You know the drill: Every Thursday from now until mid-August, BHGP breaks down the depth chart, position by position, from most certain to least certain.
Tonight: Offensive Line
This post was originally slated for the ATP10 finale; after all, three starters have departed, including the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year. And yet, by the end of this week, it's become abundantly clear that we know who will start in four of five offensive line spots in week one. Whether those players remain in the starting lineup through week twelve is for another day.
The Rock of Gibraltar
Riley Reiff (#77, Sophomore, 6'6", 300, Parkston (SD) HS)
Bryan Bulaga won national recognition and acclaim, capped with a first-round draft selection in April. Kyle Calloway started nearly three years' worth of games at right tackle and also found himself in the NFL this spring. Dace Richardson capped his unlikely return from injury with a fifth-year encore that nearly got him into the pros. Rafael Eubanks had three years as starting center and was named second team all-conference as a senior. All four departing linemen had talent and experience and the accolades that go with them. Which makes the following true statement all the more absurd: Riley Reiff was Iowa's best lineman in 2009.
Even with Julian Vandervelde injured and Calloway missing time for Mopeding While Intoxicated, Reiff couldn't break into the starting five against UNI. Ferentz, opting for the devil he knew, went with super-senior Dan Doering at right guard, Richardson at right tackle, and Adam Gettis at left guard. Bad move, with the previously-witnessed consequences. So when Bulaga went out for three weeks with a thyroid problem, Ferentz didn't make the same mistake. Reiff was more than competent at left tackle in wins against Iowa State, Arizona, and Penn State. Reiff sat out for one week after Bulaga's return (maybe not coincidentally another lackluster performance, this time against Arkansas State) and was then installed as the underperforming Vandervelde's replacement at left guard for the remainder of the regular season, building a wall on Iowa's left side with Bulaga behind which Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher bled the clock in future wins. When Iowa took the field against Georgia Tech on January 5, Reiff was starting at right tackle, forcing Kyle Calloway -- who had started 24 of the previous 25 games at RT -- inside to guard. The transformation was complete.
It's convenient to make comparisons between Reiff and Bryan Bulaga, considering that both players ascended the depth chart midway through their respective freshman campaigns. But Reiff is a different animal: For one, he didn't play offensive line in high school, and was recruited ostensibly as a defensive end (or maybe tight end). For another, Bulaga didn't have nearly as much competition to conquer in making his early breakthrough, as the 2007 Iowa offensive line was a travesty of 1999-esque proportions. But a 6'6" oversized tight end/defensive end type who enters the program, adds 60 pounds, and takes over as left tackle after a year spent filling in at guard? We've seen this before. Get ready.
Julian Vandervelde (#63, Senior, 6'3", 300, Central HS (Davenport, IA))
Julian Vandervelde's 21 years on this earth read like a Dos Equis ad: As a kid, Vandervelde played in the Little League World Series (as a 6'2", 231-lb. first baseman...at age 12) and was on his high school swim team for a time. He speaks fluent Japanese. He sang the national anthem when Barack Obama came to Iowa City earlier this year. He's a genuinely intelligent, interesting man. Despite that fact, he drew little interest out of high school (3* Rivals, 2* Scout), with offers from Iowa, Stanford, and MAC fodder; he didn't even receive an offer from Iowa State, believe it or not. Vandervelde was pushed into service as a redshirt freshman in 2007 and was an unmitigated disaster, missing blocks constantly and being bullied by larger, more experienced players. Julian Vandervelde was JV, indeed.
His 2008 season was a revelation, though; Vandervelde entered as co-first team left guard and buried his opposition quickly, earning a start against Pitt in week three and earning every offensive snap by week four. Common knowledge was that Vandervelde would be a linchpin of the Iowa offensive line for the next two years. But Vandervelde tore his bicep in July, missed August camp, and reverted to his 2007 form upon his September return. By the time Michigan rolled into Kinnick in October, he had been supplanted by Reiff and Richardson at guard. When Richardson went down injured in November, Vandervelde retook his spot at right guard, grabbing four late starts (including a start at left guard in the Orange Bowl) and looking slightly improved over his previous play. It's 2010, Vandervelde is a senior, and there is literally no competition in front of him. It's his time to shine. Barring injury, expect big things in two languages.
The Marked Men
RT: Marcus Zusevics (#56, Junior, 6'5", 295, Prospect HS (Arlington Heights, IL))
RG: Adam Gettis (#73, Junior, 6'3", 280, Lincoln Way East HS (Frankfort, IL))
The two definitive opening day starters who didn't factor in Iowa's 2009 campaign are prototypical Iowa offensive linemen: Two- to three-star recruits from Iowa and Illinois who redshirt, gain strength and experience, slowly work up the depth chart, and jump into a hole in their fourth year in the program. They are not flashy. They are not well-known. They are, inevitably, factoring in the offense, at least in September.
Marcus Zusevics, a universal three-star recruit from the Chicago suburbs, chose Iowa over offers from Nebraska, Michigan State, Purdue, and Northern Illinois, then spent three years watching Kyle Calloway work. On opening day last year, The Mad Russian was listed as second-string right tackle, stuck there throughout the year, and has apparently held off the challenge of Woody Orne and other prospects to inherit Calloway's position for 2010. He's not as athletic as Reiff -- hence the right side -- but by all accounts has the size and footwork necessary to bookend the line.
Adam Gettis started one game last season, against Northern Iowa, and looked lost. It's not particularly surprising, given the fact that Gettis was primarily recruited (at least by other programs) as a defensive end. From starting against UNI to limited action against Iowa State and Arizona to football purgatory, Gettis' descent down the depth chart was swift and complete as Reiff moved ahead and Vandervelde returned from injury (which says something about his general ineffectiveness, given JV's struggles last year). He doesn't have prototypical size for a guard, at just 280 pounds, and hopefully refined his technique over the past 12 months.
