Somewhere along the line, Bryan Bulaga became grizzled veteran.
He started at guard as a true freshman. Last season, he locked down left tackle for 13 games. Going into 2009, he’s put himself in position for all-Big Ten and beyond.
But will Iowa’s O-line be go along for the ride?
The inside trio is far from established. With Rob Bruggeman and Seth Olsen graduated and headed toward the NFL, question marks abound. Junior Julian Vandervelde and his 15 career starts will be in there, but where is still a question.
Bulaga, the vet, offered these thoughts.
“I think we’ve got about eight or nine guys who could potentially push for a starting spot,” said the 6-6, 312-pounder. “We’ve got a lot of experienced guys who’ve played so far. We’ve got a lot of guys rotating in and out of the starting five. I think there’s a good mix. There’s good competition, too.”
Center is wide-open. Fifth-year senior Rafael Eubanks (6-3, 280) has the inside shot. He has 21 career starts. Junior walk-on Josh Koeppel (6-2, 267) is definitely in it. At Saturday’s scrimmage, Vandervelde was tried there. Ferentz said after practice that Vandervelde at center is more than a passing thought.
“Koep and Raf are fighting it out for that position,” Bulaga said. ‘That’s the biggest battle I think on our offensive line right now, those two guys. They’re both good players. They’re both experienced. Obviously, Josh hasn’t had the game experience, but he’s a good learner from Bruggy, from last year. He knows what he’s doing out there. Raf has a lot of playing experience. He knows what it’s like to play out there. It’s good competition.”
A center will emerge from Eubanks, Koeppel and Vandervelde. At guard, Vandervelde is the only returnee with significant playing time. Make that significant and recent playing time.
Fifth-year senior Dan Doering (6-6, 300) is near the top of the list. After making strides and seeing rotation time in 2007, he suffered a broken wrist in fall camp and saw little playing time in ’08. Fifth-year senior Andy Kuempel (6-7, 300) jumped in when Olsen suffered a sprained ankle last fall and played well until he injured his should at Illinois. The injury kept him out of bowl practices and he remained out this spring. Ferentz expects him to return.
Sophomore Adam Gettis (6-4, 280) has been noticeable in a good way this spring, Ferentz said.
“Andy and Julian and Raf can play guard, too,” Bulaga said. “Doering and Dace, there are a lot of guys. Adam Gettis, he’s emerged a lot this spring. There are a lot of guys who can fill in at those inside guard spots.
“I think who we’re going to respond in general is the big question mark. We had a lot of success with Shonn and our line last year. I think it’s more of can we do the same this year with different guys.”
And there’s senior Dace Richardson (6-6, 305), who’s trying to make it back from knee realignment surgery. He played eight of 13 games in 2006, played just one game in ’07 and sat out the 2008 season. He rehabbed all last year and go the greenlight for this spring.
He’s a longshot, but by the end of the spring, he was running with the No. 1s.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to play with Dace, so it’s a little bit different with him next to me,” Bulaga said. “I’m happy for him. I’m proud of what he’s done so far, getting back ,working back. I’m looking forward to us moving on and jelling a little bit better when the summer comes around.
“All the odds were against him, he’s come back and has done a good job. I’m happy for him.”
After spending a month and 15 practices with Iowa’s new D-line — minus King and Kroul — Bulaga had this to say:
“They’re all good players. Our defense is always going to be strong,” he said. “Adrian and Christian are experienced guys on the end. Broderick Binns has gotten better everyday in practice. Karl and Mike, they’re working to get better everyday, too. They learned a lot from Mitch and Matt.”