Less drama may be good for Hawkeyes
A year ago, Iowa tumbled from a preseason top-10 ranking to a .500 finish in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes earned a trip to the Insight Bowl, but they went without their top running back and wide receiver after December arrests.
The glow over a comeback bowl win over Missouri was sullied by an offseason workout that left 13 players hospitalized, and coach Kirk Ferentz defending his program.
All that drama, coupled with the departure of a celebrated senior class led by Adrian Clayborn and Ricky Stanzi, has significantly lowered expectations for Iowa in 2011.
“The whole idea is to learn from the past, whether it was good, bad or indifferent, and hopefully it will be better as we move forward,” Ferentz said.
Despite the collective yawn the Hawkeyes have drawn nationally, there is reason to believe they can be a factor in the newly expanded Big Ten.
Such hopes rest largely of the performance of new starting quarterback James Vandenberg. The junior spent the last two seasons as Stanzi’s backup, and in 2009 he nearly led the Hawkeyes to the league title at Ohio State.
Vandenberg rarely played in 2010 because Stanzi stayed healthy, but he’s earned the trust of his teammates and coaches.
“We felt if James had been called upon last year, I think he would have played very, very well based on what we saw at the end of the (2009) season,” Ferentz said. “Sometimes good players get positioned behind other good players.”
The departure of running back Adam Robinson has opened the door for sophomore Marcus Coker, a 6-foot, 230-pound bruiser who is a perfect fit for the Hawkeyes’ power running attack. Coker had 219 yards and two TDs against the Tigers in the bowl game after returning from an early-season collarbone injury.
Coker will be asked to handle a heavy workload this season.
“Coker showed a lot of good things last year once he got healthy and got back out on the field,” Ferentz said. “One of the most impressive things he did last year was the way he was practicing pretty well. When he got able to get back on the field from a health standpoint, it was clear that he had paid attention.”
Despite allowing late leads to repeatedly slip away in 2010, the Hawkeyes had a number of defensive players who won’t easily be replaced.
Linemen Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug formed one of the nation’s top units, and it will be up to senior Mike Daniels and veteran Broderick Binns to step up. Linebacker appears to be in decent shape, with talented sophomore James Morris and senior Tyler Nielsen, and defensive backs Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde could be among the best in the conference.
Iowa is going to need a lot from its unproven players to push for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten title game. The schedule may help.
The Hawkeyes won’t leave Iowa in September. They play at Iowa State, which will be breaking in a new quarterback, and host Pittsburgh, which will be breaking in a new coach.
Iowa then gets a bye before its league opener at Penn State, which it has beaten in eight of the last nine meetings. The Hawkeyes then play three of their next four at home against Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan. The schedule does not include nearby defending co-champion Wisconsin, which damanged Iowa’s hopes last year with a 31-30 win at Iowa City.
Meanwhile, Iowa has a history of playing its best when nobody expects much. The Hawkeyes essentially came out of nowhere to reach the Orange Bowl after the 2002 season, and went from unranked after the 2009 season opener to an Orange Bowl victory.
“We’d rather just take care of our business and kind of go under the radar. That’s how we prepare. That’s how we’re recruited. We know we’re not going to be a flashy outfit, and none of us signed up for that,” Vandenberg said.