IOWA CITY, Iowa – For the first time in months, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is getting a chance to focus on football — and only football.
The Hawkeyes opened spring practice Wednesday after a trying offseason of arrests, dismissals and the shocking hospitalization of 13 players. They returned on the same day a report cleared the players and coaches of any wrongdoing in the much-publicized rhabdomyolysis incident from late January.
Iowa could really use a break from the clouds hanging over the program — and it could really use the work as well.
The Hawkeyes lost 12 starters from a team that finished a disappointing 8-5 in 2010.
"We're eager to get going," Ferentz said. "Right now we've got as many questions as any time of the year and we've got a lot of work to do."
Save for those precious few hours when the Hawkeyes beat Missouri 27-24 in the Insight Bowl, the program has been dealing with constant headaches since the end of November.
First there was the drug arrest of star wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who was booted off the team before the bowl game. Most of the charges against Johnson-Koulianos were dismissed, though the incident prompted the athletic department to hold a press conference defending its drug testing program while also acknowledging that some athletes might have found ways to get around it in the past.
Starting running back Adam Robinson saw his suspension for the bowl game turn into a permanent dismissal when he was arrested in Des Moines for possession of marijuana the night before the Hawkeyes beat the Tigers.
But the worst day came in January, when those 13 players were sent to the hospital with an unusual muscle disorder following grueling offseason workouts.
Ferentz said Wednesday that all the hospitalized players have been cleared to return for spring ball and shouldn't suffer long-term consequences from their ailment.
Ferentz also reiterated that the workout that led to the hospitalizations, which was also used in 2000, 2004 and 2007, won't be repeated.
"Watching them, everything I've seen, it's been positive. It's like a player that gets injured. The hardest thing for a player, at least in our sport, is when they're on the side watching," Ferentz said. "So they're all anxious to get back."
On the field, Iowa will need to rebuild or reload.
Quarterback James Vandenberg is expected to take over for three-year starter Ricky Stanzi. Vandenberg threw just eight passes last season as a sophomore, but he was thrust into the starting job in 2009 when Stanzi went out with an ankle injury.
Though Vandenberg was shaky in his first appearance that year, a loss to Northwestern that ended the Hawkeyes' unbeaten season, he nearly led Iowa to a win at Ohio State the following week.
"He's the most experienced, clearly, and we've seen him do a lot of good things on the game field but also just behind the scenes last year watching him practice," Ferentz said.
Vandenberg will be pushed by fellow junior John Wienke and redshirt freshman A.J. Derby, who intends to stay at quarterback even though his athleticism, size and spot on the depth chart suggest he might change positions.
The biggest losses came on the defensive line, where departed stars Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug formed one of the best four-man units the Hawkeyes have had.
Defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who earned a starting spot on the line last season and looked dominant at times, will anchor the new group this spring alongside fellow tackle Thomas Nardo.
Lebron Daniel, a senior who's waited his turn, will join Broderick Binns as the starting ends for spring practice.
"We've got two outstanding leaders in Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns coming back, and they've both played well for us," Ferentz said. "They'll certainly be the guys we start with, and I think we've got a lot of interesting players. I can envision us probably playing six to eight guys next year."
But those will all be football questions, which should be much easier for Ferentz to deal with.
"In a perfect world, that's what I'd like to do. But this world's not perfect, and it never will be," Ferentz said. "There will be something else coming down the tracks here eventually, so we'll hang on for the next one. But it's good to have some closure."