipated would be four seasons of success.
Derrick Willies, Andre Harris, Derrick Mitchell Jr. and A.J. Jones take the battle to the next level this spring with only so many reps available. In addition to competing with each other, they must contend with veterans Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith, Jacob Hillyer, Damond Powell and Riley McCarron along with Vandeberg.
If Davis' offense is going to work consistently at Iowa, receivers need to make more plays. These are his guys. He and Kennedy have a lot of work to do this spring.