The standard for Iowa offensive lines under Kirk Ferentz competed during the 2002 season. That group running off the field together, hand-in-hand in the final regular season home game left a lasting image in the minds of many Hawkeye fans.
It sparked talk of Iowa being Offensive Line U. Ferentz was the nation's guru at the position. Then we all realized that the ‘02 group was at the very least a once-in-a-generation group. But that took a few years.
And then, last year, some onlookers wondered if a group of bandits stole the blueprints to Iowa's claim to fame. Injuries, inexperience and ineptness led to a disaster of a season.
Fast forward to this summer at the Hawkeyes' open practice and things looked sketchy again for the blocking boys. They made Iowa's backup defensive ends look like a cross between Too Tall Jones and Mean Joe Green.
During the summer of ‘07, I predicted that the offensive line would struggle. I watched that open practice and witnessed a mess.
Some fans on Hawkeye Nation called me out for going overboard. Perhaps I did. Who knows what would have happened had guys like Dace Richardson stayed healthy? Surely, it wouldn't have been as bad as it turned out.
That's why I held back from putting too much stock into this year's open practice. While the results looked similar to what I saw a year before that, I wanted to see if this group could stay healthy and jell. I felt like some nice pieces returned in Seth Olsen, Bryan Bulaga, Rafael Eubanks,. Julian Vandervelde and Kyle Calloway. I also was anxious to see Rob Bruggeman in a game since Ferentz spoke so highly of him.
Now, I'm not here to write that the line is on its way to becoming the group of ‘02. Again, I hope to see another unit that salty, but I won't hold my breath.
I do, however, see some signs that this could be one of the better O-Lines in the Ferentz Era. It certainly shows the kind of brute toughness so prominent among the better fronts.
I thought about the comparison between this line and the one in 2003 and decided I liked it. After losing guys like Eric Steinbach, Bruce Nelson and Ben Sobieski to the pros and taking some lumps early in that season, that group anchored by senior Robert Gallery was humming by the time it hit Florida upside the head in the Outback Bowl. It opened up some huge holes for running back Nate Kaeding, er, Fred Russell, who was named MVP of the game.
Iowa's front seemed to put things together very well against a veteran Indiana defensive line last weekend. You can say the Hoosiers weren't much competition as a team, but coming into the season ends Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew were regarded among the best in the conference. They created havoc a year earlier when they dropped Hawkeye quarterback Jake Christensen nine times in winning at Kinnick. Middleton did not record a tackle last Saturday.
The Hawkeyes have allowed the second most sacks (14) in the Big Ten this season. But compared to last year when it gave up 46 (the sixth most in the country), the improvement has been plainly obvious.
The offensive line also is paving the way for Shonn Greene to lead the Big Ten in rushing through seven games. The Hawkeyes rank 31st nationally in rushing yards per game (187.0) after finishing 92nd in the country last year (126.25)
One similarity that this year's front shares with the ‘02 standard is that plenty of sand was kicked in the face of both groups. Most of the players were thrown into action perhaps a little sooner than Ferentz would have hoped.
Right guard Seth Olsen has played the role of Gallery if you like my ‘03 comparison. He came into the season as the only starter with significant playing time under his belt. And like Gallery, he was pushed around as an inexperience lineman.
"The let go (of a bad play), flush it, is the thing that (former Hawkeye lineman) Pete McMahon taught me from my freshman year when I was going against Matt Roth and getting beat all of the time," Olsen said. "I was beating myself up. (McMahon reminded me) that this guy is going to be a first- or second-round draft pick. If he doesn't beat you, there should be something wrong.
"You can look at that like a play or a season. Last season is in our memory banks, but there's no sense of it being at the forefront and impacting us negatively."
The tactic that McMahon taught Olsen seems to be working for Bulaga, Vandervelde and Calloway. Each guy has hit some turbulence along the way this season, but kept pushing forward.
"We've learned from the lumps we had last year and some that we've had this year," Olsen said. "We corrected them and moved on."
You can't overstate the value of Bruggeman. The senior from Cedar Rapids looks like he's been starting for three years when this is his first season in that role. And he's a leader.
Last fall when he was sidelined with the injury, Bruggeman spent a lot of time working in the film room and relaying what he saw to his teammates on the field. He also often watched game tape with Bulaga to show the true freshman what he saw.
"We would talk about what we would do in certain situations," Bruggeman said. "I would make a call for him and tell him conceptually why the call was being made. When you first come in, you learn things on the small picture. When you get older, you start to think about, conceptually, why you would want to block something a certain way in order to give the offense the best advantage possible."
Bruggeman was put into a somewhat uncomfortable position this season when he competed for the starting center position with good friend Rafael Eubanks, the starter the last two seasons. Both guys were in Olsen's wedding.
Eubanks now splits time with Vandervelde at left guard. And there's no tension to disrupt the chemistry.
"You want to start and you want to play, but you become such good friends with the guys you're competing with that you just want the team to be as good as possible," Bruggeman said. "If the coaches think somebody should be playing over you, then they probably should be. He's always been real supportive and he's been a great guy. He's awesome when he's in there. It's like a second center. He sees a lot of stuff."
Olsen and Bruggeman talked about the camaraderie of the individuals on the offensive line. They spend a lot of time together off of the field. Olsen's wife sometimes cooks dinner for the group.
Yes, the pieces are in place. They're injury free (knock on wood). They seem to be coming together a little more each week.
It feels a lot like the good old days.