The big story surrounding Iowa this season is who is not on the sideline.
For the first time since he was hired as Iowa's coach before the 1999 season, Kirk Ferentz won't have Ken O'Keefe and Norm Parker by his side. O'Keefe had overseen the offense and Parker the defense from Day 1 of the Ferentz regime. But Parker retired and O'Keefe left to become wide receivers coach for the Miami Dolphins. The Ferentz-O'Keefe-Parker trio had been the longest-serving coach/coordinator grouping in college football.
The new coordinators are Greg Davis on offense and Phil Parker on defense. Davis, who was Texas' OC when the Longhorns won the national title in the 2005 season, was out of football last year. Parker has been at Iowa since Ferentz was hired and was promoted from secondary coach.
The revamped staff has some worries. The biggest on offense will be breaking in a new tailback. Defensively, finding some linemen is at the top of the list.
Last season: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in Big Ten (4th in Big Ten Legends)
Coach: Kirk Ferentz (96-66, 14th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (5)– WR Keenan Davis, C James Ferentz, FB Brad Rogers, G Matt Tobin, QB James Vandenberg. Defense (5) – E/T Dominic Alvis, CB Micah Hyde, LB Christian Kirksey, FS Tanner Miller, LB James Morris. Special teams (1) – K Mike Meyer.
Fast fact: Ferentz is the longest-tenured coach in the Big Ten by a 2-to-1 margin. He is entering his 14th season; Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald are going into their seventh seasons.
Davis takes over an offense with a good quarterback. James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, his first as the starter. He played consistent, mistake-free football (just seveninterceptions) for most of the season. He is a nice building block for Davis.
The offense has issues elsewhere, however. Marcus Coker, who ran for 1,384 yards last season, transferred after running into off-field problems. His projected replacement, Jordan Canzeri, suffered a torn ACL during spring practice, leaving the Hawkeyes perilously thin in the backfield. Sophomore De'Andre Johnson, who ran for 79 yards last season, is the leading returning rusher. He will vie with sophomore Brandon Bullock and, almost certainly, a true freshman for the starting job. Greg Garmon had been the freshman most likely to see time, but he was arrested in June in his hometown of Erie, Pa., on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge. In-state prospect Barkley Hill now likely gets into the mix.
Keenan Davis will be the go-to receiver. He caught 50 passes for 713 yards and four TDs as Iowa's No. 2 receiver last fall, but with the graduation of Marvin McNutt, Davis has to make the jump to No. 1 guy. Sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley, who caught 14 passes in the first four games but just 16 the rest of the way, needs to make an impact. There are no other proven receivers on the roster.
Junior TE C.J. Fiedorowicz will be a more important weapon. He is huge (6-foot-7/265 pounds) but has good speed for a guy his size, and coaches raved about his talents during spring ball. He should contend for all-conference honors.
The line generally is a strength on Ferentz-coached teams, but there are three new starters. James Ferentz, the coach's son, is a steady hand at center, and senior guard Matt Tobin started for the first time last season. But both tackle spots are a concern. There will be a ton of pressure on LT Brandon Scherff, a sophomore who started three games at guard last fall. His job is to adequately replace NFL first-round pick Riley Reiff. A return to health by junior Nolan MacMillan, who missed last season with what the school has called "an assortment of injuries," would be a plus. While listed as a backup tackle, MacMillan started six games at guard in 2010.
The new line coach is Brian Ferentz, a former Iowa lineman who spent the past four seasons on the staff of the New England Patriots. Another of Kirk's son, Brian Ferentz is considered an up-and-coming coach.
With Phil Parker at the controls, there won't be any wholesale scheme changes, just some tweaks.
The back seven should be OK, but a rebuilt line could be a problem. Dominic Alvis started eight games last season at tackle and end, but missed spring practice with an injury. He should be 100 percent this fall, and needs to lead the way in production and leadership. Steve Brigach saw time at end and tackle last season, and seems likely to settle in on the interior this fall.
New defensive line coach Reese Morgan, who had been the o-line coach, has a tough job ahead of him because there is no other proven talent up front.
Linebackers Christian Kirksey and James Morris each made 110 tackles last season, and should be productive again. Kirksey is a star on the rise and has good speed. The other starting linebacker is expected to be Anthony Hitchens, who made 25 stops last season. The backups, for the most part, are young and unproven.
The defensive star is senior Micah Hyde, who might be the best corner in the Big Ten. He is willing and able in run support, making 72 tackles last season, and also had three interceptions and eight pass breakups. His running mate should be junior B.J. Lowery, who has been a key reserve in each of the past two seasons. Parker likes his corners, so expect him to be aggressive with them.
Junior Tanner Miller is the returning starter at free safety; he has good size (6-2/201) and packs a punch. The new strong safety should be sophomore Nico Law, who flashed some potential last season as a true freshman.
Iowa is looking for a new punter; the likely winner will be former QB John Wienke. Sophomore Jonny Mullings, a native of Australia, is the other candidate.
Hyde is a competent punt returner, but the Hawkeyes need a new kick returner.
Iowa's punt coverage was excellent and its kickoff coverage adequate last season.
Five of the first seven games are at home and the opener is a neutral-site game against Northern Illinois in Chicago. The one true road game in that span is a tough one, against Michigan State.
There also are road games against Northwestern and Michigan, but Penn State and Nebraska have to travel to Iowa City.
The non-conference schedule has two flawed MAC teams (NIU and Central Michigan), FCS member Northern Iowa and rival Iowa State.
It's not a stretch to think Iowa can open 5-0, even with its issues.
The Hawkeyes have too many questions to think they can finish in the top three in the Legends Division of the Big Ten, but this is a team that has enough talent – and the schedule – to win eight games.
Vandenberg exceeded expectations last season and is a solid quarterback. Given Kirk Ferentz's background, the offensive line is going to get the job done, and the receiving corps has promise. Ultimately, though, the lack of proven talent at tailback is going to hurt this team.
The defense likely will slip a bit from last season, when it ranked 60th overall. But it certainly is not going to be a bad unit, and a talented back seven lends hope that it will be able to overcome what likely will be a shaky front four.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 46th nationally
The buzz: Iowa had one of the latest-developing classes in the Big Ten, with six of its 24 signees committing in the week before National Signing Day. The Hawkeyes need immediate help at running back and look to have received it with Erie (Pa.) McDowell four-star prospect Greg Garmon and Cedar Falls (Iowa) High three-star prospect Barkley Hill. But Garmon's arrest last month on a marijuana charge puts his ability to contribute as a freshman in doubt; Hill appears ready to step in and get carries this fall. The Hawkeyes signed five players who could play wide receiver, and also need immediate help at that position. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com
TE C.J. Fiedorowicz. Fiedorowicz, a former four-star prospect from Illinois, got his feet wet on special teams in his first season on campus. Last season, his role expanded at tight end. This season, expect Fiedorowicz to blossom into Iowa's next great tight end. – Tom Kakert, HawkeyeReport.com
For more on Iowa throughout the season, check out hawkeyereport.com
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