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2013 football season in review: Rediscovering a program blueprint

[ 0 ] January 4, 2014 |

Carl Davis has work to do.

“I don’t think I’m NFL ready,” Iowa’s junior defensive tackle said.

Davis is a snapshot of Iowa football under coach Kirk Ferentz.

He’s a player not heavily recruited by college football’s bluebloods, one who quietly works his way from the potential that got him recruited to the field. It took Davis four years in the program to make the starting lineup in 2013.

Davis watches players such as former Hawkeye Adrian Clayborn, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and sees what they did to make the NFL.

“That’s what I have to do, compare myself to the greatest,” Davis said. “And right now, I’m not there yet. Nowhere near that.”

Carl Davis, right, hits LSU running back Jeremy Hill on Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl. (USA TODAY Sports photo)

Carl Davis, right, hits LSU running back Jeremy Hill on Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl. (USA TODAY Sports photo)

Players such as Davis are the heart and soul of Iowa football in Ferentz’s 15 seasons as coach. A 21-14 loss to LSU in the Outback Bowl completed an 8-5 season for the Hawkeyes.

LSU coach Les Miles spent Thursday glued to the Under Armour High School All-America Game, where several highly-ranked recruits announced they’d be joining the Tigers’ program. LSU rolls underclassmen to the NFL on an annual basis.

Traditionally, Iowa’s approach is different. Ferentz recruits prospects and does his best to turn them into football players. It’s a process that’s resulted in seven seasons of at least eight victories and 11 bowl games.

On occasion, that chain of development gets off track. Attrition gutted recruiting classes in 2008 and 2009, which is one reason for the dismal 4-8 season in 2012. But it looks like things are closer to the way Ferentz likes them.

“We feel good about the way the guys are working right now, the way they’re thinking,” Ferentz said. “Certainly the seniors that are leaving us have really set a good example of how to do things. I hope all of the young guys were paying attention and are willing to offer that same kind of leadership a year from now.”

Iowa loses three seniors on offense and five on defense. Four-year placekicker Mike Meyer also has to be replaced. But returning are all the quarterbacks and running backs and most of the wide receivers, along with several redshirt prospects at skill positions. All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff will anchor the offensive line.

The defense will be a bigger challenge, especially at linebacker — where James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey are gone. But the defensive front should be a strength of the team. All four Outback Bowl starters return: Davis and fellow senior Louis Trinca-Pasat at the tackles, and Drew Ott and Mike Hardy at the ends.

“Me and Louie and the rest of the defensive line, we know what we’ve got to do next year,” Davis said. “We’re a confident group.”

Iowa should be one of the favorites in the West Division of the newly-aligned 14-team Big Ten. The Hawkeyes don’t play Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan.

Now that he’s made the starting lineup, Davis said he wants to take another step forward next season.

“I was talking to coach Ferentz and he was saying, ‘Carl, you really took a big jump,’ ” Davis said. “But he told me I need to take an even bigger jump to be the player I want to be. It just makes me hungry, when he tells me I haven’t even scratched the surface of how good a player I can be.”

Davis also will be called on to be a leader, and teach patience to other players at his position such as redshirt freshman Jaleel Johnson, who is backing him up.

“Patience, that was the toughest thing,” Davis said of his journey. “That’s what I’m trying to teach Jaleel right now. He’s a very big, physical guy. He gets frustrated sometimes. He wants to play. I said, ‘Look, this is my first year starting and I’ve been here four years.’ ”

Johnson could become another Davis some day by practicing patience and following a blueprint that has produced many good players under Ferentz.

“Hopefully, better than me,” Davis said.

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A LOOK BACK AT THE SEASON

High point: Rallying from a 21-7 halftime deficit to beat Michigan 24-21 in frosty Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 23. “Nobody surrendered at halftime,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. A Hawkeyes team that had trouble sustaining halftime leads much of the season turned the tables and beat the Wolverines for a third straight time in Kinnick, which had never been done before. “I think our whole team grew up the second half,” Ferentz said. “The guys really put their foot on the gas. And probably the best thing about it is a lot of guys made really good efforts to help us.”

Low point: A 28-9 loss to Wisconsin at home on Nov. 2. The Badgers scored two touchdowns in the final seven minutes of the game, making it look more one-sided than it really was. It was made more disappointing after the Hawkeyes couldn’t take advantage of some golden first-half opportunities. Iowa’s first four drives started at the Wisconsin 49, Wisconsin 39, Iowa 44 and Wisconsin 41. The Hawkeyes managed just a field goal from those drives. Iowa’s defense held the Badgers’ Melvin Gordon to a season-low 62 yards. But Iowa couldn’t put a dent in Wisconsin’s defense.

