Howe: Offensive Line Raises Concerns

One of the key questions heading into the '07 campaign was the play of the offensive line. The unit is packed with potential but lacks experience. Its performance at Saturday's open practice was less than stellar. It caught the attention of HN Senior Writer Rob Howe, who expresses his concerns in this opinion piece free to all visitors of the site.

If I didn't know better, I would have thought Jake Christensen had a $100 bill taped to the front of his helmet. The defensive linemen sure came after him they would be cashing in.

And the Hawkeye offensive line must have been getting a cut. Either that or they were practicing to be matadors.

Man, I expected the Iowa defensive line to be ahead of the offensive line at Kids Day in Kinnick, but that was Ali versus Erkel. It was a beat down.

Hayden Fry used to refer to them as "look out blocks." The linemen turn around to the quarterback and yell, "Look out!"

Perhaps I'm being too hard on the front five. The unit is green. Guys and groups have off days. Maybe the defensive line is just that dominant.

I'll buy into some of that. But I admit one of my major concerns heading into this season still gives me an unsettled feeling.

I'm confident in Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz's ability to whip the boys into shape. It's his area of expertise.

Ferentz pointed out after the practice that it's tough to gauge line completely because the defense masters the offensive plays a few days into camp.

"It's that way all over the country," he said. "I would caution people to be too judgmental after 16 days of practice."

Fair enough. They still have another week of camp and progress seems reasonable.

The unit has suffered some bumps with injury. Projected starter at left tackle, Dace Richardson, has missed most of camp and will not be available for the season opener. Alex Kanellis looks like he might miss the season completely. And Seth Olsen, the most experienced member of the group, has been dinged up.

"From our scrimmage earlier in the week to today, we definitely made a jump," senior running back Albert Young said of the offense. "But we've got a ways to go. That's all-around, though. Let's not just single out the O-line; let's talk about everybody. All of us have a ways to go. We're not where we want to be. That's fine because we have another week of camp to get all of those things tightened before game week."

But the offensive linemen themselves are not making excuses about their play on Saturday. They appear embarrassed by what took place just two weeks from the opener against Northern Illinois.

"We thought that we would be a little further along in our progression," Olsen said. "But camp can be a drag and you might hit a few bumps in the middle of the road."

Consider Saturday a crater.

It would have been easier to swallow the offensive line performance had the domination come from the first-team defensive line dominating the No. 2 offensive front. But the second-team D-line wreaked havoc on the No. 1 blocking unit. Christensen was wearing Anton Narinskiy – a guy who was playing on offense a year ago – for much of the afternoon.

"We're pretty cohesive," Olsen said. "We have good chemistry. It just comes down to our fundamentals, each guy doing his job. That will make the whole unit better."

Since the monster 2002 line, Iowa has failed to get through a season without issues up front. Injuries have hit, guys have been moved around and there has been unsteadiness.

"Actually, this year, we've probably done a little less shuffling than in the past two years that I've been here, which has been good," Iowa center Rafael Eubanks said. "We get to know the guys on each side of us and know what to expect from them. Obviously having five core guys is going to be important once the season rolls around."

Again, that's a red flag for me. If this unit has been together for most of the spring and summer, it should have shown better, even if it played against a salty defensive line on Saturday.

"I hear that argument," Olsen said of the defense being the more experienced group. "But we haven't had that many people come into our offensive unit since spring ball. So, we expect ourselves to be further along at this point."

Said Eubanks: "You can believe it if you want to. I don't believe it. No matter where they're at, we should be able to come out there and still move the ball; still be able to do things. We didn't have a lot of ones versus ones today and moved the ball, but in practice we haven't been doing too bad."

Ferentz and Olsen concur with Eubanks in that the unit has looked pretty good in practice. That's comforting, but it's tough to erase the memory Saturday's performance.

I know I called for a dominating defensive line showing on Saturday. There should be some separation due to the inequity of experience.

That's also the danger in only getting to see one practice or scrimmage. The view is narrow. I am encouraged by the words of Ferentz and his players.

I also cautiously move ahead.

The '03 line starred Outland winner Robert Gallery and a bunch of newbies. That unit was dominated at Michigan State and really didn't put it completely together until the Outback Bowl.

I think this unit has potential, but I wonder about there being an anchor and the time it will take to gel. Iowa's schedule is front loaded this year if you view it on paper. There isn't much time to get it together.

I can be reassured by '04 when the line was inconsistent and Drew Tate worked miracles. That team also featured a dominant defensive line.

I also have heard in the past from Iowa linemen that they were "close" to putting it together, and it just didn't happen. Maybe I've just been spoiled by '02.

"I wouldn't say that we're "that" close," Eubanks said. "A lot of those guys that are inexperienced haven't seen much in terms of game speed or what defenses will bring out there. In terms of being physical and having that want to block somebody, we definitely have that as a unit. You can always work from that. That other stuff will eventually clean itself up."

I hope so. I'm still worried about Christensen's health.

"Things are so much different in a game as compared to when you're out here," Young said. "For one, you go up against guys for two weeks and (defensive) guys know what (offensive) guys like to do. When we check into run plays, they know what's coming. You throw in the fact that they're a good group of guys, that doesn't help. We have a lot to do, but let's not panic."

Sorry, Albert, after Saturday, my hand is on the button.

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