Miller: 2004 Fan Expectations Too Great?

<I>Expectation: The prospect of the future; grounds upon which something excellent is expected to happen; prospect of anything good to come.</I> Fans of the Iowa football team have great expectations for the 2004 football season. It's hard to say that they should not, as Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes have posted 21 wins over the past two seasons, the most in school history. But the road to success in 2004 has a few potholes, and's Jon Miller examines some of those...(MORE)

Expectation: The prospect of the future; grounds upon which something excellent is expected to happen; prospect of anything good to come.

Fans of the Iowa football team have great expectations for the 2004 football season.

It's hard to say that they should not, as Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes have posted 21 wins over the past two seasons, the most in school history. That includes 11 wins in 2002, the most in one season in school history. The 10 win 2003 season is the first time in school history that Iowa has posted back to back 10 or more win seasons. Iowa finished each of the last two seasons ranked in the Top 10, something that has not happened since the 1950's.

It would appear that a ‘bar' has been set, and that bar has seldom been reached in Hawkeye history.

With success comes the expectations that such success is now the norm, and not the exception.

Before continuing, I need to say that I am always hopeful that the Iowa Hawkeyes will win each and every game they play in, period. I am not one of those writers who feels you have to remain ‘objective' with regards to not having a rooting interest. I will report hard news objectively, but when it comes to the Hawkeyes, as I have said before, I will error on Iowa's side more often than not. In the end, I am still a fan at heart.

So when some of you become angry with me over the next few minutes, you know that I have nothing against the 2004 Hawkeyes, nor do I wish them anything but success.

But from where I sit on this day in April, the Hawkeyes have a lot of work to do if they want to challenge for the Big Ten championship, as many of their fans expect them to do on an annual basis right about now.

Here is what Kirk Ferentz had to say yesterday regarding fan expectations: "I'm glad that they're optimistic right now. They're enthused. We are too. But I'm not as optimistic right now because I'm looking at our football team. It's spring. That's the way that it should be in the spring. That's probably the way that it's always going to be. We have a lot of work to do right now. We'll see what happens."

That could be spring coach speak, but Kirk is not one for that. If he feels good about his chances, he will tell you. But I don't ever expect him to speak too strongly one way or another in the spring, as a lot will take place between now and the fall.

But there are some chinks in Iowa's armor right now, and far too many ‘great case scenarios' have to take place for the Hawkeyes to round into championship form.

Here are a few of them:

The Offensive Line

Let's lead off with what Kirk said about them yesterday:

"The first year, the first two years, we had to do what we could do, which was to throw a lot of short passes before the quarterback got killed. We're beyond that. We can at least slow people down up front. We're confident when it's all said and done we'll have a pretty decent line. It might take a little time. Last year, it didn't happen overnight. We really had to progress as the season went on. We're looking at something similar to that. Although, if Dave Walker comes back that gives us another guy that has had some experience. Collectively, we're maybe a little stronger than we were last year at this time. But we don't have a Gallery either. You've got to factor that into the equation."

Here is what we know right now: Brian Ferentz is out for the season, David Walker might be ready for the fall as he recovers from his Achilles injury, Chris Felder is still dealing with the nagging neck stinger issues he faced last fall and if Iowa had to play a game on Saturday, Lee Gray, Mike Elgin and Ben Cronin or Ben Gates would be making their first career starts on the line. Gates made the move to guard, and he is 6-6, 261-pounds. Elgin is 6-3, 267 at center.

Behind Elgin, a totally unproven center but someone that Iowa has confidence in, you now see a player listed by the name of Todd Plagman, a RS frosh walk on from Riverside High School in Iowa. He is your #2 center.

The fact of the matter is this: every backup lineman on the current two deep has never started a game for Iowa, and most of them have only played in mop up situations. None of them has had to take any meaningful snaps when the game is on the line.

Hey, I am just trying to be a realist here. I know that Kirk Ferentz and his coaching staff have done great work with developing Iowa's OL fortunes in recent years, and if Iowa's offense puts up numbers similar to what it did last year, I will tip my cap. Those numbers were not all that great, in aggregate, but Iowa was among the best teams in the Big Ten in the redzone, if not the best. They were able to run the football and the passing game was below average, but it was effective due to play action and the waggle game, which starts with the ability to run the ball. Also, Iowa's receiving corps were not amply stocked.

