O-Line Holds Key to Hawkeye Success

It's hard to imagine Iowa's offense struggling any more than it did in 2007. Iowa ranked near the bottom of the national rankings in scoring, rushing yardage and sacks allowed. The Hawkeyes were inexperienced throughout the unit, especially on the line. That group will need to improve greatly heading into the fall if the Black and Gold hopes to return to the postseason.

The image remains mounted in the memories of many Hawkeyes fans. Members of the 2002 offensive line running off the field together, hand-in-hand to close out a perfect season in the Big Ten.

That group helped raise the reputation of Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz as one of the most well respected line coaches in the country. He and then position coach Joe Philbin molded a collection of high school tight ends into a unit that pancaked the competition regularly.

A year later, with man child Robert Gallery as the only returning starter, the Iowa line struggled for the first third of the season before gelling into a very formidable front. It manhandled Florida in an Outback Bowl victory, paving the way for an MVP performance by running back Fred Russell.

The 2002 line might have been an aberration. Those guys' faces were rubbed in the sand. They improved technique and got stronger and just as importantly played with an edge. Being able to back that up in 2003 made it appear like this was going to be a strength for this program for the foreseeable future.

It hasn't turned out that way. Injuries, inconsistency and inexperience have led to struggles in three of the last four years. Things hit rock bottom a year ago when the Hawkeyes allowed an alarming 46 sacks, which ranked them 114 out of 119 Division I-A schools.

To be fair, the linemen were protecting a first-year starter at quarterback in Jake Christensen, who seemed to be more willing to take a sack than force a ball that might be picked off. Still, 46 sacks were 46 sacks, and there were plenty of hurries to complement the ugliness.

Not be left out, Iowa's rushing offense rated 92nd in the country with 126.25 yards per game. The Hawkeyes scored 18.5 points per game, which were 110 nationally.

This couldn't be completely put at the feet of the offensive line. As was mentioned, Christensen experienced a forgettable season. The team lost its top three receivers – Andy Brodell, Tony Moeaki and Dominique Douglas – by the second game of the Big Ten season.

Last year might be considered a blip on the radar if there weren't issues up front in three of the last four years. Albert Young leading the conference in rushing for 2005 cemented that unit's strong performance. The 2004 team suffered a barrage of injuries at running back, but the line still had first year starter Drew Tate scrambling for his life on many occasions.

You can't dismiss health problems on the line as reason for some of the inconsistent play. Injuries to highly-regarded prospects like Dan Doering, Rafael Eubanks and especially Dace Richardson have set them back. Iowa would have been better with Rob Bruggeman last season.

"Prior to his injury (torn ACL), he was right in the thick of things," Ferentz said. "Rob hadn't started near as much as Dace, but Rob's an older guy. To me, he's a guy right in the thick of competition at the guard or center spot, a veteran guy, extremely smart, extremely hard working. It would have been interesting to see if he'd been with us full-speed last year going into camp."

Injuries can't tell the whole story, however. There haven't been enough players developing in the system to fill the positions opened up by graduation or injury.

One of the things that raised hopes of Iowa being an offensive linemen factory to at least some degree was the way it worked through inexperience and health issues in 2003. When Brian Ferentz and David Walker went down, veterans like Eric Rothwell and Pete McMahon advanced their games. Mike Jones played as a true freshman,

Yes, Gallery covered up some shortcomings, but you still had veteran upperclassmen ready to go. When Iowa graduated Mike Elgin, Marshal Yanda and Jones after the 2006 campaign, it opened the season with redshirt freshman Julian Vandervelde starting at one guard and sophomore Travis Meade at the other. Sophomore Rafael Eubanks was at center and classmate Kyle Calloway at left tackle. Throughout the season, it became fairly obvious that each was overmatched at one point or another.

It seemed to be the hope of Ferentz and the fans that Iowa wouldn't need its offensive linemen to get their heads knotted again. When it happened to then 2002 line that included Gallery, Bruce Nelson, Eric Steinbach, David Porter, Ben Sobieski and Andy Lightfoot, the coach was in the process of rebuilding the program.

Players in programs all over the country complete their careers without making much noise, but it's happened too much on Iowa's offensive line. There was 2003, when Iowa only landed Jones and Clint Huntrods in the recruiting class. Some fans didn't panic, thinking Iowa they would just convert some tight ends to be the next Gallery or Steinbach.

Hey, the struggles might pay off this year. Knock on wood, Iowa looks that have an experienced, deep group at the position. Seth Olsen is a three-year starter. Eubanks, Calloway, Bruggeman, Doering, Vandervelde, Meade and Bryan Bulaga all have experience.

"I think we have a lot of dead heats going on in that group," Ferentz said. "That's a good thing."

A key will be finding a Top Five by early summer camp so they can mesh. They also must avoid the injury bug. These items probably sound familiar. It's all been written before.

If Iowa falls short on the line this season, it's doomed to struggle. This program does not land skill players like Carson Palmer or Adrian Peterson.

As awesome as it was watching Brad Banks, Fred Russell and Mo Brown in 2002, the offensive line was the star of that show. Dallas Clark also was a freak but he was afforded certain opportunities in the offense that subsequent tight ends have not received because of the prolific play up front.

"If you can get some things done up front, I think that opens other areas up for you," Ferentz said. "It gives your skill guys a chance to operate a little more efficiently. It all goes together, but I think if you can have that strength and experience up front, it affords you the ability to get some things you might not necessarily get done.

"It started happening in 2001, and hopefully we're somewhere in that area and moving in the right direction. We've got a lot of work to do. That was a real talented group (in '02), three of those guys with the great physical skills. At the end of the day, I think it can be a very good offensive line, but we have to make every day count."

We may never see a group like 2002 again, but Iowa needs a return to the 2003 and 2005 level. If not, it will be another bowl season without the Hawkeyes.