March 23, 2011
IOWA CITY, Iowa — A lot of holes means a lot of opportunities for student-athletes on the University of Iowa football team as the Hawkeyes resume drills later this afternoon.
This is the 13th spring at the helm for UI head coach Kirk Ferentz, who gathered with media Wednesday in the Hayden Fry Football Complex. One of his first orders of business is penciling in replacements for six graduated defensive starters, six on offense and record-setting punter Ryan Donahue.
“Anytime you lose a group of seniors like we lost — nine guys at the (NFL) Combine — you will have a lot of holes to fill,” Ferentz said. “Not only the production on the field, but the leadership they provided. This is a real important phase, needless to say, but a great opportunity phase, too.”
The Hawkeyes return to practice for the first time since defeating Missouri, 27-24, in the Insight Bowl on Dec. 28 for their third consecutive postseason victory — a first in school history. Ferentz said this is obviously a different team that flew home from Arizona after going 8-5 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten Conference.
“That’s what spring practice is all about, just having a chance to identify where we’re at,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully every player on our roster is a better player than they were in December. That’s hopefully what we’ll be seeing here in three and a half weeks.”
The offseason provided time for junior defensive lineman Steve Bigach, sophomore linebacker Shane DiBona, senior receiver Marvin McNutt and sophomore safety Tanner Miller to undergo surgery. Those four will not practice this spring, but all are expected to return full-speed at the start of summer camp. Sophomore fullback Brad Rogers (heart) and freshman tight end Austin Vier (back) could be sidelined longer.
“Anytime you lose a group of seniors like we lost — nine guys at the (NFL) Combine — you will have a lot of holes to fill. Not only the production on the field, but the leadership they provided. This is a real important phase, needless to say, but a great opportunity phase, too.”
UI head coach Kirk Ferentz
With McNutt out strengthening his shoulder, junior wide receiver Keenan Davis moves into more of a leadership role. Davis caught 11 passes in 2010 for 131 yards and a touchdown. Also in the mix are sophomore Don Shumpert and redshirt freshman Kevonte Martin-Manley.
“It will give those guys a lot of opportunity to continue to grow. I thought they did a good job in the fall,” Ferentz said. “I’m excited to see how they progress. I think it’s fair to say that’s a position where younger guys might have a good opportunity coming in.”
The Hawkeyes reloaded their offensive line last spring and ending up passing for 225.6 yards per game and rushing for 120.6 more. This year, the defensive line will get tweaked. Gone are NFL prospects Christian Ballard, Adrian Clayborn and Karl Klug. Ferentz is pleased that “outstanding leaders” Broderick Binns (end) and Mike Daniels (tackle) return.
“I think we’ve got a lot of interesting players,” Ferentz said. “I can envision us playing six to eight guys as opposed to being pretty locked in with five this past year. We’re looking forward to the competition and to see how the guys do.”
Perhaps the best news on the injury front is the return of senior outside linebacker Tyler Nielsen. Nielsen compiled 42 tackles (4 ½ for a loss) and four pass breakups before suffering a season-ending injury Oct. 30 during a 37-6 win against Michigan State.
“We’re eager to get going,” Ferentz said. “We’re looking forward to spring practice and anytime we get a chance to get back on the field with our players. Like any spring, we have a lot of positives with this football team and a lot of questions that have to be answered. That’s certainly true in the springtime. It will be true in August as well.”
Iowa’s most experienced quarterback — junior James Vandenberg — will get a later-than-usual start to spring practice. He has an organic chemistry exam at 5:30 p.m., on Wednesday. That was cause for an entertaining moment from Ferentz.
“I remember those days,” he said. “I used to walk by organic chemistry…classroom 303. Walked right by it and got a cup of coffee.”