Iowa Hawkeyes 2012 Spring Preview

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James Vandenberg leads a revamped Iowa offense in 2012.

<p> Iowa Hawkeyes 2012 spring preview.</p>

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Iowa Hawkeyes 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 7-6, 4-4 Big Ten

Spring practice: March 24-April 14

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 5

Returning Leaders:

Passing: James Vandenberg, 237 of 404, 3,022 yds., 25 TD, 7 INTs
Rushing: Jordan Canzeri, 31 car., 114 yds., 0 TDs
Receiving: Keenan Davis, 50 rec., 713 yds., 4 TDs
Tackles: James Morris, 110
Sacks: Dominic Alvis, 1.5
Interceptions: Two players tied with 3

Redshirts to watch: OG Austin Blythe, OG Jordan Walsh, DE Dean Tsopanides, DE Melvin Spears, DT Darian Cooper, DE Riley McMinn, LB Cole Fisher

Early Enrollees: OL Eric Simmons, QB Cody Sokol

JUCO Transfers to Watch: OL Eric Simmons, QB Cody Sokol

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Northern Illinois (Chicago)
Sept. 8 Iowa State
Sept. 15 Northern Iowa
Sept. 22 Central Michigan
Sept. 29 Minnesota
Oct. 13 at Michigan State
Oct. 20 Penn State
Oct. 27 at Northwestern
Nov. 3 at Indiana
Nov 10 Purdue
Nov. 17 at Michigan
Nov. 23 Nebraska

Offensive Strength: Quarterback James Vandenberg should be one of the top signal-callers in the Big Ten this year. Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 scores last season and tossed only seven interceptions. The senior will have a quality group of receivers to throw to, led by Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley.

Offensive Weakness: The Hawkeyes are usually strong in the rushing game, but that may change in 2012. The offensive line returns only two starters and last season’s returning rusher (Marcus Coker) left the team. Iowa usually churns out running backs, but it may take a group effort to match Coker’s production in 2012.

Defensive Strength: Even with the departure of Tyler Nielsen, the Hawkeyes will be among the top linebacking corps in the Big Ten. James Morris garnered honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last year, picking up 110 tackles and one interception. Christian Kirksey also returns after matching Morris’ 110 stops last year.

Defensive Weakness: Coach Kirk Ferentz has to be concerned about the glaring hole on the defensive line this spring. Four key contributors from last season's group depart - including second-team All-Big Ten selection Broderick Binns - which will create plenty of competition from some inexperienced candidates in the preseason.

Spring Storylines Facing the Hawkeyes

1. Has the program gone stale? That’s the big question Iowa fans are asking this spring. Although Kirk Ferentz has won 96 games with the Hawkeyes, the win total has declined over the last three seasons. There’s some fresh blood on the coaching staff for 2012, as offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe took a job in the NFL and defensive coordinator Norm Parker decided to retire. Ferentz appointed former Texas playcaller Greg Davis as the team’s new offensive coordinator, while veteran Iowa assistant Phil Parker will call the shots on defense. Brian Ferentz moves from the NFL ranks to join his father in Iowa City as the team’s offensive line coach, while LeVar Woods was picked as the team’s new linebacker coach. Will the staff changes inject some energy into the program? Davis was criticized during his tenure with Texas, but also coordinated some solid offenses. It’s important for this coaching staff to jell this spring and get the players adjusted to any changes in scheme on both sides of the ball.

2. Running the ball is usually not an issue for Iowa. However, there’s a major concern over the running back position in 2012. Marcus Coker left the team after the 2011 season, leaving behind a handful of inexperienced candidates to fill his shoes. Three sophomores have the early lead for playing time, with Jordan Canzeri the frontrunner to open the season as the No. 1 back. Canzeri rushed for only 114 yards last year, while fellow sophomores Damon Bullock and De’Andre Johnson chipped in 99 yards. Incoming freshmen Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill will also figure into the mix this fall. The Hawkeyes should be fine in this area, but they need to find someone who can consistently take 20-25 carries a game. Developing some type of rotation and pecking order in the preseason will be crucial to Iowa’s offense in 2012.

3. Even with the question marks at running back and the departure of receiver Marvin McNutt, the position with the most issues on offense is the line. Left tackle Riley Reiff decided to bolt a year early for the NFL, while stalwarts Adam Gettis and Markus Zusevics expired their eligibility. Iowa has two returning starters up front, including honorable mention All-Big Ten center James Ferentz. Sophomore Brandon Schreff has the inside track to start at left tackle and has three starts under his belt. However, he will get a push from fellow sophomore Andrew Donnal, while former starter Nolan MacMillan is healthy and back to compete for a spot on the right side. There’s some solid pieces in place, and Iowa’s track record suggests this position won’t be too big of an issue during the season. However, it will remain a question mark until the Hawkeyes settle on a front five and that group gives Vandenberg enough time to throw during the Big Ten play.

4. 2011 was not a banner year for the Iowa defense, as the Hawkeyes ranked seventh or worse in the Big Ten in rush, scoring, total and pass defense. New defensive coordinator Phil Parker certainly has his work cut out for him this spring, as only five starters return and major question marks exist about the defensive line. Tackles Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis are expected to play a significant role in the middle, but both will miss spring practice with knee injuries. There’s also very little experience returning at end, as three redshirt freshmen cracked the two-deep for spring practice. Although this is a position Iowa usually finds players, the recovery of Alvis and Davis will be crucial to the line’s success. Not only is establishing a rotation of linemen important, Parker needs to figure out how to generate a pass rush that was mediocre last year.

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