The high point in Iowa's 2010 season marked the end point for one of the Hawkeyes' most improved players.
Tyler Nielsen seemed to be settling into a groove for the Hawkeyes, providing a much-needed presence in an injury-depleted linebacker corps. He started the first eight games, recording 42 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and an interception.
But he hurt his neck while tackling Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in an Oct. 16 game, and though he played the next week against Wisconsin and recorded a career-best 10 tackles, the injury caught up with him Oct. 30 against Michigan State. Nielsen played most of the first half in Iowa's 37-6 rout before shutting things down. He had suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck, and his season was over.
"We still had a chance to win the Big Ten title at that point," Nielsen told ESPN.com this week. "It was definitely hard to be sitting on the couch at home watching those last four games."
Iowa missed Nielsen as it dropped three of its final four regular-season contests. The Hawkeyes got very young at linebacker and it showed late in the season.
Now recovered from the injury, Nielsen is participating in most of spring practice. Doctors cleared him for full contact in late February, and he's doing all drills but live scrimmaging, just as a precaution.
"I feel like I'm pretty much back," Nielsen said. "Still a little rusty, obviously, because we've had just a few pad practices. But once we get that first hit in, I feel fine. There's no pain in my neck."
Iowa is counting on Nielsen's leadership this fall, specifically for the linebackers but also for the entire defense. Nielsen said himself, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater are taking the lead for a unit that loses a lot up front and at the safety spots.
Several young linebackers should benefit from being thrown into the fire last fall. Sophomore James Morris entered the spring as Iowa's starting middle linebacker, while sophomores Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens are competing for the starting weakside spot. Sophomore Shane DiBona also is in the mix.
Nielsen will start at strong-side linebacker, if healthy. He hopes to build on an encouraging 2010 campaign.
"I got some experience," he said. "When you're out there in the game, you never know what can happen. It's structured in practice, you've got certain plays you're running. I was just excited to be able to get out there and try to make some things happen."
This fall, he'll get that chance again.