It would be great if Iowa Football had the wide receiver talent on a yearly basis the way Tennessee has had for the last twenty seasons, but this year's group does not appear to be in that class. Although Coach Hayden Fry and assistant Bill Snyder turned out great quarterbacks in the Iowa program during the 1980s, the Hawks have not had the QB talent that Michigan has had in the years since. Although it has not been the case over the last five years, there is one offensive position group that Coach Ferentz and the Iowa staff are building up to once again rank among the nation's elite – the offensive line.
From 1981 to 1991, Iowa Football had offensive lines that generally ranked among the top ten units in the country. As late as 1995-96 the Iowa OL was a very good Big Ten unit with guys like Ross Verba, Mike Goff, Jeremy McKinney, and Casey Wiegmann, but the units under Offensive Line Coach Kirk Ferentz during the middle of the 1980s were the names that bring back images of dominating line play in the trenches. The Hilgenbergs, Ron Hallstrom, John Alt, Mike Haight, Dave Croston, Bob Kratch, Mark Sindlinger, Mike Devlin, and Scott Davis are just a few of the names of exceptional linemen that paved the way for team success and individual success for Chuck Hartlieb, Matt Rodgers, Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Long, and other famed Iowa offensive skill players of that time. During many of those seasons the Hawks had classic battles against teams like Michigan and Michigan State, but Coach Fry's teams dominated lower tier Big Ten squads like Northwestern and Indiana on a yearly basis because those opponents could not physically match up with the Hawks in the trenches.
Thanks to the help of Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Doyle building the Hawks up in the weight room, the 2001 season found the Hawks returning to their old ways of bullying lesser opponents at the line of scrimmage. Although the Iowa defensive front seven was more physical than the OL last season, Coach Joe Philbin's OL dominated many lesser opponents with blowout performances in the 7-5 campaign as the group was very athletic and talented. For the season, the offense averaged 32.6 points per game and 393.5 yards per game with the line leading the way.
However, 2001 was still a work in progress for the group as they did not play well in the Purdue and Penn State games early in the Big Ten season, and were not able to be difference makers in five close losses. There were still too many games in which the offense played well for two quarters, but not the entire game. Although the skill positions must carry their weight and make plays for the team to succeed, the OL must be even better if the team is going to move forward in 2002.
Hopes are very high that the OL will be better in 2002 as eight players return that have significant starting experience in their Iowa careers. C Bruce Nelson (6-4, 290) has the most experience as the senior has started all 35 games over the last three seasons. The former walk-on tight end was an undersized redshirt freshman tackle in 1999, moved to guard in 2000, and settled in at center last season well enough to the point that he received all-Big Ten recognition. Not only is he as big and strong as he has ever been this season, but this will be the first year in his college career that he will play the same position two years in a row. With his athletic ability and intelligence, many within talent evaluators feel the NFL is a definite possibility. In Bruce's red-shirt freshman season, several coaches had spread word that he was the most likely of all the young OL to be playing on Sunday afternoon.
Many other veteran players have realistic dreams of playing NFL ball. LG Eric Steinbach (6-7, 284) is also a former tight end with experience as he has started 16 games in an Iowa uniform. His weight never seems to change on the roster releases from the university even though the senior looks bigger every year, but there is no doubt that he has grown into his position as he was a first team all-Big Ten performer in 2001. LT Robert Gallery is just a junior, but the 6-7, 300-pounder has started 22 games in his Iowa career.
RT David Porter (6-7, 315) always had talent, but the senior did not produce on the field until last season. Although he started three games as a true freshman in 1998, the player Coach Fry once described as "a big teddy bear" fought injuries and struggled in 1999 and 2000 to play well enough in practice to see consistent action in games. For a time it seemed as he was going to finish his career being lost in the shuffle, but thanks in part to injuries to Sam Aiello and Ben Sobieski, David took advantage last season and earned second team all-Big Ten honors. The future doctor enjoyed the year so much that he applied for a redshirt from the NCAA for the almost wasted 1999 season so he could return as a fifth-year senior. The "big teddy bear" no longer blocks like a big teddy bear, and has the size and athleticism that pro scouts look for in a right tackle.
As talented and athletic as this group is, the most talented may be the guy who hasn't started since 1998! LT Ben Sobieski (6-5, 325) started down the stretch in 1997 as a true freshman, and then started every game in 1998 at left tackle even though his shoulder was messed up. He missed the 1999 season after undergoing shoulder surgery, then missed the 2000 season after undergoing the same procedure on the other shoulder. 2001 was almost a wash for him as he missed many practices with ailments like a neck stinger and hamstring problems as his body was trying to get used to playing football again, but he did see limited time in games like the Northwestern blowout.
Big Ben seems to be practicing and back in the mix this fall as he is officially listed as the backup LT on the depth chart, but he may claim the RG position if he can stay healthy. Although he is a natural LT with his frame and athleticism, the RG spot is the most open spot on the line as Andy Lightfoot, Kory Borchers, and Sam Aiello are all fighting for the RG spot. Sobieski has, perhaps, the best lower body combination of speed, power, and size of the entire OL, and even though he had been hurt since 1998, Bruce Nelson and other linemen continued to rave about Ben's abilities.
Lightfoot (6-6, 284) is listed as the starter at RG, and has 14 starts spread out over the last three years. He has been more of a utility lineman in the past, but the senior hopes to cement a spot in his last year of eligibility. Unlike the others listed above, NFL and his name are rarely listed in the same breath. Andy is looking almost solely at medical school after this season. Borchers (6-6, 290) may not earn a starting spot this season if everyone stays healthy, but the talented junior is going to be counted on as a starter in 2003. Kory started three games last season and the former defensive linemen played pretty well. Aiello (6-5, 305) was listed as a first team right tackle going into last fall, but injuries have plagued him. The junior has started five games during his Iowa career but is currently listed at backup RT going into the Akron game. What a great advantage to have former starters at three backup positions!
Hopefully, these are the eight guys that fans see getting better every week this year. In addition to Aiello, Borchers, and Gallery, the 2003 lineup mix will include three prospects that will be by then redshirt sophomores – C Brian Ferentz, G Ben Cronin, and T Blake Larson. Larson (6-7, 307) was hyped as the best high school lineman in the nation in 2000, and although the transition was slow, he has been reported as making significant progress over the summer and fall. Cronin (6-5, 285) was reportedly the best of the three last fall and also has a great frame, while Ferentz (6-2, 275) was the biggest project coming out of high school. Brian is putting on size as he is nearing over 280 and developing just like most people had hoped he would.
A fourth redshirt sophomore who will be in the mix in 2003 is transfer G David Walker from Auburn. Walker (6-2, 315) was penciled in as a starter at guard this season, but chose to transfer and sit out to become a Hawkeye. He was a Florida prep teammate of Bennie Sapp and Abdul Hodge.