QUICK LOOK BACK: Rob Bruggeman went from walk-on to torn ACL/MCL to “who’s that
guy” to all-Big Ten center and possible NFL draft pick. Seth Olsen became a fully matured 310-pound fifth-year senior and found a true home at right guard. Bryan Bulaga made a quiet and extremely successful transition from left guard to left tackle, where Kirk Ferentz saw him all along. Julian Vandervelde finally claimed left guard and became more aggressive and polished as the year went on. Mt. Kyle Calloway (6-7, 320) went from “in too early because Dace Richardson’s injury” to all-Big Ten caliber. The ’08 line included two fifth-year seniors (Bruggeman and Olsen), a fourth-year junior (Calloway), a third-year sophomore (Vandervelde) and a true sophomore (Bulaga) who went into the season with five starts under his belt. Looking back, it wasn’t a group with a great deal of experience but it did have maturity. That showed up physically and mentally.
FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: In college football, maturity expires rather quickly. Bruggeman and Olsen and their fifth-year senior bodies are gone. They bought into strength coach Chris Doyle’s program and it paid off in shots at the NFL. Bruggeman leaves as Iowa’s strongest center and one of the strongest O-linemen in the Ferentz era. Their bodies were matured and that matters a lot on the line of scrimmage. Also, they knew the plays. Five years in the system, I’m sure that bought coaches some flexibility. I’m sure they could perform more complex schemes, like the one that sprung Shonn Greene for his second long run against Wisconsin, sort of a delayed block thingie on Bruggeman’s part.
I think the inside trio was critical this season and that’s why I believe Olsen and Bruggeman might be harder to replace than four-year starters at DT, Mitch King and Matt Kroul.
I don’t see anyone with the same power on the inside (though, I think Vandervelde — 6-3, 300 — will be there next year), BUT that’s not a bad thing. You have power guys and you have Eric Steinbach guys, 6-foot-7 guys who don’t miss blocks on the second level because they have such great footwork. (BTW, Steinbach is a former Iowa all-American and now a Cleveland Brown and pretty wealthy).
Does Iowa have that guy?
Fifth-year seniors Dan Doering and Andy Kuempel will get looks. Redshirt freshman Riley Reiff could break through the way Bulaga did as a true freshman. Sophomore Adam Gettis could be a serious contender.
SECOND DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Redshirt freshman James Ferentz might be your starting center next season. You know he’s going to be ready mentally. Physically, he looked to be pushing 270 in December. If he’s within striking distance of 280 or comfortably in the 270s (even after a hot practice with a lot of sweat), then expect James Ferentz to make a serious lunge at the job. I don’t think it’s going to be an automatic handoff to senior Rafael Eubanks. Don’t count out junior walk-on Josh Koeppel, who’ll also be pushing 270.
Reiff is in play this year. Does he hang out as a backup tackle, probably behind Calloway, or does he find his way to the field as a guard, the same way Bulaga did two years ago as a true freshman?
Other newbies who might figure in: Gettis (who’s kind of a newbie, at least in regards to contending for playing time), redshirt freshman Casey McMillan (who’s kinda famous over here), sophomore Marcus Zusevics, junior walk-on Kyle Haganman. I imagine that’d go guard, guard, potential tackle and tackle.
Iowa coaches restocked the O-line with five recruits in February. I see them all taking redshirts, with Nolan MacMillan being a possible exception. Conor Boffeli, Drew Clark, Matt Murphy and Brett Van Sloten give Iowa 19 O-linemen (including Richardson) on the depth chart.
Eighteen players. That’s why we find ourselves talking about O-line so much.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot about Dace Richardson. I still can’t fathom a full return, but if it’d happen, what a story and, oh, the possibilities.
SECOND DOWN — STRENGTHS: Bulaga and Calloway should be one of the Big Ten’s better and more experienced tackle combos. When the SI.com people sent out feelers for midseason all-Americans last fall, I sent a paragraph on Bulaga. Can’t remember exactly what I wrote to them, but I sincerely believe he’s that caliber. I remember him getting beat once or twice last season. Strong and tough, he’s got everything you want in a left tackle. It takes three days to run around Calloway. He has a wingspan that will get him a strong look in next April’s draft.
The coaching team of Kirk Ferentz and Reese Morgan is a strength. This year, their challenge is to develop the inside trio to within cell phone range of last year’s. There are plenty of bodies, and it’ll likely come down to a pair of fifth-year seniors, Doering and Kuempel.
Depth should be a strength. Remember, 19 bodies — and at least 16 scholarships — are piled into this.
FIRST DOWN — THE PLAY: Tackles are set, let’s take a quick look at the inside. Center, it’s up in the air. This one is worth watching this spring (‘cept there’s no spring game). Could it be Vandervelde? He mentioned the possibility after the bowl. He’s a smart kid and is built more like a center. That depends on how capable coaches feel Doering and Kuempel can be. Doering was derailed by a broken wrist suffered in camp last season. Kuempel filled in capably when Olsen sprained an ankle, but then he suffered a shoulder injury that was serious enough to keep him on the sidelines for bowl practices. It’s likely that he had a surgery and a rehab. Will he participate this spring?
You’ve heard Iowa coaches say “best five” season in, season out. That is how they do it.
Check this quote from Vandervelde: “We don’t pick starters before the year starts. We’ll go into spring ball and probably all the way through summer and into camp with everybody battling for the starting spots.
“I may be here. I may be on the right. I may be a center. They might throw me out at tackle if they really feel like it. Whoever the five are who come out next year, I know we’re going to step up to the challenge.”
Whoever the five are. I’ll post my five in comments. Please, give me yours.
The starters — Bulaga, Vandervelde, Ferentz, Doering, Calloway
Next — Reiff, Gettis, Eubanks, McMillan, Zusevics
Incoming — Van Sloten, Clark, Boffeli, Murphy, MacMillan
Surprise — Vandervelde lines up as your center for the next two seasons. Reiff steps into a starting role in ’09.