IOWA CITY -- Iowa just doesn't grab a theme for the season out of the air. A lot of thought goes into the "Break the Rocks" and "212 degrees" and some of the other slogans you've seen over Kirk Ferentz's 14 seasons as coach.
This duty falls to strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle. For the 2012 season, Doyle might've outdone himself.
The Hawkeyes, who finished 7-6 last season (4-4 Big Ten), begin with new coordinators. There's also the matter of running back, so much going on there and so much yet to discover. And the area with the biggest question mark surrounding it might be the defensive line, which returns just 14 starts from 2011.
There is a degree of uncertainty, and so the theme "Enter the Black."
The players were first introduced in January, even before Phil Parker was shifted to defensive coordinator, replacing Norm Parker after 13 seasons as Iowa's defensive backs coach, and before Ferentz hired offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who sat out last season after 13 years as offensive coordinator at Texas.
"It's this story about these guys who didn't trust their leader and who eventually died in a forest fire," senior defensive end Joe Gaglione said. "The leader was the only one who survived. What it's basically saying is we need to able to trust, adapt and be together to enter the black."
Monday was the Hawkeyes' annual media day. No one gets tackled or throws a TD pass on media day, so the smoke in the trees isn't always apparent, but there definitely is some smoldering at running back and on the defensive line. You know that. You've known that since the 31-14 defeat to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl.
Running back has been the mystery spot in recent years with the Hawkeyes. You know the body count. It's a nationally known phenomenon. The current Iowa fifth-year seniors have seen 10 running backs leave the team for various reasons since 2008. The latest, sophomore De'Andre Johnson was dismissed after a pair of run-ins with local law enforcement the week before camp.
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"Every player has a chart and they're adding to it or taking away from it, and I just made the decision I think that was best for all parties," Ferentz said.
The running backs don't buy into any talk of a curse. They seem, quite frankly, tired of that notion.
"No," said sophomore Damon Bullock, who rushed 10 times for 20 yards last season. "I don't believe in any curses. That's not what we're worried about right now. Along the way, people have made some bad decisions. We're just trying to move on."
Bullock is on top of a depth chart that includes true freshmen Greg Garmon, Barkley Hill, Michael Malloy and Nate Meier, junior Brad Rogers (who's also the No. 1 fullback) and junior walk-on Andre Dawson. Plus, sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who suffered a torn ACL during spring practice, is bent on a return this fall, just six months after the injury.
"If I can get back [on the field], I definitely will," said Canzeri, who had 114 yards on 31 carries as a true freshman last season. "I definitely want to contribute."
The general consensus is that any back who's put in the game will work. The offensive line, under first-year coach Brian Ferentz, should be its usual sounds self. Iowa will break in two new offensive tackles, but Brett Van Sloten and Brandon Scherff come with experience and, in Scherff's case, a YouTube video of him lifting 400 pounds in the hang clean. James Ferentz returns for his third season as starter at center.
"Whether it's an older guy or a younger guy, whoever gets stuck in that position [running back] will be ready to go," said senior quarterback James Vandenberg. who'll try to improve on 3,022 yards and 25 TD passes from last season.
Perhaps Iowa's biggest blackhole this season is the defensive line. The Hawkeyes return just 14 starts from 2011, with eight of those coming from end Dominic Alvis, who suffered a torn ACL in November and returned to full speed in June and six come from part-time starter Steve Bigach, a medical school candidate.
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Not every, but most candidates on the D-line have a book with a few chapters torn out. Gaglione missed the '09 season with a torn labrum. Tackle Carl Davis, who had knee surgery in January, dropped from 340 pounds to 310. Tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat was so frustrated with his progress in December that he nearly quit. He rebounded to have one of the best springs of any Iowa player, Ferentz said.
This group also could include a couple of blank slates in true freshmen Jaleel Johnson (6-4, 300) and Faith Ekakitie (6-3, 275).
"To play inside, it takes all the cliches, the swapping the paint, the grind, the ring time," Doyle said. "That's a savvy, veteran kind of area, so it takes a special guy to do that, but we have some young guys on the D-line who I think could contribute."
When Iowa is right, it has it going on the defensive line. Check a Big Ten co-championship for the '04 group that included future NFLers Matt Roth and Jonathan Babineaux. Same for '09, which included NLFers Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard.
This is the darkest entrance for Iowa '12. This is where they'll really have to join hands, trust in who and what they are and enter the black.
“These guys are kind of like Ralphie in the Christmas Story, the guys that kind of everybody kind of picks on and stuff. At some point in time they’ve got to step up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough,’ and take on the bullies and get after it,” first-year D-line coach Reese Morgan said. “I think they’re developing that little bit of that edge.”Or Ralphie from "Christmas Story," which isn't as menacing as "Enter the Black," but you still get the point.