This is a question that gets bandied about from time to time on sports talk radio shows or message boards, but until this past football season, it's one that I never really pondered too seriously.
Who are the players that Iowa's football team can least afford to lose to injury?
In thinking back to last year's team, and trying not to let hindsight enter into my thought process, #1 on my list, circa August of 2003, would have been Fred Russell. He would NOT have been #1 had Jermelle Lewis been healthy, but that was not the case. So in my mind, Russell should have been wearing a red jersey during practices, along with the quarterbacks.
Now, looking at things with hindsight in perspective, I still believe Russell would have been number one. Gallery would have been a close #2, and when you talk about the two of them, its sort of a ‘chicken or the egg' debate. However, teams still lined up eight men in the box to stop Russell, even with Gallery in the mix, and for the most part, he got over.
Chris Smith filled in admirably for Bob Sanders when Bob missed some early season games, but if Sanders would not have been in the lineup for nine of Iowa's 12 games, I think you could have penciled in at least one more loss (Minnesota). Mo Brown DID go down for a long period of time. Were he healthy, I think Iowa could have won at least one more football game. It's hard to pick which one, because turnovers killed the Hawkeyes against Michigan State, and special teams blunders killed them against Ohio State, and Purdue flat out ran over Iowa.
But with Brown in the game, with all of his talents, that would have opened things up more for Iowa's rushing attack, and who knows what could have happened.
As for Roth, I still may have been in the ball part with selecting him, but the play of Tyler Luebke, Matt Neubauer and Derreck Robinson makes that selection look less accurate.
So here were are, a few months prior to the start of the 2004 football season. I ask myself this question, and pose it to you to debate on the HawkeyeNation.com message boards: Who are the five players Iowa can least afford to lose to injury in 2004?
NUMBER ONE: Mike Elgin. I know this one might raise some eyebrows and be the cause of instant debate, but I think this is pretty clear cut. Sure, there are some young pups behind each of Iowa's four projected starting defensive linemen, and to date, there is no proven player behind Kyle Schlicher at place kicker. Heck, Schlicher is unproven at this point. But if Mike Elgin were to go down at center for Iowa, you are talking about walk on Todd Plagman or someone else taking over one of the most important positions on the football team.
I have followed the comments of Kirk Ferentz long enough to know how to read between the lines in what he says. And my tealeaves tell me that he has a lot of confidence in Elgin. Mike is a cerebral football player and has picked up the ability to call the line audibles very early in his career after making the move to the offensive line. He should start the 2004 season around 280-pounds, a weight that Ferentz feels is fine.
But lose Elgin on top of Brian Ferentz being out for the 2004 season, and Iowa's offense would be in some very dire straights.
NUMBER TWO: Kyle Schlicher. Sure, Iowa just landed a nice walk on in Griffin Karr to the program, but Schlicher has studied under Nate Kaeding for two years and Iowa thought enough of him to offer him a scholarship when Kaeding was just a sophomore. That right there says a lot about Kyle.
If he goes down, the Hawkeyes are in trouble. It's likely that Schlicher will struggle at some point in time next year even if he remains healthy. But at some point next year, Iowa is going to rely on the leg of its place kicker to win them at least one game. Without Schlicher, the Hawkeyes are in serious trouble.
NUMBER THREE: Pete McMahon. OK, I am starting a run on offensive linemen here. I could probably list off all of the projected OL starters and fill out my top five and not get much argument.
McMahon is a likely pro prospect, and he is a versatile player, able to play both tackle and guard positions. He was a rock for the Hawkeyes last year, a season where several offensive linemen missed games due to injury. Though not in the same class as Robert Gallery, when the Hawkeyes need a first down on short yardage in 2004, they will probably choose to run behind the man known as ‘Silent Rage'.
NUMBER FOUR: Matt Roth. Given that Iowa will probably start four senior defensive linemen next year and have four redshirt freshmen backing them up, you could pick several of the defensive trench men in this list. But Roth is a star, a pre-season all American, and I just happen to like Iowa's depth more at defensive tackle than I do at defensive end.
No player in the Big Ten had more sacks than Roth over the past two years, and Matt has a chance to be the heart and soul of this year's Iowa defense. I have rarely seen a player deliver so much force on the line of scrimmage with just a half yard of turf between he and his foe, but Roth brings a major collision on each and every play. If you don't double team him, you are asking for trouble, as he is much quicker than the offensive tackles that are charged to keep him out of the backfield.
NUMBER FIVE: Sean Considine. I could have thrown several players into this spot, such as Abdul Hodge, Mike Jones, Lee Gray or Jonathon Babineaux, but make no mistake about it; Considine is an NFL prospect and is the best free safety Iowa has had under Kirk Ferentz.
I say that with all due respect to Derek Pagel, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2003 NFL draft by the New York Jets. But Considine is a better free safety, and he is the leader of Iowa's secondary for next year.
A cerebral football player, he is also unafraid to bring the wood and has a knack for getting to the ball as it reaches the receiver. You don't see too many mistakes out of Considine, and he might be Iowa's most valuable asset on its punt return team. He just gets skinny at the LOS and finds a way to wriggle into the backfield on punt returns and is good four a couple of punt blocks per year.