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A recruit’s take, a new kicker, Athlon and Stewart Mandel

By now, you know highly touted quarterback and Iowa legacy Nate Scheelhaase spurned the Hawkeyes and a handful of other schools in favor of Illinois. The 4-star prospect, rated the No. 2 dual-threat QB in America, announced his decision on live TV in Kansas City Wednesday night. 

Before making his announcement, Scheelhaase sat down for an interview with Rivals.com’s Jeremy Crabtree. Here’s an excerpt from Crabtree’s article: 

Another big factor for Scheelhaase was the possibility of getting early playing time. He said he loved how coach Ron Zook isn’t afraid to play true freshmen if they’re ready.

“You’re going to get competition no matter where you go,” he said. “We saw at Illinois that they weren’t afraid to play kids early and give kids competition. Even right now with Juice being the quarterback he is, he knows he’s got competition behind him. If he’s not getting the job done, they’re not afraid to move another guy in there.

“Coach Zook is also not afraid to play young guys, too. He’s going to put in the guy that’s going to get the job done, whether he’s a true freshman or a redshirt senior. Whoever will go out there, put in his work, put in his time and help the team win will play. And that was something really important for me to hear.”  

That got me thinking, or wondering, rather: How did Scheelhaase view Iowa in that regard? Did he think he’d have a chance to see the field immediately, or did he watch last season as Kirk Ferentz stuck with Jake Christensen even as the first-year starter struggled to put up the lowest passer rating in the Big Ten? Did that weigh in Scheelhaase’s decision? We all know Ferentz is the last coach to hook a starter and that he traditionally has been reluctant to play freshmen over older, more experienced players. Zook, meanwhile, showed last year that he won’t hesitate to mix it up. Even as the Illini were in the midst of a 9-win, Rose Bowl season, he was more than willing to switch in Eddie McGee for Juice Williams when Williams was struggling. Heck, McGee nearly led the Illini to a comeback win at Kinnick Stadium.

I talked to Scheelhaase today, and he said not to read too much into his comments to Rivals, that his statements about Illinois’ strengths in recruiting didn’t necessarily point to weaknesses in the programs he turned down — Iowa, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. The question I had for Scheelhaase was how Zook and Ferentz, and their staffs, go about it, how their styles differ on the recruiting trail.

Scheelhaase, who had a several-page list of what he was looking for in a school, was reluctant to compare the two programs.

“Everybody has their different styles,” he said. “You deal with different coaches, different personalities. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t any one style that hurt or helped one program or another. It was the overall package. It’s not really about the style and how they go at it. It’s about big factors, what the academics are, what the offense is. That’s what put Illinois over the top.

“I don’t know if there was a ‘pitch.’ They just sold the program as the people inside it, just as good people and a place that I could succeed not only as a football player but in school and off the football field. They were down to earth the whole time and straight forward. That was really something that was important to me. I can’t say that there was anything that hurt any one school. It’s that Illinois was that great in all the phases. It was just that right place for me.”

For the record, Scheelhaase seems like a nice kid who made his college decision for the right reasons. And, sorry Hawkeyes fans, I wish him well.

A FRESH LEG

This time of year, everyone wants to talk about which incoming freshmen are going to get a chance to see the field. With a vacant backfield, running backs Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton certainly are two, and there are a handful of defensive backs who will get a shot. But place-kicker Trent Mossbrucker, from Mooresville, Ind., might be one who could make a real impact.

Iowa’s kickers – junior Austin Signor and sophomore Daniel Murray – were not good last season. Together, they made 10 of 16 field goals and 24 of 28 PATs, stats that ranked 10th and 11th in the Big Ten, respectively. Mossbrucker has the leg, and it seems the demeanor, to compete. (Click here for a link to a story on Mossbrucker in the Indy Star, and click here for another about him being a finalist for Indiana’s Mr. Football). Mossbrucker is a talented athlete, much like former Hawkeye Nate Kaeding, who played football, soccer and basketball in high school. As a senior, the 6-foot, 195-pound Mossbrucker set school records for completions (526) and passing yards (4,208), while throwing for 39 scores. He probably would have gotten a lot of attention as a QB if he were a few inches taller. As it was, his kicking numbers — 8-for-11 field goals, 47-for-48 PATs and 46 of 65 kickoffs into the end zone — landed him a scholarship.

Ferentz said at the end of spring practice that neither Signor nor Murray had won the job. As it was last season, Signor appears to have the stronger leg while Murray has been more accurate. Perhaps Mossbrucker will be both.

THE HOLY BIBLE

While at Hy-Vee the other night, picking up a gourmet dinner of lukewarm chicken and cold noodle salad — nothing but the best — I grabbed Athlon’s college football preview, the national edition. I read these preseason publications like the Pope reads the Bible, so it’s always a big day when I see the first one on the magazine rack.

