IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa's biggest concern could be at kicker. Or maybe punter.
However, for the first time in a long while, the Hawkeyes enter a season with more answers than questions.
Iowa opens the season Saturday against Northern Iowa with a remarkably settled depth chart. Aside from the kicking game and a bit of jostling at linebacker, the Hawkeyes know exactly who they'll be counting on in 2014.
As long as Iowa stays healthy – and that's a huge if to anyone who has followed the program in recent years – it appears to have enough depth and experience to contend for the Big Ten West title.
"Experience is important. But only if you use it to your advantage," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It all starts, to me, with the guys coming back; [they] have to play better."
The Hawkeyes look like they've settled on a linebacker rotation after losing three starters to graduation and the NFL.
Now it's just a matter of sorting out who will play where and for how many snaps.
Senior Quinton Alston will be the middle linebacker, and he's been named a team captain despite a lack of starting experience. Alston's backup is Travis Perry, who is also a co-starter at outside linebacker with freshman Bo Bower. Sophomore Reggie Spearman and redshirt freshman Josey Jewell are slated to share duties at weak-side linebacker, though that could all change in the weeks ahead.
"They're very aggressive. They don't hesitate at all. They trust themselves," Alston said of his young teammates at linebacker. "I think during practice this week, there is still going to be some fighting for jobs, some fighting for playing time."
Even though it's easy to dismiss the importance of the kicking game, it remains a potential issue for Iowa.
The Hawkeyes leaned on kicker Mike Meyer for 4 years, but he's gone after hitting 16 of 22 field goals in 2013. The competition to replace Meyer has stretched late into fall camp, and junior Marshall Koehn will likely start over freshman Mick Ellis against the Panthers.
Iowa brought in junior college punter Dillon Kidd to push incumbent Connor Kornbrath, who struggled with consistency in 2 years as the starter. Kidd will start on Saturday. But he knows that a bad performance in the opener could land him on the bench.
The coaches "basically told me, 'We're going to give you the start for the first game,'" Kidd said. "My whole goal is just to continue to hit as many good balls as I can in practice, and through that, and with the blessing of Coach, I'll be able to keep playing."
For the most part, the Hawkeyes look as stable as they've been in years.
Junior Jake Rudock is back for his second season as Iowa's starting quarterback, and he'll be playing behind a deep and experienced line. The Hawkeyes also return their top six rushers from a year ago, and 13 players who caught a pass in 2013.
Iowa's defensive line has a chance to be as good as any in the Big Ten, despite the loss of backup Darian Cooper for the season with a knee injury. Jordan Lomax has apparently made a smooth transition to safety, and the emergence of cornerback Greg Mabin as a starter over Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper only adds to the depth in the secondary.
For now, the Hawkeyes have plenty of reasons for optimism.
"There is going to be guys who step up in games," senior running back Mark Weisman said. "Guys who produce and guys who don't. So you never really know what's going to happen. But we definitely have trust in everyone that's on there."
UNI at Iowa
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
FYI: The Hawkeyes are 15-1 all-time against the Panthers, with UNI's lone win coming in the schools' inaugural game in 1898 – the only game in the series played at UNI.