Sobieski Set to Return

As Freshman RT Ben Sobieski sat in the locker room in Ann Arbor during halftime in 1997, everything seemed to be going according to plan. He had committed to Iowa in 1996 because he wanted to play for Coach Fry and the winning tradition that had been built in Iowa City during the previous 15 years.

Not only had the Hawks gone 8-4 and 9-3 over the previous two seasons before his arrival on campus, but many of the veteran stars like Tim Dwight, Jared DeVries, and Tavian Banks returned to form a team that looked like it could be even better in 1997.

Unlike some of the other 2001 Hawkeye veterans who were in the program in ‘97, Ben was in the two-deep as a true freshman. He saw time in the 66-0 win over Northern Iowa, helped Tavian Banks set a single game Iowa rushing record in a 54-16 revenge win over Tulsa, and was part of two more blowouts in a 63-20 win over Iowa State and a 38-10 win over Illinois. Although the Hawks had played poorly on offense in a 17-7 loss at Ohio State to fall to 4-1, Ben and his teammates had to be sky high as they led Michigan 21-7 at the half that day. Not only were they leading the top program in the Big Ten, but they had all of the momentum after Tim Dwight ran a punt back for a touchdown to finish the half. If the Hawks could just win the game, maybe Ben could get to go to the Rose Bowl as a freshman.

The second half of the Michigan game started a downward spiral that did not seem to stop until the last month of the 2000 season. Not only did Iowa lose the game 28-24, but Matt Sherman broke his thumb on the last drive of the game that almost put the Hawks back on top. Maybe it was because the team had high expectations that seemed lost after the Michigan game, maybe it was because key injuries to Sherman, Vernon Rollins, Jon LaFleur, and others took a toll on a team that was thin in certain areas, but for whatever reason the 1997 Iowa Football team finished 7-5 in one of the most disappointing seasons in school history. Just to show what could have been, Michigan went on after the pivotal Iowa game to win the national championship.

When a team fails to reach their potential in a season and then loses many of their key stars, it even makes it harder for the next group in the program to do well. The 1998 team should have been 6-5 or at least something along those lines because they returned many defensive veterans from a good ‘97 defense. However, the injuries and bad luck continued to mount as the 1998 squad turned into a 3-8 team that did not show up in the season finale in a 49-7 loss to Minnesota that has to rank as one of the worst losses in school history. It wasn't until the Penn State game in 2000 that the program had felt any joy or jubilance on the football field since the first half of the Michigan game in ‘97.

As the team struggled in 1998, 1999 and most of 2000, so did the career of Sobieski. "Big Ben" was the most talented lineman on the 1998 team, but shoulder problems continued to grow as the season moved on. Although the problems started in his left shoulder in 1997, the area had generally regressed to the point that it popped out of place more than a dozen times in the Purdue game in 98. That was also Ben's worst game in an Iowa uniform when the Boilermaker speed ends beat him to the quarterback more than once as they took advantage of his health.

Kirk Ferentz took over the program in 1999 knowing that the Iowa Offense, and especially the offensive line, was the weakest link in 1998. Being one of the better offensive line talent evaluators in the country, Coach Ferentz could easily see by the tapes at the time that Ben was the most physically gifted OL player in the program because of his frame, lower body strength, and general athleticism. However, not only did Ben not play in 1999 because of surgery on his left shoulder, but he missed the 2000 season after undergoing the same procedure on his right shoulder.

Other than having standout RB Ladell Betts and WR Kevin Kasper around for the last two years, Coach Ferentz has been pretty snake bitten on offense so far as a head coach as quarterbacks, offensive linemen, FB Jeremy Allen, and WR Kahlil Hill all have missed significant time. However, because of the last four games of last season and the way that the health, recruiting, and off-season workouts have gone, this 2001 version of the Iowa Hawkeyes has the feel of a team that is on the verge of breaking out.

In many ways, Ben Sobieski reflects what has been going on in Iowa City the last few years. The promise and talent of 1997 must have seemed so far away as he struggled with injuries and watching his team struggle the last two years. However, as he stood at media day, Ben seemed to be genuinely excited about 2001 as he was cleared to practice from the get go this year. In fact, he and Coach Ferentz have both said he has been doing almost everything at full speed like his teammates since the summer began.

No one has been talking about Ben as a possible starter in the preseason. Even Coach Ferentz is cautiously optimistic about Ben's comeback and does not want to pencil him in at a position because he has missed two seasons. But when you ask guys like C Bruce Nelson or T Kory Borchers about Ben, they rave about his talent and ability. Unlike the past three years, if Ben does not play a down, the team should still be fine as there is an actual two-deep on the OL full of players who are capable of starting in the Big Ten. What could separate Iowa from other teams on their schedule is that Iowa's OL two-deep is full of guys who HAVE started games over the past three years.

