TEMPE, Ariz. -- At some point this week, someone pointed out to James Vandenberg the diamond collection of quarterbacks on display this week in Arizona.
The Hawkeyes and the Insight Bowl shared space this week with Fiesta Bowl contestants Stanford and Oklahoma State. Along with Oklahoma's Landry Jones, who was asked after the Sooners' 31-14 victory over Iowa if he was going pro, the greater Phoenix metro had Stanford's Andrew Luck and OSU's Brandon Weeden.
A reporter asked Vandenberg where he thought he fit in that team picture.
"I think the guy was trying to make me feel bad, and he did a decent job of it, too," said Vandenberg, who put up a top five season in Iowa school history. "I blatantly did not even realize it. He kind of called me the redheaded stepchild of the group."
That will be the theme that is stuck on the Hawkeyes going into 2012. After a 7-6 finish with a 31-14 defeat to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl, expectations probably should start at 7-5 and work their way up, or down, as '12 unfolds.
Big questions follow the Hawkeyes into the offseason.
You have the standbys. Running back is up in the air, with Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall under suspension. The same questions that tracked Iowa's defensive line will be there next spring, when Iowa tries to replace seniors Mike Daniels (who finished 6.5 sacks this season), Broderick Binns and Tom Nardo.
Iowa's defensive line will be amazingly young -- probably relying on redshirt and maybe some true freshmen to make the rotation -- and it will be under the guidance of a new defensive coordinator and D-line coach.
The suspensions and coaching vacancies were questions that coach Kirk Ferentz pushed through all week in Arizona. He preferred to keep the focus on the Insight Bowl. He said if the lack of a defensive coordinator cost Iowa a recruit or two, he was OK with it, saying this is a bigger decision than a couple of recruits.
Forget who pushes the buttons on defense, the Hawkeyes will be searching for a go-to playmaker, the disrupting force that it didn't find enough of this season.
The defensive line needs to have several prospects catch fire. Junior Dominic Alvis showed promise before a torn ACL ended his season. Pending a return date, he could be a peg to build around. The other end position is wide open.
Tackles also are wide open. Seniors Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione have resumes. Sophomore Carl Davis spent much of 2011 slowed by a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Darian Cooper will activate, and Iowa has incoming freshmen Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie.
Linebackers Christian Kirksey and James Morris likely will fill the outside and weakside positions. Iowa is looking for a middle linebacker.
The secondary will have cornerback Micah Hyde and free safety Tanner Miller to build around. Put B.J. Lowery down for the other corner. After suffering a broken wrist in training camp, the junior from Cincinnati had shining moments, including the pass breakup up to seal a victory over then-No. 13 Michigan, the season's signature win. Strong safety is wide open, with sophomore Nico Law and senior Collin Sleeper in line.
Vandenberg will steer the offense. The red flag for him is a road record of 1-5 as a starter (reality check here is that Iowa was the underdog in three of those six games). The numbers were there -- 3,o22 yards, 25 TD passes and just seven interceptions.
You could argue he didn't elevate Iowa in the really big games in his first season as starter. You could also argue that Iowa didn't elevate Iowa in those games this season.
It's impossible to parse running back until there are definitive answers on Coker and McCall. Canzeri showed promise against a tough Oklahoma front seven, but he's probably a more complementary back in Iowa's I-formation heavy, pro-style offense.
Iowa loses all-time leading receiver Marvin McNutt, but the position is in good hands with senior Keenan Davis and sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley. A third receiver needs to emerge. Tight end, a disappointment in '11, should improve with junior C.J. Fiedorowicz having at least a few games as a starter. Senior Zach Derby and sophomore Ray Hamilton will fight it out at No. 2.
The monster question on the offensive line is tackle. If left tackle Riley Reiff doesn't declare a year early for the NFL draft, he's Iowa's top recruit for '12. He's climbed Mel Kiper's big board to No. 10 and he'll be 24 after next football season. One of those is reason enough to go. Sophomore Andrew Donnal could be the next here.
Right tackle Markus Zusevics left the Insight Bowl with flu symptoms and was replaced by junior Brett Van Sloten. Perhaps that's a sneak preview. Senior James Ferentz will return for his third year as starter at center. Senior Matt Tobin will fit in at guard, but did replace Reiff at left tackle when Reiff missed some time to injury at Penn State. The other guard spot is open, with freshman Austin Blythe and junior Conor Boffeli perhaps fitting in there.
For Iowa to work under Ferentz's vision, Iowa has to be its best on the line of scrimmage. Right now, that's a question.One of the many Ferentz and the Hawkeyes have on the docket starting now.