April 18, 2008

Spring practice viewers guide

This Saturday the Iowa Hawkeyes wrap up spring practice with a controlled scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium in front of many curious and loyal fans. Coming off a disappointing 6-6 season that did not include a bowl bid for the first time since 2001, the Hawkeye Football team have plenty of questions facing them. We run down some of the storylines to be aware of as you head to Iowa City this weekend.

With the spring scrimmage in mind, here is my Top Ten List of what to look for on Saturday.

1. Perhaps the biggest story of the spring isn't about who is playing, but who has spent most of the spring on the sidelines due to injury. The walking wounded report this spring is pretty long and filled with vital players who are expected to be in the mix for starting positions in the fall.

Fans will see the following players on the sidelines, but not in uniform: Tony Moeaki, Bryan Bulaga, Rafael Eubanks, Jordan Bernstine, Dace Richardson, and Jamie Murphy (at running back). Also possibly out are Seth Olsen (who appeared in photos late this week in uniform) and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who has an injured foot.

The good news is that with the exception of Richardson, none of the injuries appear serious and they should all be back and ready to go in the fall when the Hawkeyes report to camp in early August.

2. One thing I have learned over the years about these open practices or scrimmages is that the defense almost always looks miles ahead of the offense. Coach Kirk Ferentz mentioned it this week in commenting about the spy vs. spy nature of practice. The other side sort of knows what is coming and that probably better suits the defense to take better advantage of the situation.

Many Iowa fans are curious about how the offense will look due to their struggles this past season and we probably aren't going to get a good read on it on Saturday due to the nature of the event.

3. Someone will certainly do something that surprises us and generate some buzz afterwards, but don't get too caught up in it since this is just a scrimmage. In past years we have seen guys like Tyler Gerstandt and Herb Grigsby look great in the final event of the spring. That isn't a knock on either player, but it is natural for someone to jump up and surprise us during the scrimmage.

4. Quite a bit of focus will be on the play at quarterback. One look at the message boards on a daily basis and it is pretty clear that fans want to talk about one topic when it comes to the football team and it is who will be the starting quarterback.

Coach Ferentz indicated on Wednesday that it was a pretty competitive race with all three of the main players making strides this spring, which in and of itself is a nice positive. We will get a snapshot look at Jake Christensen and see if he is feeling more comfortable in the pocket. Also, we will likely get a more extended viewing of Ricky Stanzi and redshirt freshman Marvin McNutt and find out more about what they have to offer. My guess is that come Saturday night and Sunday, this will be the most active topic being discussed.

5. The numbers at running back are pretty small with Hawkeyes down to basically two healthy players at the position after Jamie Murphy sustained an injury last week. Iowa fans saw a bit of Paki O'Meara last year and they will see much more of tough running walk-on on Saturday. It will also be the first opportunity to see JUCO transfer Nate Guillory in an Iowa uniform. Get ready to see plenty of both players this weekend.

6. We probably won't learn much about the offensive line and how much they have improved simply based on the fact that guys like Olsen, Eubanks, Bulaga, and Richardson will be out according to Coach Ferentz. But, it does give us the chance to see more from Rob Bruggeman at center. Last year at this time he was making a strong push for a spot in the lineup and if he finishes the spring on a strong note, he could move a step closer to locking down the starting position at center.

We will also get a long look at three players who saw plenty of action last year on the offensive front and see how much progress they have made. This is a big spring for Julian Vandervelde, Dan Doering, and Kyle Calloway as they continue to progress and in some cases, fight for a starting spot. We will also get a good look at Andy Kuempel, who Coach Ferentz praised on Wednesday as someone who has shown great improvement at the tackle position.

7. This is Coach Erik Campbell's first spring in Iowa City and his style in practice has really made an early impact. Campbell possesses a great resume when it comes to producing NFL talent and that has certainly gotten the attention of all of the receivers and tight ends this spring.

Getting a long look at the way he coaches will be interesting to see, but along with that, we will see how Andy Brodell is progressing as he returns from surgery that ended his season in the game against Wisconsin. Brodell is expected to be a big contributor in the fall, so getting him back at 100% is critical for Iowa's success.

8. The battle at safety seems to be a really good one, especially at strong safety, where three players are listed as potential starters. Harold Dalton is the incumbent at the position, but he is facing a strong push from Tyler Sash and Lance Tillison this spring. Dalton has been working some at cornerback due to low numbers at the position and to give the coaches a longer look at Tillison and Sash.

At the other safety position, Brett Greenwood was mentioned by Coach Ferentz as making significant improvement this spring and it looks like he is a pretty solid choice to get the starting nod in the fall. But, don't sleep on Diauntae Morrow, who has turned some heads this spring and will likely be a contributor in some fashion this fall.

9. The race for two of the linebacker positions will be one to watch on Saturday. A.J. Edds returns as a starter and he appears to have a lock on his spot in the lineup, but a guy to watch backing him up is Tyler Nielsen, who appears to have a strong grip on the second position on the depth chart.

Most of us assumed that the middle linebacker position was going to go to Jacody Coleman, after he showed quite a bit of promise last year filling in for Mike Klinkenborg. But, a funny thing happened this spring; Pat Angerer got healthy and put himself right there in the battle for the starting spot. Angerer has battled numerous injuries in his career, but if he is healthy, he is a player to watch. At the other backer spot, Jeff Tarpinian seems to have a pretty decent hold on the spot, but he could still face a threat from Jeremiha Hunter.

10. Finally, have fun and enjoy the day. It's hard to beat an afternoon in Kinnick Stadium, even if it is just a controlled scrimmage. Sit back, relax, have fun, enjoy the company of your fellow Hawkeye fans, and try not to draw too many conclusions about the team based on the snapshot of one practice. Be sure to print out a copy of the current roster that you can find here at HawkeyeReport.com and you will be the most popular person in the stands.

The practice gets underway at 1 pm and should conclude around 3 pm. If you are headed to Kinnick, bring along a canned food item or two to donate to the Iowa City Crisis Center. Gates open at 11:30, hope to see you there.

Note: If you cannot make it, but want to watch the practice, go to www.bigtennetwork.com and you can watch the practice live for free.

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