April 7, 2008

Spring Preview: Offensive Line

It was certainly a struggle at times last year for the Iowa offensive line. But, with everyone returning, the hope is that the big guys up front will apply the learning experiences of last season and make positive strides this fall. The good news is that with a lot of depth up front, there will be plenty of competition to push everyone to improve this spring.

THE FACTS

Position Coach: Reese Morgan

Starters Lost: None

Starters Returning: Everyone

Spring Two Deep

LT: Bryan Bulaga, Andy Kuempel
LG: Julian Vandervelde or Dan Doering, Adam Gettis
C: Rob Bruggeman or Rafael Eubanks, Josh Koeppel
RG: Seth Olsen, Travis Meade
RT: Kyle Calloway, Wes Aeschliman

THE ANALYSIS

This will be an important spring for Reese Morgan and his players on the offensive line. Last season, the Hawkeyes struggled with consistency up front and that led to many drives stalling out, too many quarterback sacks, and a running game that never reached its potential.

The good news is that with the experienced gained last year the players on the offensive line should improve with their consistency and technique. If they don't improve, there appears to be plenty of options on the depth chart and last year the Iowa coaches weren't shy about plugging new faces into the action.

This spring, Iowa's senior leader on the offensive line, Seth Olsen, moves from tackle to guard. Olsen did a pretty good job at tackle, but the Iowa coaches seem to feel that he will help more with the running game and pass protection at guard. But, as with every move like this, Olsen could find his way back out to tackle if that position shows weakness. Backing up Olsen at this point is Travis Meade, who started last year at guard for the Hawkeyes, but was replaced near mid-season by Bryan Bulaga. Redshirt freshman Marcus Zusevics is running with the third team at this guard position.

Speaking of tackle, Bulaga is making the move out to the left tackle position, which seems to be a natural for the talented sophomore to be. Unfortunately, Bulaga will miss spring practice this year due to off-season shoulder surgery. He should be ready to go this summer and will be full speed heading into fall camp in August. Backing up Bulaga on the depth chart is Andy Kuempel. With Bulaga out, this is a very big spring for the former Linn Mar prep to show that he belongs in the lineup and he will get plenty of reps to show his stuff.

At the other tackle, Kyle Calloway moves to the right side this spring after spending most of his first year as a starter on the left side. Calloway showed flashes early and during parts of the season, but also has his fair share of struggles during the campaign. Backing him up this spring will be senior to be big Wes Aeschliman, who has shown improvement every year in the program and is a very capable player.

At the other two offensive line positions, it appears to be an either/or proposition this spring. At guard, Julian Vandervelde and Dan Doering are a coin flip right now, as they were for a good portion of the second half of the season. Vandervelde opened last season as a starter, but started sharing time with Doering through most of the Big Ten season. This appears to be a very even race and the two should head into fall camp sharing the spot. The question that will remain is do the coaches continue the rotation or does one guy grab hold of the starting spot fulltime? Redshirt freshman Adam Gettis is currently running with the third team at guard.

At center, Rob Bruggeman and Rafael Eubanks are engaged in a very tight race for the starting spot this spring. Eubanks is the incumbent at center and has quite a bit of solid experience leading the offensive line. But, last year before he tore his ACL, Bruggeman was one of Iowa's top five offensive linemen and showed he was more than able to make a difference late in the year when he returned to action. Given the importance of the center position it is doubtful that the two split snaps during games and Coach Ferentz hinted at his most recent press conference that the odd man out could find themselves in the mix at guard, probably battling Vandervelde/Doering unless Olsen were to move back to tackle.

One major unknown on the offensive line is the status of tackle Dace Richardson, who is recovering from major knee surgery last year. According to Coach Ferentz, we will not know about his status for this season until June, at the earliest. At this point, given his knee problems, his return should be viewed as cloudy at best and if they are able to get him back on the field, it would be a nice bonus.

The various battles on the offensive line will certainly be the most interesting one to follow heading into the spring scrimmage on April 19th. There are plenty of questions that have to start to be answered as far as players gaining the consistency up front to get the offense moving in a positive direction. With Bulaga out this spring as an expected starter, the consistency aspect is more difficult. Expect the position battles to continue on into fall camp for the Iowa offensive line.


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