Harty: Despite pluses, Hawks still vulnerable

By Pat Harty
Fullback Adam Cox carries tacklers out of bounds during the 2013 Hawkeye Football Spring Game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, April 27, 2013.

Original publish date: August 17, 2014

What started as a feel-good moment for the kids on Saturday ultimately turned into a warning to Iowa football fans.

Your team, as solid as it appears on paper with arguably the Big Ten's top offensive line, a sturdy defensive line, a stable of running backs and a favorable schedule, still is vulnerable.

That was evident from what was and what wasn't on display during the Kids at Kinnick Day scrimmage Saturday.

On display was a kicking game that reeked of inconsistencies, while not on display were some of Iowa's top players, who were nursing injuries, or in the case of starting fullback Adam Cox, out for the season because of a knee injury.

Losing the 230-pound Cox hardly signifies a crisis, but he is an important piece to a fragile puzzle. Iowa relies on its fullback to pave the way for its vaunted power running game. Cox had started to excel in that role last season.

Iowa also relies heavily on its kickers to win close games. It's been that way ever since Kirk Ferentz took over as head coach in 1999, and there is no reason to think that will change. Rarely are the Hawkeyes built to blow teams out from a personnel standpoint, nor is Ferentz built that way from a personality standpoint.

So whoever emerges as Iowa's starting kicker between junior Marshall Koehn and freshmen Mick Ellis and Miguel Recinos almost certainly will have a huge impact on the 2014 season. Ellis is the only one among the three kickers on scholarship, but that doesn't necessarily give him the inside track.

Just ask former Iowa kicker Trent Mossbrucker. He was on scholarship for five seasons from 2008 to 2012 but still never won the place-kicking job long term.

Ferentz might have eased concerns about the kicking game with what he said after Saturday's scrimmage, calling it one of the highlights of camp.

"I was not real overwhelmed with what we were doing on the field punting or kicking last spring," Ferentz said. "But I think both of those areas have looked pretty good up until today.

"So today, to me, was kind of uncharacteristic of what we've seen. And hopefully, we can work through that."

The problem with being a kicker is that it only takes one miss in one game to change the course of a season. Some kickers shine until the lights start shining on gameday.

The combination of missed field goals and costly injuries has prevented some heralded Iowa teams from meeting expectations. Perhaps the best example is the 1997 Hawkeye squad that featured the dynamic duo on offense of running back Tavian Banks and receiver Tim Dwight.

That team won its first four games by a combined margin of 221-46 and seemed poised for greatness until injuries and kicking woes caused the season to unravel as Iowa finished 7-5. Starting linebacker Vernon Rollins suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game against Iowa State, while quarterback Matt Sherman suffered a thumb injury in the sixth game against eventual 1997 national champion Michigan.

Sherman missed the rest of the regular season, causing Iowa's passing game to sputter with inexperienced backups running the offense.

Walk-on kicker Zach Bromert also contributed to the swoon by missing a 43-yard field goal with 3 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in a 13-10 loss at Wisconsin in the ninth game. He followed that with two more critical misses during a 15-14 loss at Northwestern the following week.

Iowa's chance for a special season had sailed wide right.

Think back to all the field goals that former Iowa all-America kicker Nate Kaeding made during his career, which lasted from 2000-03. Kaeding's powerful right left often was the difference between victory and defeat.

What if Daniel Murray had missed his now famous field goal against third-ranked Penn State in 2008?

Despite the exploits of all-America running back Shonn Greene, the 2008 season still was in danger of unraveling with Iowa having lost four of its previous six games when Murray split the uprights in the closing seconds at Kinnick Stadium.

His game-winning kick ignited the Hawkeyes, who closed the season with four consecutive victories to finish 9-4.

As for the injuries, the good news is that most of the players who missed Saturday's practice did so as a precautionary measure. The running backs have stayed healthy so far with exception to Cox's injury, as have all three quarterbacks and the team's two crown jewels: senior left tackle Brandon Scherff and senior defensive tackle Carl Davis.

Scherff was asked Saturday about having tired legs as preseason camp grinds into a third week.

"That's just like the season, you just have to keep pushing through it," Scherff said. "It's a mental thing, too. You just have to play more physical."

Scherff also downplayed the brief scuffle that occurred between sophomore defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson and senior center Tommy Gaul. Johnson was ordered to the bench after punching Gaul.

"It's good for us," Scherff said. "Bringing that to every practice gets us all fired up. It's part of football."

Unfortunately, so are injuries and missed field goals.

You just hope for Scherff's sake that he doesn't experience what Banks and Dwight did 17 years ago.