Howe: Hawkeye Fortunes Could Rest in Middle

Many national media outlets will focus on the Hawkeyes' need to replace Mitch King and Shonn Greene. While those losses are significant, HN Columnist Rob Howe points to the center position as a key to the team building on last season's success.

CHICAGO - Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't easily surprise. That's why his reaction to this spring's NFL Draft should catch your attention.

"To this day, if you ask me one thing that surprised me last year, I'm shocked that Rob Bruggeman didn't get drafted," Ferentz said here on Monday at the Big Ten Kickoff Event. "I just don't get that one. I'll go out on a limb and say this guy is going to have an eight -, 10-year career (in the NFL). I just feel like he's that kind of a football player.

"We knew that two years ago. We missed him in 2007. Those are the breaks of the game sometimes."

Bruggeman anchored the middle of a Hawkeye offensive line resurgence last season. The unit played as close to the elite Iowa group of ‘02 as any in Ferentz's decade as head coach.

Bruggeman signed as free agent with Tampa Bay back in April. During the same month, Ferentz and offensive line coach Reese Morgan searched for a replacement in spring drills.

Finding a productive center will be Iowa's most important task of the summer camp. The Hawks will miss Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Bradley Fletcher, Shonn Greene and Seth Olson. But no hole is more gaping than the one left by Bruggeman.

"I never did (underestimate the Bruggeman‘s value)," Ferentz said. "I think we all might have missed the boat on how much we missed him two years ago. I think nobody ever caught onto that. As coaches we did. We thought we had a guy that was really going to be a tough player."

Ferentz said on Monday that the center competition looked like a three-man race right now with Rafael Eubanks, Josh Koeppel and his son, James Ferentz, in the running. The coach said James would miss the first game of the season after an off-field arrest during the spring.

"Certainly, James missed the second half of spring practice. So, that puts him at a real disadvantage," Coach Ferentz said. "Right now you've got Raf and Josh , and Raf has a huge experience advantage. But they both competed pretty evenly during the spring. They both competed at a good level. I mean, Raf Eubanks is a good football player. To me, it just says that Josh has really elevated his play very quietly. We might be on the verge of a good story there. That's about a 25-day gauntlet (in camp) to see who is getting the playing time."

Eubanks started at center for much of ‘06 and ‘07 before losing the competition with Bruggeman last summer. The Minneapolis native earned first-team, freshmen all-American honors by

Ferentz said that Eubanks being in close competition with Koeppel is due to the latter's emergence. But you worry that it's also a lack of growth from the former to allow a walk-on who's rarely seen game action and a red shirt freshman in James Ferentz to be close to taking the job of a guy who basically started for two years.

When Iowa has played well this decade, the center hasn't always been the best lineman on the team, but there hasn't been a more important cog. Bruggeman, Bruce Nelson, Eric Rothwell and Brian Ferentz, James' older brother, played steady and smart in the middle.

"It helps to have a good center, not necessarily an all-league center but someone that can help your team do what they have to do," Coach Ferentz said. "It's like having a good middle linebacker or free safety or quarterback, guys that understand what the communications are that need to be made. If you have that type of player up there, it really enables you to be a little bit more productive than you would in other cases. "

The coaches also were considering Julian Vandervelde, who's played guard in his first two seasons, as a possibility at center. After surgery this summer, the junior from the Quad Cities could miss most of camp.

"That probably takes that option away," Ferentz said. "He could probably do it, but I'd be more comfortable if he worked it all through camp. Whenever he gets back, if we're in that situation where we feel like, geez, we're not getting it done there. It's an option. But I think by the time he gets back we'll have a good idea where we're at. I don't anticipate it now."

The national media outlets will focus on replacing King, Greene and the other seniors from last year's team. You, as an Iowa fan, know the fortunes of this Iowa team rest squarely in the middle of the offensive line.

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