2010 Has Skills

July 8, 2010

Written by Jon Miller

Hawkeye Nation

When you think back through some of the best Iowa teams of the Kirk Ferentz era, defensive standouts come to mind more often than not, at least for me. Sometimes, it’s all about the entire defensive unit, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That may be the case again this year, as it was last year with an offense that was in the lower 25% in the nation with regards to total yards and near the bottom of most offensive categories in the Big Ten.

However, this year’s offense shouldn’t be stymied for a lack of talent at the skill positions. In fact, this might be the second best skill position crop Ferentz has had as Iowa’s head coach.

The best? 2002. How does this year’s group stack up to that amazing bunch?

RECEIVERS: C.J. Jones & Mo Brown vs Derrell Johnson-Koulianos & Marvin McNutt

Brown had 48 receptions for 966 yards and 11 touchdowns, one of the best single seasons an Iowa receiver has ever had with regards to yards and touchdowns. He had an eye-popping 20.1 yards per reception average. Brown was a physical specimen; very strong and deceptively fast. Jones caught 38 passes for 468 yards and nine touchdowns. Both players benefited from an offensive line that forced opponents to sell out to try to stop the run, because that was the only chance they had to beat Iowa that year. Most of the time that pursuit proved fruitless, and Brown and Jones were wide open on play action. I can’t ever recall seeing so many wide open touchdown receptions down the seams as Iowa had that year, and it was because teams had to cheat eight men into the box to stop the run. But these two players had talent.

DJK caught 45 passes last year for 750 yards (16.7/rec) and two touchdowns. McNutt had 34 grabs for 675 yards (19.8/rec) and eight touchdowns. McNutt, in his first year as a starting wide receiver and first full season at the position represented quite well. More than just quite well, that was a very impressive ‘debut’ year, better than what we saw out of Dominique Douglas or Kahlil Hill in their initial seasons as starters. In my opinion, DJK has more talent than any of the three receivers mentioned thus far; he just has to take care of whatever it is that has held him back in the eyes of the coaching staff and treat every practice as if it were his last. Like Jones, DJK also possesses great return game instincts…better than Jones. I still believe DJK has the potential to be the most dynamic player with the ball in his hands Iowa has had since Tim Dwight. If healthy, he’ll own most of the career records for receivers in school history by the middle of the season, but if he can live up to the legend on the field this year and BE D-J-Freaking-K, lookout.

At this point in time, the nod goes to the 2002 duo of Jones and Brown, but McNutt and DJK could get even with them this season.

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RUNNING BACKS: Fred Russell & Jermelle Lewis vs Adam Robinson/Brandon Wegher/Jewel Hampton

One could argue that the production Iowa received from Russell and Lewis in 2002 puts them as the best running back tandem over the last 30 or more years. Russell gained 1,264 yards and scored nine touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Lewis gained 709 yards (5.8/carry) and scored eight touchdowns. As an aside, can you even imagine what Shonn Greene would have done behind the 2002 offensive line? Then again, Greene played behind the second best line of the Ferentz era and gained over 1,800 yards and had 20-ish touchdowns by himself…Russell and Lewis were a great compliment to one another. Russell was the water-bug scat back that could also put his helmet between your numbers and take your breath away, while Lewis was poetry in motion. Before Greene, I would have said Lewis was the most skilled back since Ronnie Harmon. I still might, as Lewis had better hands than Greene, had power and also had speed. However, Lewis proved to be a bit fragile while Greene was a packhorse. Lewis’ nickname on the team was ‘Skills’ because he had them all.

What Robinson and Wegher did last year as freshmen was remarkable. Robinson set the Iowa freshman rushing record and Wegher darn near got to that mark as well, which was held by Ladell Betts, another very talented running back. What impressed me the most with these two was their ability to hold on to the ball and also how well they protected Rick Stanzi in the blocking schemes. Robinson proved to be a powerful back who could get you the tough yards. Wegher could flash and showed good hands, an area which should be exploited more this season. Look for Wegher to come into this season a little lighter, closer to 190 pounds so that he can be lighter on his feet and break some bigger plays. Hampton had a nice freshman year, scoring seven touchdowns and averaging more than five yards per carry. But he was spelling Greene after 23 had tenderized the meat, and he also was playing behind a very talented line. However, he did show a nice burst in the hole. A friend of mine told me during the 2008 Michigan State game that Greene was like a doubles hitter with home run holes, and that Hampton would probably have produced more yards on some of those plays. I loved the analogy then and still do. However, the sledding will be tougher this year than Jewel remembers from 2008 as this year’s line will not be as good as the 2008 crew.

Advantage 2002.

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TIGHT END: Dallas Clark vs Allen Reisner

This isn’t a fair fight at this point in time and might never be. Clark is the greatest pass catching tight end in school history, which is saying a mouthful. He had 43 grabs for 742 yards and four touchdowns in 2002 and won the Mackey Award. Reisner has 27 receptions for 374 yards and two scores for his career. This will be his year to shine, and he should at least equal his career totals this one season. But there is no way he will outplay Dallas Clark. Advantage 2002.

QUARTERBACK: Rick Stanzi vs Brad Banks

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Banks turned in one of the most amazing single seasons an Iowa quarterback has ever had. More than 2,500 yards passing with 26 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He was also dangerous with his legs, rushing for 423 yards and five scores. That, an an 11-1 regular season record to go along with an 8-0 Big Ten Championship, helped propel Banks to #2 in the Heisman voting behind USC’s Carson Palmer. Was Banks that good, or did the level of talent around him make him better? For me, that will be an eternal chicken or the egg debate. Banks could throw lasers and he could get out of trouble, and he was unflappable that year. But there weren’t too many flaps in the road to steer around. He played behind the best offensive line in school history. Four players from the top six of that offensive line were drafted. He also had great skill position talent around him as we have illustrated.

Rick Stanzi has proven to be one of the best leaders Iowa has had at the position since Matt Rogers. He’s also the best pure quarterback Iowa has had since Matt Rogers, in my opinion, or he has the ability to be that. He isn’t as crafty as Drew Tate, he is not as fast as Brad Banks, he doesn’t have the arm of a Jon Beutjer but he is 18-4 as a starter. He has led his team back from amazing odds and situations more times than once and in more than one season. The drive against Penn State in 2008. The drive against Michigan State in 2009, the fourth quarter heroics against Indiana in 2009 after playing poorly the previous three quarters…his players believe in him and he can flush bad plays out of his system and bounce back unlike anything I have seen at Iowa.

What would Iowa’s record have been in 2002 with Stanzi at quarterback? Would Iowa have won 11 games? Could Stanzi have brought Iowa back at home against Purdue the way Banks did? Probably not. What would Iowa’s record have been in 2009 with Banks at quarterback? Would Banks have operated so smoothly behind an offensive line that was in the lower half of Big Ten lines and a running game that was borderline anemic? Probably not.

Both are good, and both have been good for the teams they have been on…

It’s probably unfair to compare the 2010 skill position players to the 2002 group, because of the difference in offensive lines. But I think this year’s crop of skill positions players has a chance to slide in at #2 for the Ferentz era.

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