IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Even with the 21-14 loss to No. 14 LSU in the Outback Bowl, the University of Iowa football team can keep their heads up knowing they fought all season to leave the program in excellent shape moving forward.
The Hawkeyes played their best down the stretch, winning its final three regular season games and gave the Tigers everything they could handle in Tampa.
"I'm extremely proud of these guys," said UI head coach Kirk Ferentz following Wednesday's bowl game. "To be around this football team, to coach them, to go to the practice field every day with those guys, the weight room, wherever they've been... it has been a great group of guys to work with. The guys have played hard, competed hard each and every step.
"It has been a lot of fun to be around them on a daily basis. It has been a great 13 months."
The focus in the coming months turns to spring ball and preparing for the 2014 season. The Hawkeyes return seven offensive starters, five on defense and one specialist from the bowl game -- not to mention a number of other returnees who played key roles during the team's success.
Three of Iowa's starting offensive line return, including left tackle Brandon Scherff. The native of Denison, Iowa, says the key for Iowa moving forward is to keep improving.
"It starts right when we get back to school for strength and conditioning; becoming more detailed and watching more film," said Scherff.
Offensively, the Hawkeyes return all but one rushing yard next season. Mark Weisman (975) and Damon Bullock (481) will be seniors, while Jordan Canzeri (481) will be a junior and LeShun Daniels, Jr., (142) a sophomore.
In the passing game, Iowa returns 79 percent of its receiving production, including senior-to-be Kevonte Martin Manley, who led the squad in catches (40), receiving yards (388) and punt returns (20 returns for 314 yards and two touchdowns). Martin-Manley has a chance at history, needing 52 catches to break the Iowa record of 173. Three of Iowa's four returning tight ends also caught a pass.
Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard were underclassmen in 2013, but return with a year under their belts. Rudock amassed 2,383 yards and accounted for 23 touchdowns (18 passing and five rushing), while Beathard saw action in five games, throwing for 179 yards and a score.
Defensively, the Hawkeyes have a tall task in replacing linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey, who caused havoc on opposing offenses all season long.
The Hawkeyes will be experienced up front with Mike Hardy, Drew Ott, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Carl Davis, and Darian Cooper all returning. Starters Desmond King (cornerback) and safety John Lowdermilk (safety) also return on the perimeter.
Connor Kornbrath finished his sophomore campaign with 11 punts of 50 yards and 27 kicks pinning opponents inside the 20. The Hawkeyes will need to replace four-year starting place kicker Mike Meyer, who kicked his way into the Iowa record books, finishing second in career scoring (316) and field goals (61).
With all the talented players returning, it's difficult to say goodbye to a graduating class that meant so much. The 2014 senior class provided incredible leadership, class and heart, and demonstrated what it's like to do things the "Iowa Way."
"I'll remember all of the great friends that I have made during the last five years," said senior receiver Jordan Cotton, who set an Outback Bowl record averaging 42.7 yards on three kickoffs returns. "My teammates are like brothers to me."