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May 1, 2013Football season is right around the corner, and it's never too early to talk about the greatest sport in the world. TheWolverine.com spoke to beat writers that cover all 12 of Michigan's 2013 opponents to talk about their impressions of the teams.
Michigan's 2013 Schedule
Aug. 31 - Central Michigan
Sept. 7 - Notre Dame
Sept. 14 - Akron
Sept. 21 - at Connecticut
Oct. 5 - Minnesota
Oct. 12 - at Penn State
Oct. 19 - Indiana
Nov. 2 - at Michigan State
Nov. 9 - Nebraska
No. 16 - at Northwestern
No. 23 - at Iowa
No. 30 - Ohio State
Iowa floundered down the stretch in 2012, dropping its final six games, and failed to qualify for a bowl game for just the second time since 2001. Can they bounce back from the exceedingly disappointing season? HawkeyeReport.com writer Tom Kakert discusses the team's 2013 outlook ?
Offensive Strengths - Ground game
Iowa struggled mightily under first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis in 2012. The Hawkeyes finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring (19.3 points per game), 11th in total offense (310.4 yards per game), 11th in first downs per game (17.4), and the lack of early-down production led to an abysmal 36.4 third-down conversion percentage.
Most disconcerting, however, was UI's struggles on the ground. The traditionally smashmouth offense was limited by debilitating injuries in the backfield and finished dead last in the conference in averaging only 123.0 rushing yards per game.
Rebuilding the rush attack will be critical if Iowa is to rebound from last year's substandard effort and attain bowl eligibility - and it starts along the offensive line.
The Hawkeyes return three key starters from a year ago in junior left tackle Brandon Scherff, senior right tackle Brett Van Sloten and sophomore center/guard Austin Blythe.
"The offensive line returns some starters and has some real depth and talent," said Kakert. "There are definitely some good building blocks on the offensive line."
The ground game will be bolstered by a versatile group of backs, many of whom played in 2012 out of necessity.
Due to a string of injuries, redshirt sophomore fullback Mark Weisman was thrust into the starting tailback role last year and briefly thrived. He gained 673 yards and scored eight touchdowns over a four-game midseason stretch before being limited the rest of the slate with an ankle ailment.
Junior Damon Bullock burst onto the scene with a 150-yard performance in UI's season opener, but was hindered by injury issues of his own. He finished with 513 yards and three touchdowns.
The most promising running back prospect is clearly redshirt sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who was inactive in 2012 after suffering a serious knee injury prior to last season. He capped an impressive spring with a stellar effort in Iowa's spring game, carrying the ball 13 times for 47 yards (3.6 yards per carry) and taking a screen pass 46 yards for a touchdown.
"In the backfield there is Mark Weisman, who emerged out of nowhere as a fullback when pressed into service last year," Kakert said. "He did a pretty good job for three or four weeks before he got dinged up. They also have Damon Bullock, but the guy that has looked the best is Jordan Canzeri, who missed all of last year after tearing his ACL in the spring. He's come back and looked better than anybody. Iowa is going to run the ball."
Offensive Areas To Watch - Quarterback
Iowa's coaching staff has vocally expressed their desire to develop a vertical passing game, but the man designated to throw the long ball remains a mystery as replacing graduated quarterback James Vandenberg, who threw for 33 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards in the past two seasons, is the biggest area of consternation for head coach Kirk Ferentz heading into fall camp.
Junior Cody Sokol, sophomore Jake Rudock and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard are in the midst of a heated quarterback competition that should last deep into fall camp. None of the three candidates have attempted a pass while donning the Gold and Black.
Rudock was the favorite to win the job heading into spring ball, and looked impressive at times, but Sokol, an experienced JUCO transfer, turned heads during the program's spring game. He completed 13-of-18 passes (72.2 percent) for a team-best 183 yards and a touchdown. Still the quarterback race remains wide open.
"It is still a three-man race, it is really hard to separate them," Kakert said. "The first practice we saw, it looked like Jake Rudock, the guy expected to be the starter, was the best of the three. But during the spring game it was Cody Sokol that appeared to be the best."
Defensive Strengths - Linebacker
The Hawkeyes struggled defensively in 2012, finishing seventh in the conference in scoring defense (22.9 points per game) and ninth in total defense (381.6 yards per game), and yielded 28.7 points per game during their season-ending six-game skid.
But if there is a strength to be found on the defensive side of the ball, it will be an experienced linebacking core. UI returns its top three tacklers in seniors Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey. The three pug-nosed backers combined for 332 tackles in 2012, including 18 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, and will be depended upon to anchor the Gold and Black defense both in the locker room and between the hash marks.
"The strength has to be the linebackers," Kakert said. "They have three seniors there with a lot of experience. Those three have been around the block and have a chip on their shoulder from last year. They are going to lead the defense and will be the key to success."
Defensive Areas To Watch - Defensive line
Iowa's defense has traditionally been characterized by the big uglies in the interior, but the defensive line struggles personified the Hawkeyes' downward spiral a year ago. UI finished seventh in the conference in rush defense (162.1 yards per game) and last in sacks (70 total), but things are looking up on the shoulders of a breakout spring by a Michigan native.
Talented junior defensive tackle Carl Davis, a Sterling Heights (Mich.) product, has seemingly shedded the inconsistency that has plagued him throughout his career, and has apparently matured into a force in the middle that will eat up interior blockers and open up the edges for the growing defense. The 6-5, 315-pound monster recorded three sacks during the spring game and was arguably the most effective player during the intra-squad scrimmage.
"The big story of the defense, like most traditional Iowa teams, is the defensive line," Kakert said. "They need more production against the run and have to generate pressure against some of the conference's mobile quarterbacks. They didn't do that last year and got picked apart. They need to show some signs of life.
"Carl Davis, a kid that is actually out of Michigan, is going into his junior year and the light seems to have gone on for him. He is really playing at a high level. He's looked tremendous all spring and has really displayed a level of consistency. If he can continue to emerge in the middle, he can create more opportunities off the edge for the defensive ends to get more sacks."
"It is still kind of an unknown," Kakert said. "They are coming off of a 4-8 year, they didn't perform well offensively and the defense really struggled in last six weeks of the season. It's hard to get a real grasp of the direction of the team.
"They are doing some different things this spring. They just wrapped up spring practice and it looks different. They are doing more no huddle and are playing much more aggressively. They made some staffing changes. Things look like they are on the upswing but you don't know until they get out there against somebody other than themselves.
"I would like to think that they are moving upward, but they have to prove it after losing the last six games of last year, many of them decidedly in a negative way. They just did not look good late last year."