Eubanks Moves Front and Center

The Iowa coaches told Rafael Eubanks at the end of last season that he would be competing for a starting spot. The freshman accepted the challenge and won the job. He will open at center on Saturday when the Hawkeyes host Montana in the season opener. Senior Writer Rob Howe caught up with Eubanks on Tuesday to see how he was approaching the game and filed this Premium Feature Story.

Iowa senior offensive lineman Mike Elgin explained how his first snap as a college center went down.

"I don't remember the play," said Elgin, then a sophomore. "My head was just racing. I just didn't want to trip getting out of the huddle."

Did you hear that, Rafael Eubanks?

Iowa breaks in a new starting center this Saturday in its season opener against Montana at the renovated Kinnick Stadium. Eubanks is just beginning his second year on campus.

"There are nerves," he said. "It's just natural. Once I get on the field and hit somebody, it comes back to reality and you're playing football."

Eubanks won his position in a stiff preseason competition. He beat out fellow center Rob Bruggeman (recently injured) and guard Seth Olsen, both of whom have more experience in the program.

"I just made sure that it would be a hard decision for the coaches to decide," Eubanks said of what helped him earn the spot. "That's what any team wants. They want to have hard decisions. You want a lot of guys working hard and getting better because that's going to make the team better. I was able to learn (the offense) on the run."

Eubanks arrived at Iowa as a highly decorated recruit. hung four stars on him, and he was rated the service's 13th best offensive lineman nationally in the 2005 class. He chose Iowa ahead of Notre Dame with other offers coming from Miami (Fla.), Oklahoma and Minnesota.

A perception existed that said Eubanks selected the Hawkeyes because he would have an opportunity to play sooner than he would have at Notre Dame. That wasn't the case.

"I wanted to go to a place where I could succeed but doing it in the right way; working hard, being tough and determined," he said. "For me, playing time had nothing to do with it. I wanted to go to a place where I would be the best player, whether that was three years from now or right away. As long as I could become the best player, that's where I wanted to be."

Eubanks exhibited a lot of poise with the media on Tuesday. He answered the questions with thought and ease. He wasn't quite as polished as his predecessor, Brian Ferentz, behind the microphones, but you got a sense that the young guy got what was going on; there was a maturity.

At Cretin Derham Hall High in St. Paul, Minn., Eubanks posted a 3.5 GPA and scored a 24 on his ACT. He took on a position at Iowa that calls for cerebral strength in that the center makes line calls and in many ways is the captain of the unit.

Iowa uses zone-blocking schemes that requires everybody to know their assignments and be on the same page.

"It may seem like it can be very difficult, but it's really not," Eubanks said. "They try to make it real simple. The whole deal with our offense is that it's going to be simple and if it's executed correctly it's going to work.

"They always say that schemes don't win games. People and execution win games. That's what's key with this. You know we're going to have a game plan that's going to work as long as we go out and execute and do our job."

Eubanks should benefit from playing between a pair of seniors at guard in Elgin and Mike Jones and also a senior quarterback in Drew Tate. Combined, those three guys have seven years of starting experience.

Elgin played center as a sophomore before moving to guard in 2005.

"It helped me settle in a lot," Eubanks said of Elgin. "He told me not to worry about making the wrong call. He's going to help me with that. He wanted me to worry about what I needed to do. He knows what I'm going through because he's been there. It's comforting to be coming in so young and just worry about playing football. If I do something wrong, they'll let me know."

During the Big Ten media gathering in Chicago earlier this month, Elgin let it be known that he would like another shot at center. It turned out that Iowa's best line put him at guard and Eubanks in the middle. Tuesday, Elgin said he was fine with the outcome.

"We're all competing," Elgin said. "That's one thing that's healthy for this group is that everybody can play a lot of positions and everybody is still competing and working to get better. I just want to be on the field. If I'm playing guard, I'm on the field."

Eubanks has impressed Elgin.

"It's his work ethic," the senior said. "He's also been very inquisitive about the concept of our offensive philosophies. Any advice that he gets, he's taken it openly and just been a real good student of the game."

Eubanks played behind Brian Ferentz last season and tried to soak up as much information as he could. After suffering a preseason injury and missing about of month of the season, he tried to put himself in position to compete for the job this spring.

Ferentz taught Eubanks how to approach the game, from watching film to looking for tendencies of the defensive linemen to what technique to use on certain plays.

"He was by far one of the best centers ever to come through here," Eubanks said of Ferentz. "Anything you can pick up from a guy like that is going to help you out on the field."

The tutelage from the Ferentz family has stretched beyond Brian. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz created a name for himself in football by mentoring offensive linemen.

"Coach Ferentz, that's the first thing that he looks at (in practice), is the offensive line," Eubanks said. "That's not counting against anybody else on the team. That's where his background is. That's how football goes. If the offensive line isn't working well, the team isn't going anywhere. It's an integral part."

The head coach being an offensive line guru has not presented added pressure for the young Eubanks. He's enjoyed having Ferentz, line coach Reese Morgan and graduate assistant Rick Kaczenski helping out up front.

"For us, it doesn't change the fact that we know we have to perform every day in practice," Eubanks said. "You can't have, "Oh this is a practice. We don't want to go out here and practice." We have to go out and practice hard every day. That's the essence of what (Ferentz) stresses as a team as a whole and that's what we work on as an offensive line. Every play counts.

"We have three sets of eyes with our offensive line. It's only going to make us better. If (Ferentz) sees something really small that we can work on, he'll let us know. It can't get any better for offensive linemen at all."

Tate also has taken Eubanks under his wing. Iowa's fiery leader has seen some of himself in Eubanks, who also can lose his cool when a play doesn't work as planned.

"He's done a good job to kind of settle me into the position," Eubanks said. "There have been times in practice where I've been a little bit nervous; just getting a little excited. He's just been, "Hey, settle down. You're supposed to be here." It's funny because he's kind of the one that's been saying that to me a little bit when I got mad over a play. He's been the one to calm me down. He might have had his emotions carry himself away a little bit. But that's all in the sport and it's because he loves it."

Said Elgin of Eubanks' excitability: "He takes pride in what he does. And when you do that and things don't go as you expected, you get frustrated. I feel I know what he's going through. We're all there for him and supporting him. He's going to do a great job."

Eubanks doesn't expect to sleep much in Friday night. He'll be anxious to play his first college game and live up to expectations of being a redshirt freshman starter in the Big Ten.

"It's kind of my chance to take that opportunity; to show the coaches if I should be out there," Eubanks said. "I did whatever I could to show the coaches that I was ready. I've been able to do that to this point. It's really my duty to fulfill those prophecies."

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