Wide Receivers

Speaking of receivers, this is an area that seemed of concern to Ferentz at yesterday's press conference. I have read nearly every word that Kirk Ferentz has spoken publicly over the past five years, so you get a feel for what to pick up on.

And what I gathered from yesterday's tea leaves is that there are a bunch of middle of the pack wide receivers right now at Iowa, and they are looking for a few of them to step up and emerge.

To date, that has not happened. James Townsend's name was not mentioned yesterday and he is not on the latest two deep. Townsend's name is not one that comes up in conversations that I have with people in Iowa City.

In fairness, this is his first spring at Iowa and he has not even been on campus for a year. But Iowa has put themselves in a position where they are depending on him, or someone, to really step it up.

Receiver has been a position that Iowa has seen a lot of defections over the past three or so years: Darius Butler, Jhante Jones, Aramis Haralson and David Vickers all left the program. De'Von Clark signed a letter of intent with Iowa, but he never made it to campus due to grades. Clinton Solomon showed promise as a true freshman in 2002, but he did not take care of his class work and played at Iowa Central Community College last year.

Speaking of Solomon, every indication that I have received is that he is expected to be with the team this summer and fall.

But right there, you are talking about six receivers that should be in the program this year, but at least five of them will not be. Then you factor in the recruiting near misses, and they hurt a lot at this position.

Warren Holloway, Matt Melloy, Ed Hinkel and Calvin Davis are on the latest two deep. Townsend, Scott Chandler, Tyler Fanucchi and Herb Grigsby are in the mix behind them. Oelwein walk on Chris Aldrich is also a name to remember. Incoming freshman Andy Brodell might get a look next fall, and don't count out Bradley Fletcher getting a look at WR, either.

If you think of that group in baseball terms, where Kerry Wood and Mark Prior of the Cubs would be considered #1 starters on every staff, and Matt Clement is probably a three or four on many staffs, Calvin Davis & James Townsend have the potential to be #1's. There appears to be several #2 & #3's in the mix. That is not a bad thing, because Ramon Ochoa probably was a #3 before last season, at best. He might never have climbed to ‘#1' status as far as playmaking ability, but he was so very reliable and had the heart of a #1.

Here is what Kirk said about the receivers yesterday:

"They're improving. They're progressing. But we're not ready to play. We'd have a hard time lining up right now and playing the way we want to play. That's an area that we've got to move forward with."

Defensive Line

This area might show you in the most profound way that Iowa is not yet on par with the Michigan's and Ohio State's of the world.

You have four senior starters in Matt Roth, Jonathon Babineaux, Derreck Robinson and Tyler Luebke. You know what you are going to get with the first two, as they are among the Big Ten's best. Robinson has always had immense physical gifts, and now is the time where he has to put it all together. Luebke flashed in a big way last year during the last three games of the season. Can he do that for a 11 game regular season?

Now, here is the chasm: the backups are ALL redshirt freshmen. Ken Iwebema, Bryan Mattinson, George Eshareturi and Alex Willcox. Four seniors and four freshmen. You will not find that at Michigan or Ohio State.

Iowa likes to use at least six players in their DL rotation during the game. At least, especially at the tackle position. The loss of Matt Neubauer really hits hard here, as he showed signs of great play last year and he could play both inside and outside.

Here is what Kirk had to say about the young DL's yesterday:

"They're going to have to play. We like to play more than four guys up front during a course of a game. Those guys have to be ready to accept that role. If you have an injury or something like that, they have to be ready to step in there and get the job done. Those guys don't have any choice. They have to grow up. They have to be ready. That's just going to be critical for us. That's true of a lot of the guys that were true freshmen last year."

Can we expect that these younger kids, who certainly have talent, don't get me wrong, to step up and play championship level football from the get go in the Big Ten? They may not have to, as Iowa's LB corps is solid and the secondary might be as good as Iowa has had in the Ferentz era. But again, you are hoping for a great case scenario to come through in another key area.

Neither the offensive line or the defensive line appears to be able to support any injuries at this point, or you will have an untested starter in the mix.

Yes, we can point to the likes of Luebke, Neubauer, Ochoa and others as players who came in and did a great job. But Iowa has pretty much batted 1.000 to date with such instances. At some point, there is going to be a swing and a miss.

The strength of Iowa's defense depends on its ability to stop the run, period. When you are one play away from having a starter at every slot on the DL that has yet to take a college snap, you are a bit fragile.