The reason we put an "at least in September" caveat on these two is that they are prime candidates (especially Gettis) to be phased out if one of the younger players steps forward. When in doubt, Ferentz defaults to experience, but that reliance on seniority only lasts so long. Ask guys like Dan Doering, Travis Meade, or even Gettis. They've got starting spots early in the season, but both Zusevics and Gettis will have to play well to keep them.
There is no better example of Ferentz's loyalty to players with seniority -- to a point -- than the one positional battle left on the line. Josh Koeppel joined the Hawkeyes as a walk-on in 2006 with size and experience as a long snapper. He was buried behind Raf Eubanks, then Rob Bruggeman, then Raf Eubanks again. Finally, after three years of spot work on special teams and in garbage time, with Bruggeman and Eubanks finally dispatched, Koeppel is set to join the starting lineup...if he can fend off the coach's kid.
James Ferentz received three stars from the recruiting agencies in 2008, despite the fact that there was no suspense as to where he would play, either in school or in position. Ferentz, unlike his extremely successful brother before him, entered Iowa ready-made for the center position at 6'2" and 250 pounds. Nevertheless, he redshirted, and spent his first year on campus running amok, getting crunked, and breaking shit. Youthful indiscretions aside, Ferentz reportedly showed marked improvement in his redshirt freshman year, to the point where he was mentioned by his dad, O'Keefe, and Morgan in the run-up to the Orange Bowl.
Regardless of what happens, Ferentz is the future at center. He has impeccable technique (wonder where he picked that up), sufficient size, and the football smarts necessary to organize the line. But he's a sophomore, and an Iowa center's role as traffic cop is probably better suited to seniority than any other offensive line position. I would expect Koeppel starts at least the first two games, with Ferentz assuming the top line by mid-October. Talent wins out eventually.
While You Wait for the Others
Woody Orne (#72, Junior, 6'5", 295, Fairfield (IA) HS/South Dakota State)
Orne is the oddest of odd cases: He grew up in the shadow of Iowa City, playing tight end at Fairfield despite being 6'5" and 240 pounds. He went completely unnoticed, by the recruiting services and the Iowa staff, and ended up at South Dakota State. After a redshirt season (at South Dakota State, mind you), Orne took over at right tackle and transformed into a road grader, earning Missouri Valley Conference all-newcomer team recognition and a call from Iowa. He sat out a year, in which he became the consensus strongest guy on the team, and was widely considered a contender at right tackle entering spring practice. Those considerations went out the window, though, and Orne enters fall as second-team right guard. Still, for a guy this big, this strong, and this...well, odd, to not see the field would be a travesty. Consider him the top contender to Gettis, if not Zusevics.
Nolan MacMillan (#76, Freshman (RS), 6'6", 288, The Hun School (Princeton, NJ))
MacMillan, who comes to Iowa from Canada by way of the Garden State, got some looks during last fall despite being a true freshman. Eventually reason gave way, and MacMillan redshirted. The winter and spring weren't good to Nolan, though, as he missed Orange Bowl preparations with an undisclosed injury and finished April absent from the depth chart. Despite only receiving three stars from the recruiting services (likely due in no small part to his late move from Toronto to New Jersey), MacMillan chose Iowa over a host of comparable programs (MSU, BC, Cuse, UConn, Rutgers, GT, etc.) The coaches liked something last year; let's hope he gets healthy and finds whatever it is again soon.
Brett Van Sloten (#70, Freshman (RS), 6'7", 290, Decorah (IA) HS)
Van Sloten (2* Rivals, 2* Scout) accepted the only offer he ever received in coming to Iowa, and was generally seen as a project. He had the frame that Ferentz is known to covet (6'6", 270 as a high school senior) but had never played offensive line. He was recruited for the future. And now, as he sits behind Marcus Zusevics on the August depth chart, the future is just a second away. There hasn't been much chatter around Van Sloten, but the position speaks for itself. There's a bright future here.
Matt Tobin (#60, Sophomore, 6'6", 285, Dyersville (IA) Beckman HS)
A walk-on in just his third year in the program shouldn't be backing up at left tackle. And yet, as we open August camp, there is the completely unheralded Matt Tobin, directly behind Riley Reiff. Look, is it likely he'll play significant minutes? No, no it is not. But he's still making enough of an impression to unseat more heralded recruits at a key position.
Cody Hundertmark (#64, Junior, 6'4", 285, Humboldt (IA) HS)
Yeah, yeah, he's playing backup left guard after spending last season as a backup defensive tackle. Whatever. But look at the list of potential contributors on the offensive line this year. That is seven Iowans so far, with two from Illinois and one from just across the South Dakota border. Of the eleven players we have discussed, only MacMillan is from a state that doesn't border Iowa. This is how Nebraska built champions, folks.
Conor Boffeli (#59, Freshman (RS), 6'5", 285, Valley HS (West Des Moines))
Third team center after spring. Still on the depth chart now. I suppose stranger things have happened, though I would imagine Vandervelde would move to center should both Koeppel and Ferentz be injured. Boffeli received three stars from Rivals and two from those commies at Scout, both ranking him as a tight end. Not much of a tight end = woo get excited center. Oh, and another Iowa prospect makes the list.
Casey McMillan (#66, Sophomore, 6'4", 305, Central Catholic HS (Billings, MT))
Look, we love Big Montana. I mean, we really, really, really, really love the kid. But when Morehouse asks Karl Klug about manhandling the young guys and Klug volunteers McMillan's name as a frequent target, well, it doesn't bode well for the young man's potential playing time. Still, we're including him here because he's awesome and, courtesy of a faithful reader, he got a new haircut.