A Friendly Competition in the Middle

In their three plus seasons together on the Iowa offensive line, senior Rob Bruggeman and junior Rafael Eubanks have become close friends. That relationship has stayed strong despite the duo competing for the starting center position in 2008. HN.com Senior Writer Rob Howe spoke with the contenders at media day on Monday and filed this free feature to all visitors of Hawkeye Nation.

When Rafael Eubanks and Rob Bruggeman took part in Seth Olsen's wedding earlier this year, they stood side by side, helping out their fellow Iowa offensive lineman during his nuptials.

Now, they're locked in a heated competition for the Hawkeyes' starting center position. It appears to be a long shot that the friends will be on the first unit together come the opener against Maine.

"They've handled it very well," Olsen said. "It's not like its soured their relationship or anything. They still get along well and work hard together. They're trying to help one another get better.

"It's not like because you have competition with a guy you're going to hope the other guy sucks. You just help each other get better and let the coach decide at the end."

If there is such a thing as healthy competition, this appears to be it.

"We all know that this is football. There are only 11 people that can play at a time," Eubanks said. "That isn't going to come between our relationship as friends. As they say, you leave everything on the field. If I end up losing it, I'm not going to end up taking that off the field and make it into hatred towards him. That's just not how it is. It's just part of the game."

Eubanks started all 12 games last season and nine of 13 in 2006. Injuries kept him out of the other four.

Bruggeman has not started a game. The former walk-on and fifth-year senior from Cedar Rapids Washington High played well during spring drills of '07, but blew out a knee ligament and didn't return to action until the end of the season.

"I hope that everybody on this team feels that it's all about the team," Bruggeman said. "If he's the best guy to play, so be it. If I'm the best guy, so be it. Maybe we switch positions. Maybe this happens or that happens. As we know, the injury bug can come through pretty fast. So, there's always opportunity. Everybody stays interested and stays in tune."

There is a chance that one of them could kick out to a guard position. Competition at those spots also is fierce.

"He and I have both strictly been at center," Eubanks said of spring drills and summer workouts. "It's the (beginning) of camp. Once we get into pads and start hitting, that's when you'll see guys moving around. It's too early to say what's going to happen here."

Eubanks said he would welcome a chance to play guard having done it in high school and a little in practice at Iowa. Bruggeman also wants to get the five best linemen on the field.

"I'd be OK with that," Bruggeman said. "I don't think I could play tackle real well, but I'm OK to play center or guard. But right now, pushing each other at the same position is a good thing for us."

Both guys went out of there way to say they were excited about their competition. You didn't get a sense at all that one would be relieved if the other moved out of it and into the guard battle.

"I like it," Eubanks said. "The more competition you have, the more that you have somebody pushing you or you're pushing somebody, the better you're going to get because it forces you coming into each practice to continue to get better. With more competition, the better team you're going to have in the end."

Said Bruggeman: "I'm OK with that. If there's competition that means people get better. I'm excited that we have a chance to go out there and push each other. I hope we can get better."

There are about eight or nine guys battling for five spots along the line. It's as important a competition there is on the team after last season's struggles that saw the Hawkeyes allow an astounding 46 sacks, the sixth most in the nation.

Eubanks was in the middle of the mess last season. Bruggeman began rotating in at center late in the year and the sacks kept coming. Iowa was beset by injury at the position and inexperience prevailed.

"My freshman year, I just kind of played on emotion," Eubanks said. "Last year was a mixture. It was up and down.

"The thing about that was that I had a lot of young guys out there. I felt like a lot of times I was trying to help them out too much instead of focusing on myself in terms of playing. I wanted to try to bring those guys along. This year I have ample opportunity to just focus on what I've got to do."

There's a good chance that this competition at center was delayed a year by Bruggeman's injury. Head coach Kirk Ferentz spoke very highly of him in 2006.

"It's hard to say," Eubanks said of the suggestion. "He was right up there in the spring. It was tough to have him go down. Anytime you lose a guy like that, even though he hasn't played as much, he still had the experience of being around here and knowing the system."

It seems natural that there would be at least some animosity between Eubanks, a guy that's been a two-year starter, and Bruggeman, who walked on and is trying to take his job.

But both of these guys have spent multiple years on the team's leadership council, voted on by their peers. They genuinely appeared to have the team's best interest in their hearts.

"It's hard, but the thing that I look at is that I want to have a part in this team," Eubanks said. "If it's starting, I'll be starting. If it's backing up so another guy that is performing better can play, that's what I want because in the end, we all just want to win. We all want that whether you're a starter or a backup or a scout guy. You're going to give 100 percent to whatever your role is on the team."

Bruggeman sounds thankful just to be in this position.

"I'm from freaking Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 25 minutes away, and it's pretty awesome to come out here and play for something that I watched growing up as a kid," he said. "Both of my parents went to Iowa State. I think they're pretty much fully converted."

Ferentz has continually focused attention on the leadership of fifth-year seniors Olsen and Bruggeman, who said he learned what that's all about from former Iowa center Mike Elgin.

"I used to give Mike crap for being a jerk to me," Bruggeman said. "He told me that he wasn't being a jerk; that he was just getting me better. It seemed like he would never leave me alone. Now I call and talk to him all of the time. I appreciated it."

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