Posted by: marcmwm | November 1, 2008

Big Build

Iowa O-lines start ‘assembly required,’ but finished product worth wait

Iowa O-lines start ‘assembly required’, but finished product worth wait

By Marc Morehouse
Photo

(Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Cutline creditCliff Jette/The Gazette CutlineIowa’s Andy Kuempel (68), Kyle Calloway (60) and Rob Bruggeman (58) create an opening for Shonn Greene (23) Oct. 18 in Iowal City. The Kirk Ferentz philosophy revolves around a strong offensive line. The power aspect, time of possession, keeping the opposing offense off the field, that’s all a tree with roots dug into the O-line. Iowa’s Andy Kuempel (68), Kyle Calloway (60) and Rob Bruggeman (58) create an opening for Shonn Greene (23) Oct. 18 in Iowal City. The Kirk Ferentz philosophy revolves around a strong offensive line. The power aspect, time of possession, keeping the opposing offense off the field, that’s all a tree with roots dug into the O-line.

IOWA CITY — The Iowa offensive line will never come bubble-wrapped off the assembly line and freshly delivered to Kinnick Stadium.

No, it doesn’t work that way for the Hawkeyes. Offensive lines come “assembly required” in Iowa City.

Sometimes, it might require hammering a square peg, as in converting a tight end into a tackle. Nearly every time, it takes some growth and maturity. If a piece breaks down along the way, the whole thing might collapse. Last season, two pieces, tackle Dace Richardson and center Rob Bruggeman, broke down. Iowa’s offensive line had a long year, being pegged with the brunt of 46 sacks.

“It was a little like 2000, last year,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, whose resume is steeped in offensive line. “I’m going back to a flashback when Sam Aiello hurt his back during a run drill, he went down that Wednesday before Ohio State. That snapshot moment is etched in my mind.

“Last year was a year like that, if you will. We just couldn’t quite catch any good breaks, it seemed. The good news is that during that time we were accumulating some pretty good experience.”

Iowa’s O-lines are more craftsman than factory, but when they come together, they are a thing of beauty. The beauty is in the numbers for this year’s group.

Of course, much of running back Shonn Greene’s success is tied to the O-line. He’s No. 3 in rushing in FBS with 144.2 yards a game. He already has 1,154 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. His 6.5 yards a carry is the highest among the featured backs of Ferentz’s 10 seasons as Iowa’s head coach.

The Ferentz philosophy revolves around a strong offensive line. The power aspect, time of possession, keeping the opposing offense off the field, that’s all a tree with roots dug into the O-line.

“You could see the potential last year and I think now we’re just a bit more experienced, maybe a bit more adept at some of the things we’re trying to do,” Ferentz said. “We’re making a natural progression. It’s never been a question of ‘Boy, are we going to get it done?’ It’s just a matter of what we have to do to get it done.”

The “what we have to get done” part varied for each of the five positions going into this season.

Left tackle

First, sophomore Bryan Bulaga, a 6-6, 301-pounder, had to get to left tackle.

Ferentz asked him to make the move after Bulaga started five games at left guard as a true freshman last year. It might have happened sooner, but a shoulder surgery kept him on the sidelines for several games last season. He missed spring after shoulder surgery.

Bulaga came in with blue chip credentials (Parade Magazine All-American) and he’s lived up to them, earning a midseason All-American mention from Sports Illustrated.

These guys are well aware who came to Iowa with what credentials.

“We joke around with it a lot,” Bulaga said. “Dan (Doering, a guard) was ranked high. We joke around about it, but we’ve all got one common goal in the end. It doesn’t matter if you’re a walk-on, a one-star or a five-star. We’re all trying to win ballgames and get Shonn (Greene) as many yards as we can.”

Left guard

This remains the “mystery spot,” with junior Rafael Eubanks and sophomore Julian Vandervelde splitting time.

Eubanks’ road at Iowa has had more than its share of curves. He was named the “Gatorade player of the year” coming out of Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn. He started at center as a freshman and earned some national recognition. He started every game last season. He lost his job in fall camp this year but has made himself a home at left guard.

Well, maybe more of a time-share than a home.

“He’s playing pretty well,” Ferentz said. “I look at him like he’s a starter.”

Vandervelde kind of sneaked in the back door. He was initially a grayshirt recruit out of Davenport Central, meaning he wouldn’t have a scholarship until his second semester. But someone dropped out and he came in on a full ride.

Center

Senior Rob Bruggeman is one of Iowa’s classic walk-on stories. Coming out of Cedar Rapids Washington in 2004, Bruggeman worked his body into a 475-pound bench press and his way up the depth chart. The rise stalled out after he suffered a torn ACL in spring ’07, but he claimed the job in fall camp over Eubanks.

Now Ferentz has touched on Bruggeman’s NFL draft prospects.

“He’s a good player, but he’s also a glue guy,” Ferentz said. “He’s a fifth-year senior, with trials and tribulations. Not to say that everybody doesn’t appreciate the chance to play, but I think guys who have missed time may have a keener sense of how close the end can be.”

Right guard

Until Iowa’s last game, this was Seth Olsen’s spot. It will be again, after his sprained ankle heals, which may or may not be in time for today’s game.

Olsen, a Parade All-American coming out of Omaha’s Millard North High School, has had a productive career with 30 starts. Iowa’s lone married player has been a tackle, but this season he settled in at guard, which plays to his 6-5, 305-pound mauling nature.

“The thing about Seth is he’s way ahead of his years in maturity, knowledge, spirituality,” Eubanks said. “He’s a guy I’ve always looked up to, from our first year here, and I still look up to him now. He’s so knowledgeable in football and life.”

Last week, junior Andy Kuempel stepped in for Olsen and showed that the competition on the O-line has made the unit better.

Right tackle

Junior Kyle Calloway is the point man for growth chart from the end of ’07 to today. In his first season as a starter last year, Calloway struggled.

“He’s experienced his share of frustration, lack of success, tough moments, but he’s worked through them and he’s really playing at a pretty high level right now,” Ferentz said.

He started all 12 games at left tackle last year. When Bulaga made the move last winter, Calloway shifted to the right side.

This isn’t a reflection on Calloway’s play. The blame for last season’s 46 sacks goes a lot of different directions. But this seems to be as good a spot as any to mention that Iowa has allowed only 14 sacks this season, with the blame for a lot of those not going anywhere near the O-line.

Things are working better this year. The running back is becoming a national story. The sacks are down. It’s cool to be an Iowa offensive lineman.

Ferentz, who has 15 years of experience as an O-line coach, isn’t taking any special satisfaction out of the unit’s resurgence.

But . . .

“It’s just more fun if you can block a little bit, it’s easier to play,” Ferentz said. “We still believe in blocking here . . . If you can do that with some proficiency, it sure makes it easier to move a football.”

It’s never easy assembly for an Iowa offensive line, but this one has been worth the wait.

n Contact the writer: (319) 398-8256 or marc.morehouse@gazcomm.com

Photo

(Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa’s Andy Kuempel (68), Kyle Calloway (60) and Rob Bruggeman (58) create an opening for Shonn Greene (23) Oct. 18 in Iowal City. The Kirk Ferentz philosophy revolves around a strong offensive line. The power aspect, time of possession, keeping the opposing offense off the field, that’s all a tree with roots dug into the O-line
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