IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- The uncertainty that hung over Iowa heading into last year's fall camp has been replaced by stability and reasonably high expectations.
That doesn't mean the Hawkeyes can afford to cruise through August.
Iowa has five starters to replace on the back end of its defense, including three linebackers that reached the NFL. The Hawkeyes also need to sort out playing time at running back, wide receiver and tight end, and the new starters on the offensive line need to be ready by the end of the month because the program's depth isn't what it used to be.
But the good news for the Hawkeyes is that they appear to have solid options at every position. The task for the next three weeks will be to settle on starters for the opener on Aug. 30 against Northern Iowa and beyond.
''This is a very, very pivotal three weeks for our football team,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Monday. ''It's a great time for development. And we've got a lot of things that we're curious to learn and curious to see.''
Here are five things to watch as Iowa opened fall practice on Monday.
NEW LINEBACKERS: The Iowa coaching staff has long been high on senior Quinton Alston whose playing time had previously been limited because of the presence of standouts Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris. Alston is expected to lead a unit featuring sophomore Reggie Spearman, junior Travis Perry and as many as four redshirt freshmen in the rotation. ''Some guys just make you feel good,'' Ferentz said of Alston, who struggled earlier in his career. ''When you see that light come on or the switch flip a little bit, it's fun.''
FREE LOMAX: Junior defensive back Jordan Lomax was expected to start at cornerback for Iowa a year ago, but injuries and the emergence of freshman Desmond King scuttled those plans. The Hawkeyes felt strongly enough about finding a spot for Lomax that they moved him to free safety though, and he's expected to start there this season. Lomax, a 5-foot-10 junior, should be able to lean on senior strong safety John Lowdermilk as he navigates his first fall camp in a new position.
SKILL QUESTIONS: The Hawkeyes will likely split most of their carries between senior Mark Weisman and junior Jordan Canzeri this season. Iowa is deep and experienced at wide receiver as well, though rising redshirt freshman Derrick Willies could earn a starting spot over the next three weeks after an electrifying spring camp. Senior Ray Hamilton will finally get his chance as Iowa's top tight end following C.J. Fiedorowicz's graduation, but Jake Duzey will also get a chance to be a major factor for the Hawkeyes. ''Ray Hamilton is a guy, in my opinion, that is probably better than we think maybe he is,'' Ferentz said.
LINED UP: Iowa returns three starting offensive linemen, including All-America candidate Brandon Scherff at left tackle, and senior Andrew Donnal has been installed at right tackle after playing both guard and tackle a year ago. Redshirt freshman Sean Walsh will open camp as the starting left guard, and the Hawkeyes will be counting on Walsh to prove he belongs there because their rotation behind him is filled with untested underclassmen. ''We've got to focus on the smaller details, because that's what got us in trouble last year, with false starts. We've all got to be on the same page,'' Scherff said.
EXTRA POINTS: Wide receiver Damond Powell suffered a sports hernia injury this summer, but he said Monday that he should be ready for the opener...The competition between Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper for the left cornerback spot might be the closest of any starting job in the program...True freshman Tyler Wiegers will likely start the season as Iowa's third quarterback after Nic Shimonek left the program to walk on at Texas Tech.
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