Spring Preview: DB's & Special Teams

Iowa's pass defense was sixth in the Big Ten last year, and the Hawks did not distinguish themselves in some key special teams categories they once excelled in. All of these areas need improvement in 2008 if the Hawkeyes want to get back to their seventh bowl game in eight years. We take a look at these positions in our latest spring preview

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The Departed

The Hawkeyes will replace to starting cornerbacks, but have four players with starting experience returning in the defensive backfield. Gone are Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey, experienced corners with 48 combined starts between them. Godfrey started Iowa's last 26 games at corner and had 193 career tackles and seven interceptions. One could argue that he was the best cornerback of the Kirk Ferentz era. Shada was a two-time first team academic all-American and had 131 career tackles and six interceptions. Both players will be severely missed.

Who's On Campus

Senior Bradley Fletcher (6-2, 200) and sophomore Jordan Bernstine (5-11,200) are Iowa's top cornerbacks going into spring ball. Fletcher is a three year letterman and Bernstine played last year as a true freshman. Fletcher played in 11 games and had 53 tackles and two interceptions. Bernstine saw action in all 12 games and had nine tackles. He played in some nickel and dime situations last year. Both are considered excellent defenders with good speed.

Fletcher has eight career starts, including three last year. Senior Drew Gardner (5-10, 178) and junior Chris Rowell (6-1, 197) are the backups at cornerback. Gardner played in all 12 games and had six tackles. Bernstine had shoulder surgery in the off season and will miss the entire spring practice session. The Hawkeyes need to establish depth at cornerback. This could be a position where incoming freshmen have a good shot at playing time.

The safety positions are manned by sophomore Brett Greenwood (6-0, 200) and senior Harold Dalton (6-1, 201). Dalton started all 12 games at strong safety last year and totaled 49 tackles. Greenwood started seven games as a redshirt freshman at free safety. He had 45 tackles and two interceptions. Devan Moylan will not attempt to return for a sixth season.

At least four other players will battle Greenwood and Dalton for depth chart status this spring. Sophomore Lance Tillison (6-2, 205) and redshirt freshman Tyler Sash (6-1, 200) are listed behind Dalton. Tillison played primarily on special teams and had two tackles in 10 games. On the other side, sophomores Diauntae Morrow (6-0, 190) and Nick Kuchel (5-11, 195) are fighting Greenwood for a spot a free safety. There are a lot of unfamiliar faces here, but by the time September and October roll around, they could be household names.

Who's On the Way

Iowa really loaded up on the secondary in this year's recruiting class. Greg Castillo (5-11, 170), William Lowe (6-9, 165), Demarco Paine (5-10, 175) and Shaun Prater (5-11, 172) were signees at cornerback while Jack Swanson (5-11, 180) and David Cato (5-11, 190) were signees at safety.

The coaching staff has made more than a few mentions that the young players will get an opportunity to earn playing time this year. They showed they were not afraid to let youth on the field last year, after stating at the end of the 2006 season that they wish they had done more of that in that campaign. If Fletcher and Bernstine can play healthy this season, they are likely to get the majority of the snaps at cornerback. Greenwood will have every opportunity to seize the starting job at free safety, as will Dalton at strong safety. But there are going to be some very good battles come August. That's just what this team needs at every position.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Departed

Virtually every performer from last year's group of special teams performers returns for this year with the exception of veteran snapper Dan Olzsta. Don't underestimate the significance of the long snapper, however. There's a reason these guys can punch long term golden tickets in the NFL. Long snapping is something that you only notice when it goes wrong, and Olzsta was very solid for Iowa.

Who's On Campus

Sophomore punter Ryan Donahue (6-3, 175) was named to the 2007 honorable mention all-Big Ten team as a freshman. He's expected to be one of the league's premier punters over the next three years. Donahue averaged 41.1 yards per kick and Iowa's net punting average (39.4) ranked second in the Big Ten. Donahue seemed to get better, stronger and more consistent as the 2007 season progressed. Ferentz is expecting that progress to continue.

Junior Austin Signor (6-4, 230) and sophomore Daniel Murray (5-10, 175) handled all the place-kicking chores last year. Signor kicked off the majority of the time. He was 3-6 on field goals with a long of 41 yards. Signor hit 8 of 10 extra points. Murray hit 7 of 10 field goals with a long of 47 yards. He was good on 16 of 18 extra points. As the 2007 season wore on, Murray seemed to be the more accurate and consistent. But, Signor has a very strong leg and could see more action if he can improve his accuracy. Both have a good shot at seeing extensive playing time.

Who's On the Way

Trent Mossbrucker is a talented placekicker from Indiana that Iowa put on scholarship when he signed in February. When a kicker gets a scholarship, it's always important to take note. It's not the rarity that it once was, but nonetheless, scholarship kickers in the Big Ten conference usually come in with ‘can't miss' expectations. Mossbrucker is an all around athletes that has drawn some parallels to Nate Kaeding due to his versatility in multiple sports. He was the quarterback for his high school team, throwing for more than 4,200 career yards passing. He will get an opportunity to earn the job this fall.

The 2008 Outlook

The Hawkeyes are a team which has always valued the play of special team members. The best way for a young player to get noticed in the Ferentz system is thru exceptional hard work and effort on the special teams. It's no coincidence that good special teams play and good Iowa seasons go hand in hand.

The opposite is also true; when Iowa struggles on special teams, its record is no where near where the players, coaches and fans expect it to be.

If the Hawks are to make a return to the upper division of the Big Ten this year, special teams play will have to rise to the occasion.

Iowa's defensive backfield should get a boost from the defensive line this year, in that this year's group appears to have the ability to put more pressure on the quarterback. That is the secondary's best friend.

Kickoff coverage improved from eighth to fifth in the Big Ten rankings, and as mentioned, net punting was second in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes need to improve on their field goal percentage, which ranked near the bottom of the league statistics. Iowa showed marked improvement in getting to the kicker as five kicks were blocked last year. The Hawkeyes registered no blocked kicks in 2006.

On the flip side of that, Iowa has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since C.J. Jones began the 2003 Orange Bowl with a long return for six points. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Paul Chaney need to be weapons for points and field position, in addition to providing ball security.


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