Spring 2004 Analysis: The Offensive Line

When I was younger, I tended to focus more on the players who threw and caught the passes, or the players that had the football in their hands. I also took note of the linebackers, because they seemed pretty cool. I was a skill position football fan, and could perhaps tell you the name of maybe one or two offensive linemen in a given year. Ahh, the foolishness of youth. Now I understand what really makes an offense look good: the Offensive Line. Here is HN.com's OL Preview

When I was younger, I tended to focus more on the players who threw and caught the passes, or the players that had the football in their hands.

I also took note of the linebackers, because they seemed pretty cool.

I was a skill position football fan, and could perhaps tell you the name of maybe one or two offensive linemen in a given year.

Ahh, the foolishness of youth.

Having covered Iowa football on a daily basis for the better part of the last six years, and having grown well beyond the naivety of my teen years, I now know what separates good football teams from great football teams: the linemen.

Kirk Ferentz might say, and probably has said, that offensive linemen are not ‘sexy'. I would agree with him for two reasons:

First of all, I am a man, and if I disagreed with him, my wife would have a few questions for me.

Second, there are no collegiate statistics kept to grade the performance of offensive linemen. You hear about ‘pancake' blocks regarding high school players, and that is well and good. But that is not a statistic you will find at ncaa.org.

I guess you could look at how many sacks a lineman allowed during the course of a game, but with so many defensive stunts, twists and blitzes, it's hard to pin such plays on one player in many instances.

If you want to get a good feel for how good an offensive line is, take a look at the team's rushing statistics. Then take a look at the passing statistics. Then take a look at the playmakers on offense.

While many experts feel Iowa's offensive line of 2002 was perhaps the best ever in school history, and I would not argue with that, the 2003 offensive line did a pretty good job, too.

Iowa ran for 2,784 yards in 2002, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and they scored 24 TD's. Iowa averaged 210.3 passing yards per game. They had perhaps the best group of pass catching targets in school history. They had the best tight end in school history. They had a quarterback who put together perhaps the finest overall statistical season in school history.

In 2003, Iowa ran for 2,241 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, and scored 20 TD's. Iowa's passing attack averaged just 161.2 yards per game and ranked near the bottom of division 1 in that statistic. Gone were Dallas Clark, CJ Jones and Brad Banks. Gone were Eric Steinbach, Bruce Nelson and Ben Sobieski, three linemen that were on NFL rosters last year. Gone were Andy Lightfoot and David Porter.

Iowa's starting WR's, Mo Brown and Ed Hinkel, missed several games due to injury.

Opposing defenses routinely put eight and sometimes nine defenders in the box to try and stop Iowa's running game.

All of those factors made the 2003 offensive line's task of following in the footsteps of ‘The Plows' all the more daunting.

But they did just fine, helping Iowa to 10 wins and paving the way for Fred Russell's 1,300+ yard season, the third highest single season total in Iowa history.

Now we fast-forward to the present, with Iowa just two days away from the start of spring practice.

The 2004 offensive line will have a big hole to fill, as Robert Gallery will be a top five NFL draft pick. Sam Aiello was a steady player for Iowa who had plenty of experience. Eric Rothwell and Kory Borchers also graduate for the Hawkeyes.

But the well is not dry, and if the 2004 offensive line can gel early, big things can happen next season, and beyond.

RETURNING STARTERS: (4) SR Pete McMahon (6-7, 333), SO David Walker (6-2, 303), SO Mike Jones (6-5, 304), JR Brian Ferentz (6-2, 282)

All four of those players started at one point or another in 2003. Ferentz, McMahon and Walker were opening day starters. Jones saw his first snap/start at Ohio State and started the rest of the year. Ferentz was injured midway through the season and would not return. Walker would battle injuries all season.

Walker and Ferentz will not take part in spring drills due to injuries. Walker needed surgery to repair his Achilles tendon and Ferentz required another knee surgery. An Iowa press release last month stated that both players would be available at the start of fall practice.

At this point, you go with what the doctors say. But there are more than a few blown Achilles examples that took longer to heal than seven months that one can find on common medical sites, and Brian Ferentz has been battling knee problems for his entire career.

If both of those players can return at 100-percent, the Hawkeyes will have a very, very solid group on the offensive line. If not, even more unproven players are going to have to step in and perform at a championship level from the get go.

Those players include JR Lee Gray (6-6, 315), JR Blake Larsen (6-7, 311), JR Ben Cronin (6-5, 288), JR CJ Barkema (6-8, 295), SO Mike Elgin (6-4, 267) and SO Chris Felder (6-7, 303) will all be in the mix for available starting slots and reserve roles.

Gray, who made the move from the defensive side last spring, seems to be the front runner to assume Gallery's vacated LT position. He is quick for his size and has very long arms. He also has great size. He might turn a few heads next fall.

Elgin and Cronin will see extended snaps this spring due to Ferentz's injury, and hopefully a clear #2 will emerge from their competition. If Ferentz can't go to start the fall, one of those players will be your starting center in September. Elgin seems destined to play nothing but center, while Cronin should be able to swing out to the right guard position.

CJ Barkema was listed as Robert Gallery's backup last spring, and he should battle Gray for that spot this year. Mike Jones should be your starting LG. While Pete McMahon will start on the right side, just what position is not certain at this time. Ideally, he is your RT. But if one of the unproven players is better suited for tackle than guard, McMahon has the ability to move inside and outside from game to game.

Blake Larsen will challenge for the RG position, and if Cronin does not come out ahead of Elgin at center, he will fight for that spot, too.

However, if Chris Felder proves to be a better RT than what Larsen, Cronin or Walker show at RG, that is how McMahon could move inside. Or Felder could earn the guard position.

When dealing with the offensive line and so many players, it can get confusing. And wondering weather or not Walker and Ferentz will be 100-percent makes the waters murkier.

IF you could say that those two will be ready to go, your starting lineup takes shape:

LT: Gray
LG: Jones
C: Ferentz
RG: Walker
RT: McMahon

We feel that would be a very safe bet.

But that would be too easy.

A lot of Iowa fans have prematurely labeled Larsen a bust, since he came out of high school as the #1 rated tackle in the country. One thing that may have slowed down Larsen's development, no, make that two things, are his knees.

Larsen underwent lateral release surgery on both knees last summer. The condition limits mobility, something that is very important for an offensive lineman. So rumors regarding Larsen's less than stellar footwork during his first two years at Iowa might be explained a bit. The surgeries went well, and the spring practices might be the most important time of Blake Larsen's Iowa football career. That time included this past winter.

Barkema dealt with back problems last year. Back issues are pesky, and if you have them you know what I am talking about. Felder dealt with neck stinger issues, as well.

It would probably be unreasonable to expect each of the untested players to play championship level football this spring.

But if two or three of them can really step it up and make some great strides, Iowa's offensive line outlook for 2004 will look very good.

And with Pete McMahon being the lone senior in the entire group, and with a few talented freshman coming in this year in Nyere Aumaitre, Seth Olsen and Rashad Dunn, the two-deeps for 2005 have the chance to be something very, very special.

There is that year again, 2005.

All signs point to that season as being the year where the Iowa Hawkeyes could be playing in the Rose Bowl for all the marbles.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. That game is 21 months away, and the 11-game regular season in 2004 is very important, as Iowa figures to be in the running for the Big Ten championship.

That is, IF the offensive line can come together.

That task begins on Wednesday.

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