Dace Richardson’s body is sore. He hurts and hurts a lot. This time around, the pain is good.
The 6-foot-6, 306-pound offensive lineman actually seemed happy to greet the media after the Iowa Hawkeyes wrapped up spring practice with a scrimmage Saturday at the Kenyon Practice Facility. Friends and family, recruits and media were invited to watch Iowa, 9-4 in ’08 with a preseason ranking likely headed its way in August, run through a situational scrimmage for nearly two hours.
The offense was far from polished, looking to rebuild the interior line and find a running back to replace Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. The defense won out, but didn’t answer the big question that faces it in ’09. What’s going to happen at defensive tackle now that four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul are gone?
This is April. These are first steps. That’s a literal statement for Richardson, at least in the football sense. This spring practice has been his most significant football in nearly two years.
“The leg is feeling good,” said Richardson, a senior from Wheaton, Ill. “When we first started off spring ball, I wasn’t getting too many reps, but now I am. I played a lot today and it feels good. I’m sore, but my whole body is sore. But I’ve been pounding against (defensive end) Adrian (Clayborn) and (defensive tackle) Karl (Klug), so your body is going to be sore.”
The Hawkeyes are piecing it together on the interior of the offensive line. Fifth-year seniors Rob Bruggeman and Seth Olsen are hoping to hear their names in next weekend’s NFL draft. Coach Kirk Ferentz has a lot of bodies to throw into the openings, but Saturday showed there’s no clarity.
Richardson and junior Julian Vandervelde were the starters at guard Saturday. Junior Josh Koeppel started at center, but traded a lot with senior Rafael Eubanks. Senior Dan Doering, sophomore Adam Gettis and junior Kyle Haganman were rotated in at guard.
“We’ve got a group of guys who are competing,” Ferentz said. “We’ll let it go a couple weeks in camp and see where we’re at. I think it’s healthy competition not desperate competition right now.”
Vandervelde played a few series at center, which is the biggest battle on the O-line.
“We’re keeping an open mind about everything,” Ferentz said. “It’s not going to hurt him, I know that. Ultimately, we’ll try to get our five best guys on the field. We’ll fool around with that. We have an open mind toward everything going into August, with the line, but I think we’re pretty set at tackle as far as starters go.”
The tackles are set. Senior Kyle Calloway and junior Bryan Bulaga were second-team all-Big Ten. They aren’t going anywhere.
“I think we have eight or nine guys who could potentially push for a starting spot,” Bulaga said. “We’ve got a lot of experienced guys who’ve played. It’s a good mix and there’s excellent competition for the starting five.”
Defensive tackle is the hot spot on defense.
Junior Karl Klug (6-4, 258 pounds) is locked in at one tackle spot. Sophomore Mike Daniels has the inside track on the other. The wildcard is the ends, Clayborn and junior Christian Ballard. They weigh in at 282 and 285, respectively. They’re proven performers, holding down the starting DEs all last season.
One of them could slide inside. As it turns out, they’ve been doing that all spring, with injuries chopping at the depth on the D-line. Ballard played a handful of plays there Saturday.
“I’ve been playing more at tackle, just moving around and seeing what I can do,” said Ballard, who had 40 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season. “It’s kind of exciting. When we get in a game situation, we can put me, Adrian and Broderick (Binns, a defensive end) in there and get the best guys out there.”
In limited playing time last season, Binns had 22 tackles and two sacks. You could make an argument for a D-line of Binns, Clayborn, Ballard and Klug. They are probably the top four. Of course, Daniels would argue that and did so with a few big plays, including a sack, on Saturday.
“It’s one of the best things I saw during spring practice,” Ferentz said of Ballard and Clayborn jumping in at D-tackle without being asked. “We had some injury situations and were down to six defensive linemen and both of those guys jumped in there on their own.
“Getting back to leadership and them acting like King and Kroul, it’s one of the best things I saw this spring. Just shows you they’re thinking right. We’re keeping an open mind there, too.”