(Eds: With AP Photos.)By LUKE MEREDITHAP Sports Writer
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa's defense was back among the nation's elite last season.
The Hawkeyes' offense failed to follow suit.
Getting both units to play at an equally high level will likely be crucial to Iowa's hopes of competing for a Big Ten West title.
The Hawkeyes, who wrap up spring practice Saturday with a scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium, will be among the league favorites because they have a lot of returning starters and what appears to be a manageable schedule.
But Iowa will need to score more than the 26.3 points it averaged a year ago to aid a defense coming off one of the better seasons in school history.
Quarterback Jake Rudock believes the unit's continuity will be a big plus next season.
''We've all gotten more comfortable with (the offense),'' Rudock said. ''Now there are really no excuses when we make mental mistakes. We should know better.''
Iowa's defense still has major holes to fill at linebacker and some open spots in the secondary.
But for the most part, the Hawkeyes appear to be in good shape with spring ball set to close.
Senior Quinton Alston has solidified his hold on middle linebacker, according to defensive coordinator Phil Parker. The lone open spot along the defensive line has apparently come down to ends Mike Hardy and Nate Meier, and returning starter John Lowdermilk has been working to hold off fellow senior Nico Law at strong safety.
Those position battles, along with Jordan Lomax's transition to free safety, will likely carry over to practice in August.
But it appears as though Alston has proven he's ready to anchor a linebacker corps down three starters from last season.
''He's done a great job up to this point of being the leader and he's kind of the guy that takes control of the huddle,'' Parker said.
Though the numbers weren't great, Iowa's offense also improved greatly from a disastrous 2012 - when it ranked among the nation's worst in a number of categories. Iowa has a chance to moving forward again in 2014, provided it can keep Rudock upright.
Rudock, who missed time late in the season with knee issues, has looked like his old spry self during spring practice, offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Wednesday. Davis acknowledged concerns about the offensive line's depth after losing seniors Brett Van Sloten and Conor Boffeli, but he's also been impressed by Rudock's progress in his first spring as the clear starter.
Though backup C.J. Beathard has gotten plenty of work this spring, he hasn't done enough to threaten Rudock's job.
''Jake is an extremely bright guy, he's gifted. He's healthy again. He's running around, making plays,'' Davis said. ''He has a great understanding of everything that's going on. Nothing rattles him. He handles himself like a quarterback. And he could make all the throws. He's just got more experience.''
Though Iowa has plenty of experience at wide receiver, the unit lacked explosiveness a year ago. A handful of young wideouts could help the Hawkeyes stretch defenses more than they did in 2013.
Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies has emerged in spring practice as a likely candidate for significant snaps next season. Davis also pointed to unheralded sophomore Matt VandeBerg as a receiver who has opened eyes this month.
''Willies has really had a good spring. He's getting more confidence,'' Davis said. ''Matt is a guy that can play more than one spot. When you're playing with tempo, and for the receivers to play in the run and the pass game, the way you want, you have to rotate some players in there.''
The Hawkeyes, however, did lose a promising young player in the passing game. Coach Kirk Ferentz announced Wednesday that redshirt freshman tight end Jon Wisnieski injured his knee in practice last week and could be out for all of 2014.