After spending the past two months in the weight room, the shoulder pads come back out of the closet for the Iowa Hawkeye Football team this week as spring practice gets underway in Iowa City on Wednesday. While no starting spot is completely secure for any player, this spring will be filled with several very interesting position battles.
With players like Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Rob Bruggeman, and Seth Olsen moving on after the Outback Bowl victory, there will be some big shoes to fill and the battle for those spots in the starting lineup are a big part of the drama this spring.
The most interesting battles appear to be in the interior of the both lines, where Coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff must find the right combinations to build upon the success they achieved last season.
Four years ago Iowa fans were having the same conversation about who would fill the void on the defensive line. Many people wondered if two former high school linebackers could make the transition and over the course of four years, King and Kroul, answered the bell time and time again.
This spring a new batch of young players will get their opportunity to follow in the footsteps of King and Kroul. One player who appears to have a quite a bit of upside at tackle is sophomore Karl Klug. The Minnesota native is still undersized in terms of weight, at 255 pounds. What he lacks in bulk, he certainly make up for on the motor side. Klug earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors against Florida International with two sacks, a forced fumble, and nine total tackles and seems to have an edge early on when it comes to earning a starting spot. The question that has to be answered is can he play nearly every snap.
Also in the mix at tackle will be Mike Daniels, a 6-foot-1 and 261 pounder who saw limited action last season. Daniels is an above average athlete, who, like Klug, has a big motor.
One name that slipped off the radar, but will be in the mix in a big way is Cody Hundertmark, who missed all of last year with shoulder surgery after playing as a true freshman. He will have to shake off some rust, but he is expected to be a serious contender for playing time. Another younger player to watch will be redshirt freshman Steve Bigach, who is still growing into the position.
The most intrigue will surround a potential move of either Christian Ballard or Adrian Clayborn from defensive end to tackle. At this point the speculation has been centered on fan discussions about the potential move and Coach Ferentz has not hinted at it one way or another, although we may get a better idea this week. If one of the two players does move to tackle, then it would free up more playing time and probably a starting position for Broderick Binns, who certainly flashed last season at defensive end. One other possibility is a move of Chad Geary from end to tackle. Geary has added enough weight to his frame where this could make some sense.
To be specific, the questions are at guard and center. One of the guard spots appears to be filled by Julian Vandervelde, but even that isn't a sure thing. When you throw in the intrigue of a possible return this spring of Dace Richardson to the mix, it makes for a very interesting battle up front.
At center, the Hawkeyes have three potential contenders for the starting spot. One of those names is a familiar one, Rafael Eubanks, who started in his sophomore year at center and saw spot duty this past year at center and guard. Another familiar name in the mix at center is redshirt freshman James Ferentz, who has his weight up to around the 270 pound range and has the pedigree for playing the position at a high level. A real wildcard for the center spot is Josh Koeppel, a walk-on from Iowa City, who outgoing center Rob Bruggeman raved about at bowl game as a player to watch. Koeppel was listed as the backup center most of this past season, so the coaches believe in his potential.
At guard the Hawkeyes have quite a few options with some experienced hands. Leading the way are fifth year seniors to be Dan Doering and Andy Kuempel. Both saw extended playing time last year and are probably the odds on co-favorites heading into camp. Doering has battle a number of injuries in his career and Kuempel is coming off shoulder surgery, but the hope is that both will be healthy and ready to go for spring drills.
Along with the return of Richardson, a couple of other names to watch this spring will be Kyle Haganman and Riley Reiff. Both Haganman and Reiff were players that have been mentioned as potential starters down the road, but this could be a spring where they make a real push for playing time.
If Richardson is healthy enough to play and can return to form and get into the lineup, at what position does that happen? First things first, let's see Richardson out at practice. That will be a big positive for him and for the entire program.
Usually this isn't a position with much drama attached to it, but ever since Daniel Murray took his place in Iowa Football history on a cold November day against Penn State, the Iowa City native has been lining up for every field goal.
Last year it appeared that Trent Mossbrucker had taken the place kicking job following the game at Pittsburgh. It probably helped his cause that Murray was nursing a leg injury, but Mossbrucker was solid when he got the opportunity. However, once Murray hit the kick against Penn State to win the game, it appeared that Mossbrucker went into a bit of a funk, missing two PAT's.
Early last season the Iowa coaches went with a rotation based on quarters and it will be interesting to see if they continue down that road again or if they have settled on Murray as their kicker on field goal attempts
Last year at this time, much of the spring practice drama surrounded Jake Christensen and if he could hold off a push from Ricky Stanzi. After sharing time and rotating every third possession early on last year, the Iowa coaches settled on Stanzi following the Pittsburgh game and he never looked back leading Iowa to a strong finish to the 2008 season.
There is no question that Stanzi will be the starter next fall for the Hawkeyes, but with Christensen set to transfer at the end of the school year, a pair of redshirt freshmen quarterbacks will be battling for second string. There was plenty of buzz this past year surrounding the practice performances of James Vandenburg, but the best guess is that going into the spring, he will be neck and neck on the depth chart with John Wienke. The spring practices probably won't settle this one and it is expected that they will go into the fall fighting for the backup position.
Early on the race to replace Bradley Fletcher was going to be a spirited one and that still might be the case as Shaun Prater and Jordan Bernstine vie for playing time. However, with Prater being charged with a DWI recently, his chances for a spot in the lineup to start the season were diminished greatly. This will be a big spring for Bernstine, who sat out last year in the spring to recover from off season surgery and then he also missed time in camp last year which led to the emergence of Amari Spievey at the other corner. Another name to potentially watch is Willian Lowe at cornerback.
At safety the story will be more about who probably will not be out there this spring. Both Brett Greenwood and Tyler Sash started last season, but both underwent off season surgery and will likely be held out of contact drills. That means it will be a big spring for David Cato and Jack Swanson at safety, where they can gain valuable playing time.
A quick reminder, Kirk Ferentz will be meeting with the media on Wednesday at 12:30 to kickoff spring practice and HawkeyeReport.com will be there to cover the event, so stay tuned for plenty of football talk this week.
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