IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Like nearly everyone else in the state, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz caught the end of the Northern Iowa basketball team's upset of top-ranked Kansas last weekend.
Ferentz wasn't thinking about Ali Farokhmanesh's gutsy 3-pointers, though. He was reminded how Northern Iowa's football team nearly did the same thing to his Hawkeyes last fall.
If Iowa hadn't blocked two straight kicks to beat the Panthers in the 2009 season opener, it likely wouldn't have reached the Orange Bowl, recorded 11 wins or finished the season ranked seventh in the country.
With 14 starters back on offense and defense — including eight defenders from one of the best units in the country — the Hawkeyes might start 2010 ranked even higher. With spring practice beginning this week, Ferentz knows his team can't afford to bother with the high expectations many have for the Hawkeyes.
"Our margin of error is typically going to be pretty slim. Our players need to understand that. That's just how it is," Ferentz said. "Teams that understand that the best tend to do it a little bit better and that's one of our big challenges."
Iowa will be missing a few key pieces this spring, with a few more still working their way back from injury.
Safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood and running back Adam Robinson will sit out after offseason shoulder surgeries that likely won't affect them come fall.
Sophomore running back Jewel Hampton was cleared to participate in spring practice after missing last season with a knee injury. Hampton will be limited in spring ball but should be ready next season, Ferentz said.
Wide receiver Paul Chaney Jr., who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee last fall, will also be limited this spring but should be full speed by June.
The hot spot for Iowa this spring — and probably in fall camp as well — is at offensive line. The Hawkeyes lost three starters, including likely first-round pick Bryan Bulaga. His all-important left tackle spot will be taken over by rising sophomore Riley Reiff, a 6-foot-6, 300-pounder who nudged his way into the lineup early last season and was a stalwart by the end of it.
The starting center job is a two-man race between senior Josh Koeppel and sophomore James Ferentz, the coach's son. Adam Gettis, who began last season as a starter but quickly disappeared, has the early edge at right guard and senior Marcus Zusevics is listed atop the chart at right tackle.
"We probably have eight or nine guys competing for the top spots. It's going to be interesting," Ferentz said.
There's a lot less for the Hawkeyes to worry about on defense.
Iowa returns all four starters, including Orange Bowl MVP Adrian Clayborn, from a defensive line that is easily among the nation's best heading into 2010. The Hawkeyes also bring back three starters in the secondary, with talented sophomore Micah Hyde in line to grab the cornerback spot vacated by Amari Spievey.
Jordan Bernstine, who was expected to start at cornerback last season before an ankle injury ended his season, is healthy.
The biggest challenge for defensive coordinator Norm Parker this spring will be finding two linebackers to replace stars A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer, both of whom should be on NFL rosters next season.
Senior Troy Johnson looks like the favorite at middle linebacker, and junior Tyler Nielsen will get first crack at playing alongside Jeremiah Hunter on the outside. Senior Jeff Tarpinian will be looked on to get a number of snaps at both outside linebacker spots.
"We have some very good players back and that will drive expectations," Ferentz said. "We have got a lot of work to do right now, and to replace guys like Pat Angerer, A.J. (Edds), go right down the list. We lost some really good players that really brought a lot to our program."