Could have used: A more consistent pass rush. The improved defensive line improved more than any position. They were good at the point of attack, jamming up the middle, but rarely got to the quarterback. Of the 24 sacks, 11.5 came from linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. Iowa returns four experienced players in tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat and ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy. A close No. 2 was the lack of a consistent downfield passing threat.

Offensive MVP: Jake Rudock emerged from a three-way race to win the quarterback job in fall camp and started every game. Rudock’s ability to make checks at the line of scrimmage was a plus all season long. He matured as a passer, too, with his ability to thread the ball into tight spots with added zip. If Iowa’s receivers grow, Rudock should exceed the 2,383 passing yards tallied this season. And his 18-touchdown, 13-interception ratio also should improve. Rudock showed an ability to get out of jams with his feet until first injuring his knee against Wisconsin. His offensive line helped him see the field by allowing a Big Ten-low 12 sacks in the regular season.

Defensive MVP: It’s hard to single out one of Iowa’s three senior linebackers here, but we’ll go with the man in the middle. Morris had his healthiest season. His 106 tackles, second to Hitchens’ 112, included a team-best 17 for losses. Morris also had a team-high seven sacks, the first linebacker to lead that category since Iowa started keeping sack totals in 1986. Morris was the only Big Ten player with at least 90 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions and was one of two players to win conference player of the week honors twice.

Reasons for optimism: The offense returns eight starters. The only losses are guards Conor Boffeli and Brett Van Sloten and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. The receivers were young, and four redshirt freshmen will be added to the mix. Iowa is deep at tight end, minimizing the loss of Fiedorowicz. Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock and freshman LeShun Daniels should help improve the running game, along with redshirt freshmen Akrum Wadley and Jonathan Parker. Rudock will head into the season a much better quarterback than the one who started the 2013 opener against Northern Illinois. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said the offense “should hit the ground running” when spring practice starts. Iowa improved its scoring from 19.3 points a game to 27.3, and its total offense from 310.4 yards to 389. Look for those figures to spike again in 2014.

Reasons for pessimism: No slam on Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry, or whoever the starting linebackers will be in 2014, but there are six very big shoes to fill. Morris, Hitchens and Kirksey were the best trio in the Big Ten. Carl Davis called the three his own personal mulligan, because they’d cover for his mistakes. Gone, too, will be cornerback B.J. Lowery and free safety Tanner Miller. The defense, third in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in total yards allowed in 2013, will be hard-pressed to match that. “We’ve got some work to do,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.

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POSSIBLE IOWA 2014 STARTING LINEUP

Offense

QB — Jake Rudock: Started every game. Will get competition from C.J. Beathard.

RB — Mark Weisman: Personifies power football, Iowa style. Finished 25 yards shy of 1,000.

FB — Adam Cox: Mr. Dependable as a lead blocker. Can catch passes, too.

WR — Kevonte Martin-Manley: Rudock’s go-to guy with team-high 40 catches, five touchdowns.

SE — Tevaun Smith: Made one of the biggest jumps on team. Playmaker potential.

TE — Ray Hamilton: Saw a lot of action in 2013. Jake Duzey on the same line.

LT — Brandon Scherff: Passed on NFL to return for senior season. Legit star.

LG — Andrew Donnal: Team’s most versatile lineman has played guard and tackle.

C — Austin Blythe: Rock solid over the ball. Tremendous upside with two seasons left.

RG — Jordan Walsh: Started every game as sophomore. Will be challenged to keep his spot.

RT — Ryan Ward: Redshirt sophomore next man in. Donnal could slide here.

P — Connor Kornbrath: Needs to improve consistency. Had good day at Outback.

Defense

LE — Drew Ott: Emerged in second half of season. Big upside with two seasons left.

LT — Carl Davis: Made huge strides against double teams all year. All-Big Ten potential.

RT — Louis Trinca-Pasat: Grind-it-out gritty performer. Outworks opponents.

RE — Mike Hardy: Filled in for injured Dominic Alvis and got valuable experience.

LB — Quinton Alston: Fifth-year senior has waited his turn behind James Morris in middle.

LB — Travis Perry: Walk-on has emerged at outside spot.

LB — Reggie Spearman: Anthony Hitchens’ understudy got experience as true freshman.

CB — Desmond King: True freshman started last 12 games. Exciting future.

CB — Jordan Lomax: Started first game but was injured. Could get look at free safety.

SS — John Lowdermilk: Solid, consistent starter in 2013. Will be a senior.

FS — Anthony Gair: No. 2 behind Tanner Miller in 2013. Three years of eligibility left.

PK — Marshall Koehn: Leading candidate to replace four-year kicker Mike Meyer.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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