Offensive Line Off to Unexpected Strong Start

Many observers, including coach Kirk Ferentz, felt like there might be more of a learning curve for the offensive line. The unit has started fast, partly because of camp competition with a strong defensive line. The stakes are raised this week with a trip to the desert against No. 24 Arizona.

IOWA CITY, Ia. - One of the main areas of concern heading into this Iowa football season was how the Hawkeyes would replace four starters on the offensive line. Historically in the Coach Kirk Ferentz era, it's taken time for things to develop up front when there were multiple changes.

Some of those past units struggled out of the gate, contributing to tough starts in those years. Then, once they became cohesive, the team hit stride in October and November.

During Iowa's 2-0 start, the offensive line has looked mature beyond its experience. Running back Adam Robinson has eclipsed 100-yards rushing in each of the first two games. The Hawkeyes have averaged 36.0 points per game, ranking them 33rd nationally.

Perhaps the early development on the offensive front can in large part be attributed to facing one of the country's top defensive lines in training camp. Playing Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Karl Klug, Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns demands attention.

"No question about that," Ferentz said. "They have been hardened up a little bit. It hasn't been pretty in practice a lot of the time. That is a tough group to compete against every day. There is a residual effect of getting better. Steel sharpens steel. Those guys will bang you around a little bit. that is a good thing."

The left side of Iowa's line - tackle Riley Reiff and guard Julian Vandervelde - were known commodities coming into 2010. Center James Ferentz (Kirk's son), right tackle Markus Zusevics and right guard Nolan MacMillan were new starters with little to no experience.

"I never really worried about the offensive line," Ballard said. "I know they're going to keep getting better as the season goes. People are going to have to start looking at this offensive line as being one of the better ones in the Big Ten.

"Hopefully they can keep improving without getting a big head. We're definitely excited right now."

The ninth-ranked Hawkeyes rate 25th nationally in rushing yards per game (227.0) and total yards per game (457.0).

"I ran behind them all camp," Robinson said. "At the beginning, I was like, "OK, we have some holes to fill." But towards the end of camp, they started to come together and did some good things. At that point, I just stopped worrying. I was like, "OK, let's get to the first game and see what they got." The first game, they did their job well. Same thing goes for last week.

"Now, I have no doubts, no worries, no anything about the offensive line. I know they're going to do a great job the rest of the season. I'm excited to continue to run behind them."

Movement has occurred up front, too. Projected starter Adam Gettis suffered a high-ankle sprain and missed the first two games. He returned to the depth chart behind MacMillan this week and Ferentz said he'd have a chance to be available physically.

Josh Koeppel was locked up with James Ferentz in a center competition dating back to the end of last season. Koeppel was involved in a moped accident and missed the first game even though he was cleared to play by doctors. He didn't enter last week's game until late.

During August. Coach Ferentz called Gettis his most improved player from last season to this year. He said the junior had a chance to be one of the better guards in the Big Ten.

Last week, Ferentz reinserted Jeff Tarpinian (linebacker) and Shaun Prater (cornerback) into the starting lineup after they missed the first game with injury. He seemed uncommitted about doing that with Gettis when asked about it on Tuesday.

"We'll have to see what (Gettis) looks like in practice," Ferentz said. "(He) hasn't been able to go full speed for a long time. But Nolan's done a good job.

"So I look at this as just a positive right now. I feel like we're adding a guy that we have total confidence in. And we'll figure out what to do with it from there. But it's not critical to me who starts. It would be if we were like Nolan is struggling, then I'd be a lot more concerned about it. But, I think I just look at it like we might have three starting guards here. That's the good news out of this whole thing."

Ballard noticed big strides being made by James Ferentz during training camp. The defensive tackle went against the center a lot.

"James is one heck of a center," Ballard said. "He's made so many improvements. It's almost funny at how good he's gotten. It's like (Rafael Eubanks) never left. He's learned from the best - (Rob) Bruggeman, Rafael Eubanks. Those guys taught him well."

A story in the Arizona Republic quoted Wildcat defensive players calling Iowa's offensive line big, corn-fed plows. It was an inaccurate stereotype.

If you include Gettis, the average weight of Iowa's front his 289.7 pounds. Reiff and Vandervelde each are listed at a generous 300 pounds to lead the way. By comparison, this week's opponent, Arizona, averages 320.0 pounds with all members but center Colin Baxter (295) over 300 pounds.

It's more about technique than bulk for the Hawkeyes to succeed.

"That's what we stress all of the time - fundamentals and technique," said Zusevics, who came to Iowa at 225 pounds and now weighs 290. "It's definitely more important to be fundamentally sound than to weigh 320, 330 pounds."

The Iowa line takes a big step up in competition this week when facing the 24th-ranked Wildcats. It's the first road game for the Hawkeyes in 2010.

"It's been a bright spot," Coach Ferentz said. "I think we expected the progress may be a little slower. It doesn't mean we're out of the woods. We're hardly out of the woods.

"This will be heck of a test this week. Starting with their two ends, (Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed) are veteran players that are really good players. And, they're both likely to be all Pac-10 guys. So it's going to be a real test for us."

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