By Jackson Leuschen, CycloneFanatic.com Contributor Follow Jackson on Twitter @jaleu11
In head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 14 years at the University of Iowa, there has been little turnover on the coaching staff – until this year, that is. In this offseason alone, Ferentz has had to hire a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), defensive coordinator (Phil Parker), offensive line coach (Brian Ferentz), and linebackers coach (Levar Woods), along with shuffling former linebackers coach Darrell Wilson to secondary coach and Reese Morgan from offensive to defensive line.
The turnover doesn’t end with the coaching staff. With the loss of five starters on offense and six on defense there will be a lot of new faces making their first appearance in the Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk Series this fall. The list of departed players includes first round draft pick Reilly Reiff, 1,000-yard rusher Marcus Coker, and wide receiver Marvin McNutt…and that’s just on the offensive side of the ball.
The loss of Marvin McNutt is an especially big blow to the Hawkeye receiving corps as he holds team single-season records for receptions (82) and receiving yards (1,351) as well as career records for receiving yards (2,861) and touchdown receptions (28). The top returning receiver is senior Keenan Davis, who averaged four catches per game for slightly less than 60 yards, good for eighth and ninth respectively in the Big Ten. Back and hoping to provide a big play threat on the outside is Kevonte Martin-Manley, while little used walk-on Steven Staggs is the third most experienced returnee.
The tight end position has traditionally been outstanding for Iowa and this year it is once again in good hands. C.J. Fiedorowicz is a unique physical specimen who stands 6-foot-7 and has shocked new offensive coordinator Greg Davis with his speed. Zach Derby and Ray Hamilton will work their way onto the field as well.
It will be interesting to see as if the Iowa offense utilizes more of a vertical passing game under Davis than it has in recent years. Strong-armed quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards in his first season as a starter. For a second consecutive spring, Vandenberg has drawn good reviews but there will be pressure on him to step up as a playmaker with the mass departure of highly-regarded offensive weapons.
Also gone are both starting offensive tackles after Riley Reiff entered the NFL Draft. Redshirt junior Brett Van Sloten will likely take over one spot while Brandon Scherff will be the other bookend. Right guard Adam Gettis is also gone and it looks like redshirt freshman Austin Blythe won the position in the spring. Matt Tobin (LG) and James Ferentz (OC) are the only returning starters. While as a whole they are young, this is another massive group of maulers up front.
Also in question is the man who will run behind that line. Marcus Coker put up nearly 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground last year as Iowa’s leading rusher but unfortunately for the Hawks, he will not be on the team this fall and he leaves no proven back up. Jordan Canzeri started the Insight Bowl where he ran for a lowly 58 yards on 22 carries. This spring, Ferentz was impressed by the progress of sophomores Damon Bullock and DeAndre Johnson but with the lack of depth and proven experience, there is a possibility that incoming freshmen Greg Garmon or Barkley Hill (a one-time Cyclone verbal commit) could see some game action as well. The fullback position is in good shape with Brad Rogers set to create some holes for a second consecutive season, a helpful reality as the Hawks are one of the few teams to still employ a true fullback.
The past few years Iowa has had an overpowering defensive line with veteran leadership, but this season’s group returns only one starter (DE Steve Bigach) and an unbelievably low 2.5 career sacks. Dominic Alvis split time at end as well and is the only other returning lineman with game experience, although he missed spring practice with an unspecified knee injury. Of the players looking to emerge, defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat made the biggest name for himself during the spring. Fellow second year players Darian Cooper (DT), Riley McMinn (DE), and Melvin Spears (DE) have also had good offseasons.
Iowa’s linebackers enter the fall as the strength of a defense hit hard by graduation. James Morris and Christian Kirksey have received favorable comparisons to a pair of former Hawkeye standouts in Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, which speaks volumes to the expectations as they enter their junior season. Both players found their way to opposing ball carriers 110 times last year. The remaining opening at linebacker appears to be a two-way battle between junior Anthony Hitchens and sophomore Quinton Alston.
Despite the loss of first team All-Big Ten performer Shaun Prater, the Hawks return a talented group of cornerbacks led by 6-foot-1 senior Micah Hyde, who tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and pass break ups (eight). A solid spring showing has B.J. Lowery, who preserved last season’s win over Michigan with a fourth down, goal line pass deflection as time expired, slightly ahead of Greg Castillo at the other corner spot. Tanner Miller will be the starting free safety for the second year in a row while Nico Law should win the strong safety job.
Iowa will also have to replace Eric Guthrie, one of the country’s better punters from last season and the only current information they’ve released on the position is that former quarterback John Weinke has moved there full-time. Placekicker Mike Meyers returns after hitting 14-of-20 field goal attempts and Weinke will hold for him once again. Martin-Manley and Hyde will be the primary return men, a role they’ve been handled well in the past.
Even with the coaching turnover, it would be surprising to see the Hawkeyes veer too far from the blueprint that has led to so much success during the Kirk Ferentz era. They will continue to take great care of the football, feature a bend-but-don’t-break defense and look to change field position with excellent special teams units. However, with the team sorely lacking in proven talent on both sides of the ball another near .500 finish could be in store for the Black and Gold.