Much anxiety surrounded the offensive line heading into the 2012 season.
How would this team cope with the loss of Al Netter? Could Adam Cushing help develop a pair of new starters?
Eight games in, the unit has performed above and beyond expectations. To succeed, an offensive line requires a collective effort – and this group is clicking.
Sophomore center Brandon Vitabile said the group follows a simple principle.
"We try to go all five, all day," Vitabile said. "All five linemen just try to execute their jobs."
In the season opener against Syracuse, the offensive line fell victim to uneven play. With Chuck Porcelli and Jack Konopka looking to impress in their first significant action, the line faded down the stretch.
On Wednesday, Ward was announced as a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, awarded to the nation's premier student-athlete. His cerebral nature – both on and off the field – benefits his teammates.
"He knows the defenses in and out," Vitabile said. "It's great having him there because he's someone you can bounce thoughts off."
But to succeed on the line, the Wildcats require all hands on deck. That's where the development of Konopka comes in. Konopka played superback in his freshman year and moved to offensive line during spring practice.
He admitted that it was a tough transition.
"The beginning of camp was a little rough," Konopka said. "I had a learning curve. Just working with (coach Adam) Cushing, I feel like I'm coming along pretty quickly.
"There are a couple of plays when I do look like a first-year starter … If I could play a more consistent game, I'd be a lot better off."
Last year, the Cats yielded 42 sacks in 13 games. They are on pace to give up about half that many in 2012. Even with the frequent shifts from Trevor Siemian to Kain Colter under center, the line remains focused on blocking assignments.
Meanwhile, Venric Mark is continuing a breakout campaign. With 910 yards already, Mark expects to become the first Cat to break the 1000-yard mark since 2006. And much of that is facilitated by the linemen. Take, for example, Mark's 80-yard touchdown run on a zone read early in the third quarter against Nebraska. He was hardly touched.
It's growing harder and harder to complain about this offensive line. Vitabile and Konopka agreed that for the most part, they have graded out well.
Still, against an Iowa team that boasts a ferocious bunch of linebackers, they know there is work ahead.
"There's always room for improvement," Konopka said. "The past couple of weeks, there have been a handful of plays where everyone can do something better."
For a unit full of confidence, the goal remains the same.
"We do a lot of film study and like to know what their tendencies are," Konopka said. "We figure out what they do and try to exploit it."