We continue our series on position battles. Last week, we outlined the positions that seem to be locks, which is linked here, as well as the lukewarm battles, linked here. Today, we will focus on ‘RED HOT' battles; positions I believe to be wide open heading into spring practice, which begins Wednesday, March 25th.
The news regarding Adrian Clayborn's possible alleged assault last week was troubling, but we won't go down that road at this time with regards to whether or not that is a position to open up for debate. At least not until we hear Kirk Ferentz speak to this issue on Wednesday.
I believe just one defensive line spot is open for debate, and that is a defensive tackle. Karl Klug is going to have his nose right in the mix, as will Mike Daniels. Both of them, however, were hovering between 250 and 255 pounds this winter. There is still time for them to add more bulk before next year. That being said, Mitch King and Matt Kroul didn't always play around 270 pounds, and they only got to that point later in their careers. Chad Geary has been in the mix along the line, and has played mostly at defensive end. Riley Reiff is upwards of 270 at the moment, but there has been speculation of him moving to the offensive side of the ball. It will be interesting to learn if that bears out. Cody Hundertmark played as a true freshman, then redshirted last year. He is close to 280 pounds. Steve Bigach redshirted last season, and he is at 263 pounds this winter.
If that sounds like a lot of names for one position, it certainly is, and that will be one spot that Hawkeye fans will be keeping close tabs on. Obviously, it's a very pivotal position, and there are going to be a number of possibilities that go through the minds of the coaches this year. If they want to get their best four on the field, would that include a scenario where both Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn move inside, because a combination of Broderick Binns and a player to be named later, at defensive end, gives Iowa it's best four on the field?
Wade Leppert and Brett Morse handled the fullback duties last year, and you can certainly say they split time. I don't know if one of them is going to emerge as Iowa's primary fullback, but it seemed like the Hawks went to Leppert in short yardage situations last year. I don't know that you can say that was always effective; there was one instance in a key spot where it appeared Leppert went the wrong direction, and another instance where the defense simply had more bodies in the box than Iowa had blockers. At any rate, Coach Ferentz never acknowledged anything specific like that, so we are just left to our own minds on that front. But that was last year, and there should be a rather spirited battle for reps at this position between these two players.
Rob Bruggeman turned in a phenomenal season last year, and you could strongly argue that he was the second best center at Iowa in the Kirk Ferentz era. Bruce Nelson might be the player that everyone ranks at the top, but he played on a star studded offensive line. Last year's line was the second best in the Ferentz era, in my opinion, so we are not talking about Bruggeman doing things on his own. But Shonn Greene probably owes Bruggmen a portion of his eventual NFL signing bonus.
Rafael Eubanks was a two year starter at center for Iowa prior to Bruggeman pushing him out of that spot last year. Eubanks moved over to guard and was splitting time with Julian Vandervelde early on before Julian won that spot. Eubanks didn't see a whole lot of the field late in the season, but you have to figure he will at least be in consideration for this position this year. Junior to be Josh Koeppel was listed as the #2 center on the Outback Bowl two-deep roster, and I have heard more than a few times that if he had another 10 or 20 pounds to him, he might have the inside track to the starting position. He was just above 260 pounds this winter. James Ferentz will be a redshirt freshman this year, and he is already closer to 270 pounds. Those three names are the most likely to emerge at the center position.
The aforementioned Julian Vandervelde probably should have gone in the lukewarm story, as he played solidly down the stretch for Iowa and won out in the battle with Eubanks. So it may be safe to write his name down in pencil at one of the guard positions. Late in the year, Andy Kuempel was listed as the backup right guard behind Seth Olsen, and he made a start in Big Ten play when Olsen was injured. He is up to nearly 305 pounds. Kyle Haganman is closer to 280, and he was listed as the backup left tackle, with Dan Doering around 300 pounds as the backup right tackle as of the Outback Bowl two deep roster.
Ferentz has typically played his best five on the line, and that has involved some players moving around to different positions to find the best fit. The good Ferentz era teams have had a penchant for playing their best football in late October and in November, and that probably has something to do with the offensive line play really taking hold by that time in the season. This year's line will have two starting positions nailed down before spring ball starts, one in pencil, but really that means three positions are open for battle. I can't wait to see how this unfolds. The good news for Iowa is there are several players that will be battling, including two fifth-year seniors that came to Iowa with offers from some of the best programs in America. This is the time when most of the Ferentz-era success stories play their best football; let's hope that is the case for Doering and Kuempel.
I'll admit that I should have put Derrell Johnson-Koulianos in at least the lukewarm category, if not the lock category. He really came on in a big way last year, leading the team in receiving yards (639) and receptions (44). That gives him 1,121 yards for his career and 82 receptions. That puts him on a pace to break Kevin Kasper's Iowa mark for career receptions (157) and puts him on a pace to match the career yardage record of Tim Dwight (2,271). The great thing when talking about DJK, from my point of view, is that he can still get better. He should just be coming into his own this year as a receiver, just his fourth year of playing the position. So put him down as one of your starters.
Trey Stross should have a good shot to be the other starting receiver, if he can stay healthy. That has been a big problem during his Iowa career, and I hope that he can have an injury free spring, summer and fall. Colin Sandeman will have his nose in the mix, as will quarterback turned receiver Marvin McNutt. Incoming freshmen Keenan Davis and Jordan Cotton will also get a look at some playing time next year, but we'll talk more about that in a few months. Whomever stays healthy this spring and gets a lot of reps could make a big move up the ladder. Iowa also uses some three by one formations, putting a third receiver on the field, so there is more room to consider, too. I don't know what to think about Paul Chaney at this point in time, as he was seldom used last year.
Again, it's debatable whether or not Jordan Bernstine should have been put into the ‘lukewarm' category, as opposed to this ‘red hot' offering. That's primarily do to Shaun Prater's OWI arrest this offseason. That probably means that Bernstine will start the year opposite Amari Spievey. He might have done that anyway, but he was really going to have to work hard to keep Prater at bay. He will still have to do that, as Prater will be there this spring to push him.
Chances are that Jewel Hampton will be taken on the kickoff return team, and Andy Brodell has used his eligibility. So the return game is wide open. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos had nine returns last year, but he was moved in and out of that spot. Could Amari Spievey find himself on this team? Paki O'Meara? Incoming freshman Brandon Wegher will probably get a look. Sandeman was the only other player to field punts for Iowa last year, so he will get a look at this squad as well.
Iowa would really be aided if they could find the right players on the kickoff return team to turn that phase of the game back into a significant weapon; it seems like it's been an eternity since that was the case. On punt returns, the staff tends to favor sure handed return men that can make the first gunner miss and get 10 yards upfield, for a very respectable average.