IOWA CITY - The heartbreak of a season-ending loss to Western Michigan, the absence of a bowl invitation and the turmoil caused by troubles off the gridiron gave University of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz more than enough questions to answer at Monday's annual media day event at Kinnick Stadium.
He did so in his usual manner, sprinkling a few comedic quips in with his typical brand of business-like responses.
As much unenviable attention as Ferentz's program has gained in the past year, it was almost refreshing for him to address the substantial struggles his team - and more poignantly his offense - had in 2007 and by what route the Hawkeye coaches and players were going to travel to remedy those ills for the fast-approaching 2008 campaign.
T-R PHOTO BY TOM RENAUD
Wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos catches a pass from a teammate during Iowa football media day Monday in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes open the season Aug. 30 against Maine at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa (6-6 in 2007) finished last season ranked last in the Big Ten and 110th nationally in scoring offense at 18.5 points per game, averaging just 316 yards. The coaching staff was quick to point out that the Hawkeyes were tops in the conference and 22nd nationally in turnover margin (plus-8), but no amount of ball security has allowed for much job security on the offensive side of the ball.
That's why the starting quarterback position, occupied last year by sophomore left-hander Jake Christensen, was declared open for competition by Ferentz and his staff.
"Right now it's everybody's job to lose or gain," Ferentz said. "Jake is the frontrunner, but he's got to earn the job. He's got to play the position better than he did a year ago, just like I'd expect anybody who is a first-year player to.
"We'll let the guys compete and see what happens."
Sophomore Ricky Stanzi, who had offseason shoulder surgery, or redshirt freshman Marvin McNutt will be in the mix, Ferentz said, as the team prepares for its season opener Aug. 30 at home against Maine.
"My focus is just getting better every day, I have no doubts in my ability," Christensen said. "It will be healthy competition but in my eyes I am the guy.
"Obviously it has been pretty well documented that I didn't play as well as I should have last year. It was a learning experience. It made me that much better and I think it is going to make this entire team that much better."
Christensen was a first-year signal-caller for one of the most stagnant offenses in Ferentz's nine years as head coach, completing just 53.5 percent of his passes for 2,269 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. It was the 46 sacks suffered by Iowa quarterbacks, however, that prompted the most alarm for Iowa fans and their young, inexperienced offensive line.
"2007 was 2007, right now we're concerned about what we need to do to improve and move forward right now," said Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe. "Jake understands what we're after and he's working as hard as he can.
"It's way easier when you've got a veteran group around an inexperienced quarterback. When you have a combination of inexperienced people and an inexperienced quarterback, that's not a recipe that I like to go into the kitchen with."
Ferentz called his offensive line the deepest and most experienced group he's had despite the loss of tackle Dace Richardson to season- and likely career-ending knee surgery. Seniors Seth Olsen, Rob Bruggeman and Wesley Aeschliman provide the leadership, but only Olsen is projected as a starter. From left to right, Andy Kuempel, Julian Vandervelde, Rafael Eubanks, Olsen and Kyle Calloway fill the top spots on Ferentz's depth chart.
Everyone involved expressed how critical it will be to bring Iowa's rushing offense up from last year, when it ranked 10th out of 11 in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes' 126.2 rushing yards per game average was ahead of only Northwestern, which attempted 153 more passes than Iowa last fall.
And the Hawkeyes have to turn it around without Albert Young and Damian Sims, the senior duo that combined for 4,677 yards in their careers.
Young graduated third all-time rushing at Iowa behind only Sedrick Shaw and Ladell Betts, but his senior total of 968 yards was his lowest in four years.
The return of Shonn Greene has given the Hawkeyes hope. Greene, an attention-getter as a hard-hitting member of Iowa's kickoff team as a freshman and sophomore, failed to maintain the academic requirements and attended Kirkwood Community College last school year. His 69 career carries netted 378 yards, a robust 5.5 average before he was forced to leave the team last season.
Sophomores Paki O'Meara and Jayme Murphy (special teamers with no career rushing attempts) and junior college transfer Nate Guillory (2,644 yards in two years at Coffeyville CC, Kan.) are expected to share the running back duties in another roster battle. True freshmen Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton could find their way into the competition as well.
"Getting Shonn back is big for us, he's a guy that's played," Ferentz said. "He hasn't had a ton of carries, but we've seen enough of him to know he knows what to do. I think he can be a guy that can really impact our football team and help our football team."
Ferentz and his staff made no excuses, but losing wide receiver Andy Brodell and tight end Tony Moeaki to injury four games into the season played a role in the offense's woes. Brandon Myers emerged as a viable option at tight end, while underclassmen Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Paul Cheney Jr., Trey Stross and Colin Sandeman got an earlier-than-expected look at receiver.
On the whole, 11 true freshmen saw playing time - a record in the Ferentz era.
"We feel good about the guys we've got in place and obviously last year we were disappointed," said Brodell. "And we've had off-field problems and all these different things that have been hanging over our program so we feel like we have a lot to prove this season.
"We want to get back to where we were a couple years ago and we have the talent and ability to do it, it's just whether or not we work hard during camp and prepare every week."
Brodell gained 724 yards receiving as one of Drew Tate's favorite late-season targets in 2006, but a knee injury suffered in a loss at Wisconsin last September ended his year. Moeaki went down in the same game with a broken hand and a dislocated elbow.
Early on the Hawkeyes were forced to turn to their defense, which bent but rarely broke in allowing 18.8 points per game in 2007. Defensive tackles and now four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul will be the focal point of defensive coordinator Norm Parker's unit.
"I don't feel any excess pressure, but there's just as much pressure on us seniors as there is for a freshman," King said. "I don't think it's squarely on my shoulders. It is on everybody to lead. We've got a lot of young kids and we need those guys to step up and lead by example too."
Replacing a pair of graduated defensive ends will be Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborne, both of whom played last year as freshmen. With Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal gone, junior A.J. Edds leads a linebacker trio that includes sophomores Jacody Coleman and Jeff Tarpinian.
The defensive backfield will realign once more after losing Charles Godfrey (draft) and Adam Shada (graduation) from last year's squad. Bradley Fletcher is a three-year letterwinner, Harold Dalton saw regular snaps at strong safety and Brett Greenwood started as a freshman free safety.
"We're going to be young initially but once those guys get their feet on the ground, I think we have the potential to be pretty good," Ferentz said. "All in all, when it's all said and done, we should be as good (as last year) if we're playing the way we can."