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March 24, 2010

Ferentz has Hawkeyes soaring into spring

It's difficult to believe that some felt Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was under pressure entering the 2008 season. But his footing did appear unsteady at that time.

The Hawkeyes were coming off a three-season run (2005-07) that produced an aggregate 19-18 record. The program hit a low in 2007, finishing 6-6 and missing a bowl. On top of all of that, there were off-field issues.

But Ferentz has things under control, and Iowa is flying high again. The Hawkeyes went 9-4 in 2008 and 11-2 last season, capped by an Orange Bowl victory. The Hawkeyes even flirted with playing for the national title, as they started the season 9-0 before an injury to quarterback Ricky Stanzi in a home loss to Northwestern derailed the pursuit of perfection.

This spring, Iowa is thinking even bigger: Big Ten championship. It could happen with a veteran roster that features 15 returning starters.

Here's a look at the Hawkeyes as they enter spring drills.

IOWA AT-A-GLANCE
Sophomore Adam Robinson is part of a strong rushing attack for Iowa.
THE BASICS
Coach: Kirk Ferentz
Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in the Big Ten. Beat Georgia Tech 24-14 in the Orange Bowl.
Spring dates: March 24-April 17.
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (5): WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, FB Brett Morse, G/T Riley Reiff, RB Adam Robinson, QB Ricky Stanzi.
Defense (8): Christian Ballard, E Broderick Binns, E Adrian Clayborn, FS Brett Greenwood, LB Jeremiha Hunter, T Karl Klug, CB Shaun Prater, SS Tyler Sash.
Special teams (2): P Ryan Donahue, K Daniel Murray.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Iowa is loaded with skill-position talent on offense and is stocked on the defensive line. Stanzi, a senior, is back at quarterback. There are myriad options at running back with sophomores Robinson and Brandon Wegher returning. And don't forget another sophomore, Jewel Hampton, who was the starter entering last season before he tore an anterior cruciate ligament. Want more? The team's top wide receivers - Johnson-Koulianos and junior Marvin McNutt - also return. TE Tony Moeaki has departed, but the staff is psyched about senior Allen Reisner. All four starters on the d-line are back. Clayborn is an All-America candidate who capped a standout 2009 season by earning MVP honors in the Orange Bowl win over Georgia Tech.

HELP IS NEEDED

The offensive line must begin jelling this spring. Reiff, a sophomore, looks like a future star. He filled in for T Bryan Bulaga - who declared early for the draft - last season when Bulaga was out with an injury. Reiff started at guard for most of the season, then at right tackle in the Orange Bowl. He will move to left tackle this spring in Bulaga's place. Pencil in senior Julian Vandervelde at one guard slot. After that, things are fuzzy. Senior Josh Koeppel and sophomore James Ferentz - Kirk's son - will vie for the job at center. The other tackle and guard spots also will be contested this spring. Finding two new starting linebackers is the key on defense.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

CB Jordan Bernstine: Bernstine, a junior, had a great chance to claim a starting spot in each of the past two seasons, but injuries have derailed him. Two seasons ago, he got hurt in camp and Amari Spievey grabbed the job and never relinquished it. Last season, Prater benefited from another Bernstine injury. Spievey left early for the NFL, and Bernstine is expected to get his job.

LB Tyler Nielsen: Nielsen is in the front of the line for a vacant outside linebacker job. Nielsen is a former U.S. Army All-American who has flashed great potential on special teams. Nielsen, a 6-foot-4, 232-pound junior, has great athletic ability and instincts. Can he handle a starting job? He needs to prove it this spring.

OT Riley Reiff: With Bulaga off a year early to the NFL, Reiff will have a chance to shine. Those close to the program feel he's the next great Iowa lineman. Reiff is a dynamic athlete with power who may be better than Bulaga and 2003 Outland Trophy winner Robert Gallery.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

LB Bruce Davis: He looks to have the inside track to start in the middle with Pat Angerer gone. Davis, a junior, is the most experienced candidate after making 14 tackles in 2009. If Davis fails to step up, the job could go to senior Troy Johnson, who started in the regular-season finale vs. Minnesota and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after notching 11 tackles.

THE BUZZ

Iowa used a great defense (No. 3 in the Big Ten last season, 276.5 ypg) to forge the school's fourth double-digit win season under Ferentz and first since 2004. But if the Hawkeyes want to win the Big Ten, they must improve an offense that finished No. 10 in the league (336.3 ypg). The main area of concern is a rushing attack that ranked 10th in the conference (114.2 ypg) despite a veteran line. That makes it critical that a rebuilt line develops quickly. But never count out a Ferentz-coached team.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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