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Iowa Hawkeyes 2016 Spring Football Preview

Kirk Ferentz

Kirk Ferentz

The 2015 regular season was the stuff dreams are made of in Iowa City. A magical 12-0 campaign landed Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, where it took a 22-play scoring drive by Michigan State to hand the Hawkeyes their first loss.

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The season still could have ended on a high note with a decent showing in the Rose Bowl, but Stanford turned that dream into a nightmare for the Hawkeyes by halftime. It was a bitter end to what should have considered a pretty sweet season.

As spring football gets going in Iowa City, those closest to the program have high expectations. Many fans, on the other hand, remain cautiously optimistic. The Hawkeyes have a history of disappointing their followers when the expectations are high, and the Hawkeyes look like the favorites in the Big Ten West heading into the 2016 campaign.

5 Storyline to Watch in Iowa's Spring Practice

1. C.J. Beathard's health

The quarterback was undoubtedly the biggest difference-maker for the Hawkeyes last season. His aggressive style — both through the air and on the ground — gave Iowa a bit of an edge and some swagger that helped carry the team through some close contests. That style also gave Beathard plenty of wear and tear during the course of the season. Iowa fans will be watching closely to see if the couple of months since the Rose Bowl were enough for Beathard to rest up and get back to 100 percent. Any signs of lingering injuries could be cause for concern heading into the summer.

2. Drew Ott's pending medical redshirt

Ott's career seemed to culminate with a torn ACL midway through last season. The former All-Big Ten defensive end did not play until the eighth game of his freshman year, which left the door open for Iowa to petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt. It appears Kirk Ferentz is fairly optimistic about Ott's chances of getting the extra year. If it is granted, the Hawkeyes would return the most formidable defensive line in the conference — if not the country.

3. Nathan Bazata's continuing development

Part of that aforementioned formidable defensive line is Bazata. The tackle came into his own as a sophomore in 2015 in his first full season as a starter and became one of the more disruptive forces in the Big Ten. Iowa fans will be interested to see positive changes in his size and technique. If he shows improvement in both, the Hawkeye D-line will be a force with or without Ott.

4. Developing depth on the offensive line

The starting five up front at Iowa, as always, will be a solid group. Building depth behind them will be key. That will start at the center position, with projected starter James Daniels missing spring practice as he recovers from knee surgery. Steve Ferentz will get starting reps at center as a result. Other than that, the best thing Iowa can hope for during the spring is for as many as eight different linemen to step up as significant and capable contributors heading into the 2016 campaign.

5. Finding a vertical threat

Iowa's bread and butter will still be the run, but the Hawkeyes need to be more effective and dangerous through the air to keep opponents honest. Leading receiver Matt Vandenberg is back, but he's not going to be a threat to take the top off of a defense. Jerminic Smith looks like the top candidate to be that guy. Hawkeye fans should be excited if they see him getting separation and hauling in plenty of deep balls in the spring. This offense has lacked a consistent big-play weapon for quite some time.

Pre-Spring Iowa Outlook in the Big Ten

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As mentioned, the Hawkeyes will likely be the favorites in the Big Ten West by most publications. Like last season, they'll need to build momentum and confidence during their non-conference slate. They get in-state rival Iowa State at home as well as a visit from five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State. After that, Iowa has a manageable Big Ten slate with games against Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska at home. Their toughest road contest will be at Penn State in early November. It's not likely that Iowa will make it through conference play unblemished for a second consecutive season, but getting through the nine-game conference slate with three or fewer losses should have Kirk Ferentz's team in the running for another division title. These Hawkeyes have the talent and experience to get to that point.

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Scott is the owner of and host of "Raising the Bar" on Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.