It was a gray day at Illinois. The Hawkeyes walked through a tune-up a week before they took on No. 1 juggernaut Ohio State in a now-famous 2006 night game at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa handled Illinois, 24-7, but the game took a heavy physical toll. Hawkeye after Hawkeye limped off the field. Sophomore offensive lineman Dace Richardson was among them. That’s when it all started for the 6-foot-6, 305-pounder.
That’s when his nearly two-year odyssey with knee problems rooted.
(Video from The Gazette’s Scott Dochterman)
Richardson gutted it out three more weeks. Sat out two weeks, came back for Northwestern and then shut it down for the final three games, including Iowa’s Alamo Bowl matchup with Texas.
During summer workouts in 2007, Richardson had knee surgery, at least his second. He was never right in ’07.
“It’s my junior year,” Richardson said in August 2007. “I’ve got to make a name for myself.”
He played against Wisconsin, started against Indiana and shut down for the rest of the season. The knee, again.
In winter 2008, Richardson underwent extensive surgery, featuring a realignment. The details of the surgery might give some insight into the length of the rehab. It’s complicated, but he described it this way in December:
“They took my bone and cut it and shifted it over to relieve stress on it,” he said. “All the pounding I was doing was tearing away at my cartilage. It was starting to give me some deep bone bruising and that was preventing me from playing well.”
When coach Kirk Ferentz updated Richardson’s status before camp last August, it was bleak.
“”The hill he’s facing right now is pretty significant, but I’m for anybody chasing his dream,” Ferentz said. “. . . At this point there’s still a hope he could do it, but it’s hard to talk about somebody else’s injury because if he’s going to play he’s going to have to endure a lot.
“My only message to him was at some given point if doesn’t make sense to you then let it go.”
Then, during preparation for the 2009 Outback Bowl, Ferentz did an about-face.
“Three months ago, I think we were all pessimistic, all but maybe (Richardson),” Ferentz said. “It’s a slow climb, but he’s climbing and the last month has been good. . . . The big thing right now is just getting him out there where he can play. That’s the big thing. I think it’s possible.”
Last December, Richardson said he targeted spring practice for a return. Well, he made it.
“That’s one of the best stories of the spring, just in that I don’t think any of us would’ve predicted with confidence that it could happen,” Ferentz said. “I wouldn’t have through October of last year, but some good things started happening.
“He’s made it through every practice. He looks like he hasn’t been out there for a few years, but he’s been out there with a smile on his face. He’ll be a lot better player in September, but you can’t get there if you’re not out practicing, so I’m happy for him. He put a lot of hard work into this. He has always been a good football player, even when he was a freshman. He wasn’t experienced then.
“He was first team today, but we have a lot of things up for grabs and that’s a healthy thing. He’s capable, and he can play well. As he gets healthier, gets some of that rust off, he has a chance to be a real good football player. (But) if you’re not out working, you can’t get there.”
How did the leg hold up?
“It’s good. It’s feeling good,” Richardson said. “When we first started spring ball, I wasn’t doing that many reps, but now I’m doing all the reps. It feels good. I’m not tired. I’m sore, but my whole body is sore. When you’re pounding against Adrian and Karl, your body’s going to get sore.
“There are things that I want to work on to make it a little bit stronger.”
Is there a mental aspect to this?
“Yeah, you’ve got to think about it when you’re run blocking,” he said. “It kind of goes in the back of your head, when you see people pile up. You think, ‘Someone might take out my knee.’ But you’ve got to put that in the back of your mind and push through.
“If God wants you to be down, he’ll put you down. I just keep playing 110 percent. I don’t worry about it that much.”
Are you ready to play?
“I’m not ready to play yet,” he said. “I feel like I have a bunch of things I need to work on. My run blocking, staying low, that’s been a big emphasis for me this spring, staying low and getting a good step. I feel like with more work during the summer, I should be ready to go by camp and be ready for the season.”
Richardson played first-team left guard during the spring practice April 18. Iowa’s No. 1 O-line was Bryan Bulaga at left tackle, Richardson at left guard, Josh Koeppel at center, Julian Vandervelde at right guard and Kyle Calloway at right tackle.
“I played guard in high school, so it’s not that much different,” Richardson said. “I told the coaches I’d play wherever they’d want me, guard or tackle. It just seems like guard is a fit right now. I just want to do whatever makes the team better and if they want me to play guard, I’ll play guard.”
How did you hold up during your first three weeks of contact in nearly two seasons?
“It’s been an up-and-down process,” said Richardson, who, during one series of plays, had a false start and gave up a sack. “Some practices, I’ll be OK and then I’ll have a bad practice. But when you take that bad practice and watch film, you take that and work on it. During the whole spring ball process, I had some ups and downs, but it was just a positive goal for me just to be out there.”
So, where is this going?
Let’s forget about tackle. Calloway is a senior and a possible draft pick. Bulaga is a junior and a possible draft pick. In fact, ESPN’s Mel Kiper is already throwing his name out for the 2010 NFL draft. Vandervelde is in, either at guard or center. That leaves two, both guards or a guard and center.
Here are the candidates:
Richardson — You know his story. Could step in and fill a big hole. Has the admiration of coaches and team, but his knee is the wildcard.
Dan Doering (6-6, 300) — He had his junior season basically wiped out by a broken wrist in camp. In 2007, he split duty at guard with Vandervelde. He’s a fifth-year senior and has got to be hungry.
Andy Kuempel (6-7, 300) — He was the first choice off the bench last season when Seth Olsen went down with an ankle injury. Unfortunately, after putting in a sturdy start against Wisconsin, Kuempel suffered a shoulder injury at Illinois and never returned, sitting out bowl practices and spring practice.
Adam Gettis (6-4, 280) — Coaches have noted his improvement, but he is far enough along physically, as a sophomore?
Rafael Eubanks (6-3, 280) — With Rob Bruggeman’s emergence, Eubanks shifted to left guard and started four games last season. He eventually gave way to Vandervelde. Eubanks has 25 career starts, but goes into his fifth year needing to lock down a spot.
Josh Koeppel (6-2, 267) — A walk-on who’s made headway, the City High grad is in the mix at center.
Julian Vandervelde (6-3, 300) — He’s a starter, but is it guard or center? He has 15 career starts at guard, splitting some of that time with Eubanks and Doering. He won the job outright during the Big Ten schedule last season. During the open scrimmage, Vandervelde got a solid look at center and Ferentz acknowledged that it was a legit look and not just funnin’. Two fumbled snaps happened on his watch, but the snaps were to freshman QB James Vandenberg. Offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe said, “There’s a couple of things going on. Working with Julian Vandervelde is getting some work at center, it was his first meaningful snaps in live situations whether it’s blitz pickups or whatever it may be down in the red zone. It’s a combination of young quarterbacks and first-time centers. It’s pretty natural to have those things occur in the spring.”
James Ferentz (6-2, 265) — He faces a trial on his public intoxication case next Friday, but that might be the least of his worries. He still faces a team punishment. Kirk Ferentz gave no timeline after spring practice, but said, “They were suspended through the spring, and I haven’t thought much about it since then. I will probably start to think about it tomorrow.”
Riley Reiff (6-6, 280) — Can he crack the top five? Coming out of spring, Reiff was listed as a solid No. 2 behind Bulaga at left tackle, a heir apparent kind of role. But for evidence of a talented young lineman breaking into the lineup unexpectedly, just look at Bulaga, who started the final five games of his true freshman year in 2007.
They — coaches and players — always talk about the “best five” ending up in the starting lineup. This is wide-open and won’t be decided . . . well, might not be decided until the Big Ten season starts next fall.