Ben has always played left tackle when healthy since 1998. With another physically talented LT in Robert Gallery all ready at the position, the coaches might have a great problem if Sobieski indeed makes a return to full health. Ben has two years of rust to work off since he last played, but by the start of the Big Ten season this year he could be making some noise. Imagine a healthy Iowa OL with C Bruce Nelson, G Eric Steinbach, G Alonzo Cunningham, and Gallery and Sobieski at the tackles? The Iowa coaches, fans and alumni should be salivating at the concept. As long as people stay healthy, David Porter, Andy Lightfoot, and Sam Aiello would help form one of the best 2nd string lines in the league.

The OL should be much better this year no matter who plays among the people listed above. The obvious thing at media day this year was how much bigger and stronger everyone is. Along with the added strength from hard work comes attitude and confidence, and the OL seems to have that as well this year. Guys like Ben are due to get a little luck and a few good bounces, and if that happens, Iowa could be the surprise of the Big Ten. Wouldn't it be nice if the team played well and finished off teams like Michigan, Iowa State, Minnesota, and Indiana this year?

It would be for Ben Sobieski, as he and the other Hawkeye veterans came to Iowa City to experience seasons like the 2001 season could and should be.

Questions and Answers with Hawkeye Tackle Ben Sobieski from Iowa Media Day (8/10/2001)

As everyone must always ask you, how are your shoulders?

Ben: "They're great. I had surgery on the left one in 1999 and the right one this last year. The left one was feeling pretty good last year, so hopefully they will both be good this fall. I feel ready to go."

How has rehab and lifting been going this summer?

Ben: "I started doing everything about a month ago like everyone else. I've gained a lot of strength back. It is good to be getting back to where I am healthy again."

How long had it been since you were able to do military lifts and other shoulder and chest strength exercises?

Ben: "Since about the beginning of 1998. It had been awhile."

During what game did you hurt the left shoulder?

Ben: "It got worse as the year went on, but they hurt at the beginning of the year. Actually I hurt them a little in my freshman season of 1997 and they just gradually got worse."

Is your upper body strength near where it was before the injuries?

Ben: "I can't bench as much as I could, but I am not really expected to after missing so much time. I lifted for a lot of years all the way up to my sophomore year, and to miss so much time makes it hard to get back to where I was. I will eventually get back to where I was, but I am strong. I am definitely as strong as I need to be."

Lower body strength and explosion are where football players are made anyway. How is your leg strength?

Ben: "Good. I was able to pretty much do leg workouts the whole time. I couldn't squat for about three months after the surgery because I wasn't supposed to lift my arm up at that angle because the one arm was in a stabilizer, but my leg workouts have been full speed for 10 or 11 months. I haven't missed many leg workouts over the last three years because of the shoulder stuff. They had me doing other leg stuff the whole time, so my lower body is fine. That was always my strength before anyway, but Coach Doyle has helped to get it better."

What is your timetable and when are you cleared to practice?

Ben: "I can start tomorrow. At the camp last fall I was able to practice once a day during two-a-days so I didn't really get that much in. I started off kind of slow last year, and by the time I started to turn it up I had to stop practicing because the other shoulder got worse. They should both be better this year."

Are you officially a junior or senior, and did you get a 6th year of eligibility from the NCAA because of your injury situation?

Ben: "They call me a junior even though I am listed as a senior. I am not in any of the senior photos, but I can't apply for a 6th year until after I finish my 5th year after this season. I hope it's a 99% chance that I get one though."

Your situation is kind of the prototype for why players get a 6th year.

Ben: "I think it is. It would be great because I want to go to a couple more bowl games. There are some technical things to work out but I hope it is a 99% chance that I will be around for a couple more years."

Can you talk about the OL and how it has changed since you last played in 1998?

Ben: "The biggest thing is depth. We actually have a legitimate two-deep, and the quality among whoever are the starters will be better as a starting group than 1998. We have two really good lines, and I haven't seen that much depth since I have been here."

Compare it to the talented 1997 team. Were you moved from the DL to offensive tackle that year because of depth issues?

Ben: "I got moved over to help the depth, and when I got moved over they still didn't have a full two-deep. If the left tackle went out, Jeremy McKinney (the starting RT) moved over to the left and I played right. But now we have a person for every position it seems like and we are all big and strong. Everyone has gotten huge, thanks to Coach Doyle. We are all better athletes than we were, we are ready to go."

What position have you been working out at, and do most of the guys work out a lot at different positions?

Ben: "I have been working out at left tackle. A lot of guys switch between guard and tackle, but I have always been at left tackle. I would be willing to try other spots, like guard, if asked, but the coaches have never asked me."

Do you have anything to say about the preseason publications and how low most of them rate the Hawks?

Ben: "I love it. We have so many guys returning with experience, and we are bigger, faster, and stronger than last year, so we know we are going to be much better this year. We've got good newcomers, and with the way we finished last year, the magazines are just another reason to be pumped."

(Quick Note from Publisher Josh Clark: Ben Sobieski will return to practice today as he has been withheld practice this first week because of a pulled hamstring. Also, Robert Gallery suffered a broken hand this past Monday. He is, also, scheduled to return to practice today.)

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