A couple notes from Athlon: Iowa is not listed in the top 10 in any of the position rankings, not even the D-line, which I think could be one of the best in the nation. From that unit, senior Mitch King is picked as a second-team All-American. The first-teamers are Terrill Byrd (Cincinnati) and Gerald McCoy (Oklahoma). Athlon’s top 10 teams: Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC, Georgia, Missouri, West Virginia, Auburn, LSU and Clemson. Wisconsin is No. 12, Illinois 16 and Penn State 23. Iowa is picked sixth in the Big Ten and 38th in the nation. I’d say that’s about right. As far as All-Big Ten goes: King’s a first-teamer, tight end Tony Moeaki and offensive tackle Seth Olsen are second team along with linebacker A.J. Edds and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos as a return specialist. And here’s where Iowa stands in Athlon’s unit rankings within the Big Ten: QBs (8), RB (11), WR/TE (3), OL (6), DL (5), LB (5) and DB (8).

Click here for Athlon’s profile of the Hawkeyes, who they think will win between seven and nine games, with Pitt and Michigan State as swing games and losses coming to Wisconsin, Penn State and Illinois in succession. Or check out the magazine. Iowan Zach Johnson is featured in a TransAmerica ad on Page 23. Right now, Zach is tied for 23rd at the British Open.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Sideline Spirit” section in the back (Pages 184-188) that profiles four cheerleaders from around the country. Congrats to 2007 Sideline Spirit winner Brittany Baumann of Cincinnati. Not bad.

AND SPEAKING OF HOT … 

In his latest mailbag, Sports Illustrated college football writer Stewart Mandel answered a question from a frustrated Iowa fan asking whether or not Ferentz is on the hot seat coming off a 6-6 season. Here is Mandel’s response:  

While Ferentz certainly gained himself some mileage (not to mention a hefty paycheck) with his impressive run a few years back, he’s definitely treading dangerously. By no means is it realistic to expect him to win Big Ten titles every year at Iowa, the past two seasons have been particularly mediocre (a combined 12-13 record). To add insult to injury, his players seem to be constantly in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Hawkeyes have endured 17 arrests (including five felonies) over the past 15 months. Most of the players connected to the more serious crimes are no longer with the team.

Strangely, I think Iowa’s early success under Ferentz — three straight 10-win seasons and a share of two Big Ten titles from 2002-04 — may have caused the seeds of his demise. Those early teams were molded around largely unheralded recruits who bloomed late in their career like QB Brad Banks, Outland winner Robert Gallery and linebacker Chad Greenway. That success allowed Ferentz to start hauling in some bona fide blue-chippers, culminating in a 2005 class that was ranked in the top 10 by most services.

However, most of the studs from that class and the ones that followed never panned out. Some are the same ones whose names now appear in the police blotter. Maybe they arrived with bigger egos than their predecessors. Maybe they did not work as hard. Maybe Ferentz and his staff got caught up in four-star ratings and did not pay as much attention as they normally would to character.

Whatever the case, he needs to get things turned back around in a hurry — an eight-win season and return to the upper third of the Big Ten would suffice — because right now his program is causing nothing but embarrassment for Iowa. I could see the Hawkeyes’ 2008 season heading in either direction: Either the remaining players grow closer and regain the type of chemistry those old teams had, or the whole thing just implodes on Ferentz and the season seals his fall from grace.

Mandel’s right. This is a make-or-break year for Ferentz and his staff, on and off the field.

That’s all for now. The Big Ten Media Kickoff is a week from today in Chicago. I’m still not sure if I’m going to be able to attend as my wife and I still are awaiting the birth of our first child — she’s due Monday. If the baby comes early or on time and without complications, I’ll most likely be there. But if we fly the due date, I’ll be watching on ESPN like the rest of you.

What’s on your mind as we sit just more than six weeks from the opener? What questions do you have about the upcoming season? What’s your prediction for 2008? Six, seven, eight wins or more?

Let me know.  

6 Responses to “A recruit’s take, a new kicker, Athlon and Stewart Mandel”

  1. Jersey Brian Says:

    Great read today, Eric!

    I definitely agree with your and Mandel’s take on the importance of this season for Ferentz’s future at Iowa. I think nothing was more indicative of that than the fans’ reaction when rumors had Ferentz heading to Michigan at the end of the season. Posters on the fansites and blogs were downright giddy at the prospect, and already speculating how much better Iowa would be after Brian Kelly or Chuck Long took the reins.

    Here’s a question: have you (or anyone else) talked to Ferentz about this lately? Obviously, he knows that 6-6 seasons complete with off-field problems won’t suffice, especially since his current paycheck could lure just about any coach in the country to Iowa. But does he know what has gone wrong and how to fix it? I’m curious about his disposition in general, and how he plans to approach the season and (hopefully) right the ship.

    Even though Michigan is probably going to be so-so this year, any schedule that doesn’t include them and OSU is one the Hawkeyes should ride to a bowl game. Coupled with the fact that probably Iowa’s two toughest opponents (Wisconsin and Penn State) come to Kinnick, it’s a great schedule for the Hawkeyes to get their groove back. I’m going to be totally optimistic and say the Hawks upset Illinois again, get a split out of the Wisconsin/Penn State games, lose tough road games at Michigan State and Pitt, and handle everyone else for 9-3 and the Outback Bowl.

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