If the Iowa Hawkeyes are to live up to the increasing expectations for 2010, the offensive line needs to mature quickly.
Iowa features only sophomore left tackle Riley Reiff and senior right guard Julian Vandervelde returning with experience.
Reiff started in 11 of the Hawkeyes' 13 games and Vandervelde started in nine, saw action in 12, but suffered with consistency issues all season because of missing the summer with an injury.
Reiff was named to CollegeFootballNews.com's third team Freshman all-America and Sporting News' first team Big Ten all-Freshman. Vandervelde impressed in 2008 before last summer's injury.
So, we know both are capable, it's the other slots in the trenches that need to be filled by the right guys for Iowa to be successful again this fall.
Junior Adam Gettis saw some action at left guard and sophomore James Ferentz will likely see plenty of time this season after off-field troubles kept him from playing last year.
Gettis improved as the season went on after struggling in a start against Northern Iowa. But who didn't struggle in that game for the Hawks? If he continues to make progress in spring and summer practice the spot should be his.
Plenty of pressure is on the coach's son, as center is heavily relied upon in the Iowa offense. Ferentz may have seen playing time last year had he not suffered from a lapse in judgement.
From there, however, it's anybody's guess as to who will get the nod in the leftover gaps.
What Seems Like a Long, Long, Time Ago
The last time the Hawkeyes' offensive line looked this young was 2007—not a good year for the Hawks, who went 6-6 and rightfully missed out on a seventh-straight bowl berth after losing to a Western Michigan team that was 3-7 at the time.
Iowa's offensive line for 2007 featured two returning starters in Seth Olsen at right guard and Rafael Eubanks at center. Both would later be named as all-Big Ten honorable mentions as consolation, I guess.
As for the rest of the offensive line, the Hawkeyes featured widely young and inexperienced players in the trenches after they lost Mike Jones, Mike Elgin and Marshal Yanda to graduation in 2006.
The result was 46 sacks allowed by the end of the year. That stat was good for 114th in the nation. Iowa had only given up 22 sacks the previous season.
Iowa did a lot of shuffling with the 2007 offensive line due to injuries and lacks of cohesion and experience. They were the doormat of offensive lines in the Big Ten before finding themselves in 2008.
That inexperienced squad included a young Bryan Bulaga, Kyle Calloway, and Rafael Eubanks. Dace Richardson sat out much of 2007 due to injury.
Back to the Future
Last season, Iowa gave up 29 sacks, which tied for 82nd in the country. That's by no means a pretty number.
With a younger offensive line this season, it's reasonable to expect that number to increase.
What does that mean for the Hawkeyes? Everybody else has to step it up.
Quarterback Ricky Stanzi has to lead the team and make better decisions all around.
Receivers have to get open and catch the ball to take the pressure off the running game.
Luckily for the incoming o-line uglies, they'll be protecting three very talented backs in Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher, and Jewel Hampton.
On a positive note, the Hawkeyes return plenty of players with starting experience—largely in thanks to last season's injuries—to back up the offensive line.
Also, here's to hoping this year's playmakers are smarter in the off-season than they were in 2007. That will go a long way in ensuring Iowa's success.
Overall, though, this young o-line needs to mature very quickly and find that groove 2007's squad couldn't.
Hopefully, they'll also put on some meat in the off-season, as Vandervelde and red-shirt sophomore Casey McMillan are the only ones in the discussion over 300 pounds. We'll get an update on that situation closer to spring practice.
Finally, as always, nobody gets injured.
Knock on the wood nearest you.