When the Hawkeyes have the ball
Junior Marcus Edwards is the headliner for the Golden Eagles' defense. The junior led the Ohio Valley Conference with 7.5 sacks last season. The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder plays the "Bear" position for coordinator Billy Taylor's defense.
Yes, the "Bear" position. It's a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. The "Bear" lines up next to the "Anchor," which is 5-11, 285-pound Jordan Johnson, your traditional 3-technique defensive tackle. Johnson lines up next to Travis Adkins, and, of course, the other defensive tackle is called the "Rock." And so on, from "Bandit" (outside linebacker) to "Renegade" (inside linebacker) to a traditionally named secondary.
These are all nicknames for a 3-4 defense that relies on speed and has been in the top two of the OVC in turnover margin in each of the last two seasons. Here's an NFL reference that might ring a bell: Edwards is the Eagles' sack leader because he basically plays the same position as Clay Matthews in the Green Bay Packers' defense.
This might work and work really well in the OVC. Tech might run into trouble today against the Hawkeyes just on sheer size. Bandit linebacker Justin Vann runs just 215 pounds. Bull linebacker Matt Moran is 210. They can't afford to trade punches with Iowa's inside O-linemen, all of whom run at least 280 and are technique savvy.
The Hawkeyes are undergoing what might be the smoothest quarterback transition in the history of football. Three-year starter Ricky Stanzi is off to the Kansas City Chiefs. He yields to the Keokuk Chief, James Vandenberg, a junior who had success in two starts as a sophomore but still threw just eight passes last season.
No one Iowa is sweating this. Coach Kirk Ferentz said he's seen enough of Vandenberg, a physical therapy major, to know not to worry. The 6-3, 212-pounder picked up Stanzi's dogged video study. ABC analyst Matt Millen said this summer he likes Vandenberg's mechanics better than Stanzi's. Finally, Vandenberg has extreme confidence and is too smart to let that creep into cockiness.
Yes, running back depth is a question mark for the Hawkeyes, who seem to have take the New England Patriots' approach to running back. Not that sophomore Marcus Coker doesn't have a chance to be a supreme talent, he does. The Patriots have won with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk.
Iowa has Coker, who's looking to build off his MVP performance in the Insight Bowl, and then walk-on Jason White and then two (Mika'il McCall and Jordan Canzeri) or maybe three (Damon Bullock) true freshmen.
The Hawkeyes have storylines galore in the receiving corps. Senior Marvin McNutt backed away from the edge of the NFL and returned for his final year. Junior Keenan Davis has to want a breakthrough. Redshirt freshman Kevonte Martin-Manley wants in. And tight end might be the most crowded and potentially talented as it's been in future-NFLers Tony Moeaki and Brandon Myers lined up in 2008.
Walk-on Matt Tobin and redshirt freshman Brandon Scherff will trade time at right guard. Scherff could be a future tackle, so this is worth watching.
When the Golden Eagles have the ball
Tech quarterback Tre Lamb is a little fella, at 5-9, 185, but don't freak, Hawkeye people. He's not Dan Persa. Lamb is more passer (974 yards and 11 TDs) than runner (just 100 yards on 82 carries).
Lamb will try to gas a Tech offense that . . . that . . . well, let's allow coach Watson Brown to describe it: "We're multiple. We do a lot of stuff. It's a little bit of a disguise. Lot of sets and run a lot of the same plays out of a lot of the same looks. It's a multiple deal that you've got to spend some time on. We can go slow, we can go fast. We can do what we want with it. We always will have a little option in what we do. We're not an option team, but I believe that you've always got to have a little option until you're just better than everybody you play. Then, I don't think you have to do that. We'll always keep a little option in it. We'll always try our best to always be somewhere near a 50-50 team, always lean a little to the run over the pass but try to be somewhere from 60-40 to 50-50."
That's sort of everything, right? OK, it's not the run-and-shoot. Maybe just read the front of Tech's media guide for the distillation, "Fastest 60 minutes in football."
Wide receiver Tim Benford (6-1, 195) is the playmaker. He's second in TTU history with 151 career receptions. Adam Urbano, a transfer from Georgia Southern, is running back 1A. He compiled 926 rushing yards in two seasons at Southern. Dontey Gay is running back 1B. He has 1,932 all-purpose yards in two years at TTU.
So, time to get into Iowa's defense.
The D-line will build around end Broderick Binns and tackle Mike Daniels. As Binns stumbled after a terrific sophomore season, Daniels rose up and finished second on the Hawkeyes with 11 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks. The rest of the D-line is new, ranging from career backup finally getting his shot (end Lebron Daniel) to tweener (260-pound sophomore Dominic Alvis) to walk-on elevated to scholarship for his senior season (tackle Thomas Nardo).
The linebackers, decimated by injury last season, are led by senior OLB Tyler Nielsen and sophomore MLB James Morris. Sophomore Christian Kirksey won a camp battle over sophomore Anthony Hitchens for the weakside spot. A stellar D-line tried to fill lanes last season. The linebackers needs to do that this year.
Secondary is solid with senior cornerback Shaun Prater, but junior Micah Hyde, a starter at corner last year, is now free safety, a raise of the stakes football IQ-wise. Junior Greg Castillo gets the call at corner (his competition, sophomore B.J. Lowery is out at least four weeks with a broken wrist). Junior Collin Sleeper, who's never set foot on the field on a game, is strong safety. The secondary is solid with athletes, but has a lot of moving parts.
Iowa's best defensive asset, coordinator Norm Parker, is willing and ready and, after two seasons stunted by diabetes, able. The pedigrees are thin, but the verdict is 13 weeks off.
TTU has some competition at kicker between Oregon State transfer Matthew Barker and true freshman Zachary Sharp. Barker made 9 of 16 FG attempts last season. Senior Nick Campbell averaged 39.7 yards a punt last year. Tech is the Virginia Tech of FCS with 15 blocked kicks in the last four seasons. The Eagles have returned five kicks for TDs in Brown's four seasons. Prior to Brown's 2007 arrival, TTU had returned just eight kicks for TDs in 45 years.
Ferentz came kind of close to beaming when kicker was brought up during his Tuesday news conference. In a recent practice, all three candidates -- Mike Meyer, Trent Mossbrucker and Marshall Koehn -- made three 53-yarders apiece. Meyer, a sophomore, holds the spot. He made 14 of 17 as a true freshman. Ferentz kept going with what he termed a "happy topic" when he talked punter Eric Guthrie. He said the senior has been in tune the last two weeks of practice.
Expect three to four true freshman to join in on special teams. That might mean linebackers Quinton Alston, Melvin Spears and Marcus Collins. Also, safety Nico Law might sneak into special teams units. Special teams coaches Lester Erb and Darrell Wilson will want a fast, clean start across the board from all special teams.
The feature match is Tech's offense against Iowa's defense. It's a matchup Iowa wins, but can Tech dictate tempo? The Hawkeyes have a lot of new names on defense. You're going to have a dip at Iowa when you send three D-linemen to the NFL. This isn't a reload, it's a "let's sort of see what or who works." That's where Iowa's defense is right now. Can Tech play keep away? Probably not for long.Iowa 45, Tennessee Tech 14