The Place Kicker

Kyle Schlicher will not be as good as Nate Kaeding. We may never see the likes of Kaeding again at Iowa, though all future kickers will be measured against his greatness, fair or not.

And even Nate the Great struggled in his first year at Iowa, making less than 65-percent of his field goal tries.

Nate didn't get to study under a kicker of his ilk for two years the way that Schlicher has, and Nate was thrown in the mix as a true freshman, something Schlicher will not face.

But Kyle is going to have his ups and downs. How will he respond? Will the misses come in critical situations? Will the offense be good enough to not have to rely on his leg to win them games the way they did last year? What if Kyle Schlicher were kicking for Iowa last year against Michigan and Wisconsin? Would the Hawks have won those games?

None of these comments is meant as a slight to Kyle. He has talent, and the Iowa staff is pleased to have him, no question about it. Iowa's defense should be very good if they stay healthy, and that gives the offense and special teams a margin for error. But Iowa's offense may have to take drives further into enemy territory next year than they did when they had Kaeding, and even with Nate, Iowa chose to punt the ball in some instances when they were in Kaeding's 55-yard range.

Can you realistically expect an unproven kicker to make 75-percent of his field goal tries? Remember, Kaeding is the best kicker in college football history from 40-yards or more.

Here is some of Kirk on Kyle:

"Kyle's a very capable kicker. We've felt that for quite some time. He had a little bit of an adjustment his first year here. But last year, he did a lot of good things in practice. He's been pretty consistent this spring. But as you know, it's a little different out there on the practice field than when you have 70,000 or 100,000 people watching you. But I like the way that he's working. His attitude has been good. We're real confident that he's going to be a good player. That said, we'll probably go through some growing pains. That's par for the course. Nate went through them. Jason Baker went through them. Dave Bradley has gone through them."

The Quarterback

I should have spoken about this position earlier in the story, right after the offensive line ditty. Because the questions on the line will directly impact Drew Tate and or Jason Manson. No matter who starts between the two, each will be making his first start in September. Ferentz has admitted that Tate might have a bit of Riverboat Gambler in him, an that can be good and bad.

Neither player is necessarily considered ‘big', either. If the line struggles early, someone could get hurt, or there could be more turnovers than what Iowa's coaching staff wants to see.

So many question marks.

The Big Ten

All the while, there are other programs in the league that are either reloading or going through similar changes.

Purdue and Ohio State are overhauling their great defenses. Will they have a drop off in experience like Iowa has on the DL?

Minnesota and Wisconsin return a lot, as does Penn State. Iowa has beaten the Nittany Lions for four straight years and they have to travel to Happy Valley this year. That will be a tough contest.

Michigan appears to be the cream of the league next year, and Iowa has to travel to the Big House.

Michigan State returns a lot of players. Illinois will probably still stink. Arizona State returns 16 starters and Iowa has to travel to Tempe to play them in what will be the first road test for a lot of new Hawkeye starters.

Another thing to keep in mind is what we have seen at Iowa over the last few years. We have seen several players don the black and gold who are among the best to ever play their position at Iowa.

Robert Gallery and Nate Kaeding are the best, and it's hard to argue otherwise. You could include Dallas Clark into that mix. Bruce Nelson and Eric Steinbach are arguable. Bob Sanders is probably the best strong safety in Iowa history and among the most fierce competitors ever to lace them up in Kinnick Stadium. Fred Russell makes the short list of the best running backs in Iowa history, and Mo Brown was one of the most gifted receivers Iowa has ever had.

They are all gone now, some in the NFL and some of them about to be in the NFL. You just don't replace players like that overnight, if you ever do.

As I said before, Iowa has a lot of areas where they are depending on several players to make championship level strides if they are to compete for the Big Ten crown. Is that doable? Yes, it is. Should you expect that? I can't answer that for you.

Kirk and his coaching staff have shown an amazing ability to develop and coach players to a point where they are playing over and above their pedigree. That has been perhaps the most exciting thing about the recent success enjoyed by the football program.

And 2005 looks to be a very promising season.

2004 is a bridge year, in my opinion.

Will that bridge lead to a hunt for a Big Ten title or a struggle for an upper-division finish?

It's still too early to tell, and there is plenty of time for players to improve and make the strides that the coaches want to see.

If Iowa wins eight, nine or ten games next year, that would be great. But if they win six or seven, I for one don't feel like it would be that big of a shock, because there are some pretty big question marks.

From where I sit, there is certainly as much reason for concern as there is for expectations on this day in April.

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