This offseason, Black Heart Gold Pants is undertaking the unenviable task of ranking the greatest players of the Kirk Ferentz era. From 1999-2019, we’re emptying the memory banks, popping in the highlight tapes, and embracing the controversy as we try to determine who stands out as the best of the best. We’ll start by ranking the top five players at every position group before moving on to the top 25 players regardless of position. Rankings are based on college performance and do not take professional success into account.
Iowa football has a rich tradition of developing elite offensive linemen, but no coach in program history has been more prolific in cultivating offensive line talent than Kirk Ferentz. Since Ferentz assumed control over the program in 1999, Iowa has produced seven first-team All-Americans on the offensive line, three of whom were consensus selections. By comparison, Ferentz’s legendary predecessor Hayden Fry coached only two first-team All-American offensive linemen during his 20 years as the Hawkeyes’ head man, one of whom (Mike Haight) had Ferentz as his position coach. Iowa’s former star right tackle Tristan Wirfs called the program a factory for NFL linemen, and he could not have been more right.
Each of the top five Ferentz-era linemen have reputations that are as untouchable as the quarterbacks who played behind them. All of them were first-team All-Americans and none of them were drafted later than the second round of the NFL Draft. Elite players like Marshal Yanda, Riley Reiff, Seth Olsen, Jordan Walsh, and Sean Welsh could all make cases for inclusion on this list, as could several others. However, like the real offensive lines that take the field for the black and gold, there can only be five.
5. Bryan Bulaga (2007-2009)
Bulaga was pressed into service as a true freshman at left guard, and fans could immediately tell that there was something special about the 6-5 Illinois native. After earning second-team All-Big Ten honors blowing up massive holes for Shonn Greene as a sophomore, his talent was undeniable. But Bulaga saved the best for last, developing into one of Iowa’s most dominant left tackles as a junior in 2009. A road grader as a run blocker and an elite pass protector, Bulaga was the unsung star of the Hawkeye offense and made a habit of regularly pancaking some of the conference’s best defensive linemen en route to being named the conference’s Offensive Lineman of the Year.
Re-watching Iowa’s 2010 Orange Bowl win, it’s noticeable whose name you rarely if ever hear called: Georgia Tech’s ACC Defensive MVP and consensus All-American defensive end Derrick Morgan. Bulaga shut down the soon-to-be first round draft pick and opened up gaping holes for Brandon Wegher throughout the second half which allowed Iowa to ice the game. Just as he did for most of his career in the black and gold, Bulaga managed to neutralize the opposing defense’s most dangerous weapon, helping to pave the way for an Iowa victory.
4. Bruce Nelson (1999-2002)
Iowa has had some amazing walk-on success stories, but Bruce Nelson’s may top them all. An unheralded recruit from Emmetsburg, IA, Nelson started all 48 games of his Iowa career and opened up holes for 1,000-yard rushers in three of his four seasons. A two-time honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, Nelson blossomed into a superstar as a senior in 2002, earning team MVP honors while helping his offense set single-season program records for touchdowns (60), points (480), and points per game (37.2).
Nelson was large for a collegiate center (6-5, 290 lbs.), but could move with surprising speed, and served as a fantastic signal-caller for maybe the greatest offensive line in Hawkeye history. He finished his senior year as a finalist for the Rimington Trophy behind Miami’s Brett Romberg, but was clearly the top center in the Big Ten that year. Nelson is also deserving of even greater recognition: he is the best center of the Ferentz era, and one of the best to ever wear the black and gold.
3. Eric Steinbach (1999-2002)
A two-time first-team All-Conference pick and a consensus first-team All-American in 2002, Steinbach was as dominant at his guard position as any player to come through Iowa under Kirk Ferentz. Steinbach was slowed by injuries as a sophomore and junior but showed exactly what he was capable of during his virtuoso senior season in which he earned Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year recognition. No interior offensive lineman that I’ve seen play at Iowa could match the 6-7 Steinbach’s combination of size, strength, and agility, and Steinbach is entrenched with fellow Hawkeye legends like Cal Jones and John Niland as one of the most dominant guards in program history.
It’s tough to pick between Steinbach and Nelson, both of whom were elite players on the 2002 line who kept Heisman candidate Brad Banks clean and opened up gaping holes for Freddie Russel and Jermelle Lewis all season long. However, Steinbach gets a slight edge in my book due to his sustained success and multiple first-team All-Conference selections, consensus All-American status, and for narrowly beating out his running mate for recognition as conference’s top blocker as a senior.
2. Brandon Scherff (2011-2014)
Despite playing left guard his freshman season, Brandon Scherff was always destined to be Iowa’s next great left tackle. After injuries deprived him of half of his sophomore year, Scherff came back with a vengence in his final two seasons, earning two first-team All-Conference nods and being named a unanimous All-American, the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, and Outland Trophy winner in 2014. Impossibly strong, Scherff shattered Iowa’s weight-lifting records during the off-seasons while shattering the dreams of opposing pass rushers every Saturday.
Scherff thrived as a pass protector but was most feared as a run blocker. Scherff regularly made blocks against multiple defenders on a single run play and excelled at getting to the second level where his size and athleticism made him an absolute mismatch against overpowered linebackers. Simply put, Scherff was an absolute mauler, and was an obvious choice for the Big Ten Network’s starting offensive tackle on their recently announced All-Decade team.
For almost any other school and any other coach, Brandon Scherff would be a clear choice as the top offensive lineman. However, he comes second on this list to one of the most intimidating college players to ever take the field in Kinnick Stadium.
1. Robert Gallery (2000-2003)
While Robert Gallery started his Iowa football career as a tight end, he eventually blossomed into the most dominant left tackle in program history and one of the best to ever play in the Big Ten. A hulking 6’7 325 lbs. specimen, Gallery was immovable in pass protection and unstoppable when blocking the run. You didn’t need to know anything about offensive line play or even football in general to recognize his dominance on the field. He was so large that defenders struggled to find the diminutive Fred Russel as he danced behind him. Gallery made at least one eye-popping block per game, which he did several times in Iowa’s 2003 drubbing of Illinois, including at the 7:10 mark of this video.
Gallery’s 2003 season was as good as any in program history. He was the 2003 Outland Trophy winner, the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, and a unanimous All-American. He was drafted with the 2nd overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, making him the second-highest draft pick in program history. As TNels20 writes,
“Gallery dominated during his final season, being an absolute mauler in the run game and also not allowing a single sack.”
For his skill as a run and pass blocker, as well as his utterly dominant presence on the field, Gallery is our pick as the top offensive lineman of the Ferentz era.
BHGP Consensus Rankings:
5th (tie)- Tristan Wirfs
5th (tie)- Bruce Nelson
3rd- Eric Steinbach
2nd- Brandon Scherff
1st- Robert Gallery
Tristan Wirfs, yet another first-team All-American and Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, earned his spot in the top five by being the best right tackle of the Ferentz era, an elite pass protector, and the producer of some of the best pancake blocks you’ll see in college football.
Speaking of amazing blocks, I can’t write an article pointing out the best of the Fernetz-era offensive line without finding room for this gem.
Things don’t get any less competitive next week. Stop by next Friday to see our list of the top tight ends of the Ferentz era.