April 18, 2012

Need interior linemen? Look to the Big Ten

Before making the transition from NFL assistant to Big Ten head coach, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz earned a reputation as a rising star in the profession through his work with offensive linemen.

Ferentz served as Iowa's offensive line coach from 1981-89. After holding the same position with the NFL's old Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens from 1993-98, Ferentz returned to Iowa as head coach in 1999. When he's recruiting offensive linemen nowadays, Ferentz still knows exactly what qualities he wants to see from them.

"[I want] guys that really have a lot of pride, who take pride in their performance," Ferentz said. "I think that's true of any good player, not just offensive linemen. And a real strong work ethic is certainly important."

GUARD/CENTER U. 2012
Our choice: Iowa.
Who they've sent: Robert Gallery (New England Patriots), Bryan Mattison (St. Louis Rams), Seth Olsen (Indianapolis Colts), Eric Steinbach (free agent), Julian Vandervelde (Philadelphia Eagles), Casey Wiegmann (Kansas City Chiefs), Marshal Yanda (Baltimore Ravens)
Who's next: Adam Gettis is a projected late-round pick or undrafted free agent this year. James Ferentz is rated as the No. 7 center in the 2013 draft class by nfldraftscout.com, which would make him a potential late-round pick next year.
Why we picked them: Yanda was an All-Pro selection last year. Wiegmann also is a former Pro Bowl pick. Gallery, Steinbach, Wiegmann and Yanda have 485 combined career starts in the NFL.
Other finalists: Boston College (New England's Dan Koppen, New York Giants' Chris Snee, New Orleans' Matt Tennant), Illinois (Kansas City's Jon Asamoah, New York Giants' David Diehl, New York Jets' Brandon Moore), Michigan (New York Giants' David Baas, San Francisco's Jonathan Goodwin, Tennessee's Steve Huchinson, San Diego's Stephen Schilling), Nebraska (Chicago's Ricky Henry, Denver's Russ Hochstein, Miami's Richie Incognito, Tampa Bay's Carl Nicks, Detroit's Dominic Raiola, New York Jets' Matt Slauson), Texas (Atlanta's Justin Blalock, Detroit's Leonard Davis, Dallas' Derrick Dockery, Arizona's Lyle Sendlein, Houston's Kasey Studdard).
Candidate you might not have considered: FCS programs Northern Iowa and Southeast Missouri State each had two starting interior linemen on NFL teams last season. Northern Iowa's Brad Meester has made 177 career starts for the Jacksonville Jaguars since starting his NFL career in 2000. Northern Iowa's Chad Rinehart made 12 starts for the Buffalo Bills last year. Southeast Missouri State's Eugene Amano has started 60 games for the Tennessee Titans over the last four seasons, and Dan Connolly has made 24 starts for the New England Patriots over the last two years.
Sure, it sounds pretty obvious.

But if it's so simple to find those traits, why does Iowa do it better than just about any other program in the country?

The list of active NFL guards and centers from Iowa features 2011 All-Pro selection Marshal Yanda of the Baltimore Ravens and former Pro Bowl pick Casey Wiegmann of the Kansas City Chiefs. Wiegmann, Yanda, recent New England Patriots free-agent signee Robert Gallery and current free agent Eric Steinbach have made a combined 485 career starts.

Other NFL guards and centers from Iowa include reserves Bryan Mattison (St. Louis Rams), Seth Olsen (Indianapolis Colts) and Julian Vandervelde (Philadelphia Eagles).

That was enough to give Iowa a razor-thin edge over Nebraska in a Big Ten-dominated competition for Interior Linemen U.

"What's intriguing to me about Iowa offensive linemen is even some of the guys who don't have great natural tools, they've all been so incredibly well coached that they're able to come in and contribute pretty early in their careers," said Rob Rang, a senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com.

Nebraska's collection of interior linemen includes two-time Pro Bowl pick Carl Nicks (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and longtime Detroit Lions team captain Dominic Raiola as well as Russ Hochstein (Denver Broncos), Richie Incognito (Miami Dolphins), Matt Slauson (New York Jets) and Ricky Henry (Chicago Bears).

Illinois has sent 2011 Pro Bowl selection Brandon Moore (New York Jets), 2009 Pro Bowl pick David Diehl (New York Giants) and Kansas City Chiefs starter Jon Asamoah to the NFL. Michigan products include seven-time Pro Bowl pick and recent Tennessee Titans free-agent signee Steve Hutchinson, 2009 Pro Bowl pick Jonathan Goodwin of the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants starting center David Baas.

All three of those schools offer impressive collections of talent. Iowa's group is even better.

Steinbach started 124 games between 2003-10 for the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns before sitting out last season to recover from back surgery.

Wiegmann has made 200 career starts in a 16-year career that has included stints with the Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos as well as two stops with the Chiefs. He has spent nine of the last 11 seasons in Kansas City and made the Pro Bowl in 2008 with Denver.

Yanda has established himself as one of the league's top linemen. The former third-round draft pick showed his versatility in 2010 by moving from right guard to right tackle after a preseason injury to teammate Jared Gaither. Yanda moved back to guard last season and earned All-Pro honors while helping Ray Rice rush for 1,364 yards.

That ability to play multiple positions is a trademark of Iowa linemen.

After Gallery won the 2003 Outland Trophy for Iowa, the Oakland Raiders saw him as a potential superstar tackle and selected him with the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. Gallery never lived up to expectations at tackle, but he moved to guard in 2007 and has emerged as a solid interior lineman. Gallery and Steinbach both shifted to tackle at Iowa after playing tight end in high school.

WHAT'S POSITION U.?


The Position U. series is our attempt to determine which schools provide the most NFL talent at each position. We will analyze a different position just about every day up until the April 26 start of the NFL Draft. For the purpose of this series, we only took into consideration players who were still active as of last season.
April 13: Quarterbacks
April 14: Running backs
April 17: Offensive tackles
April 18: Guards/Centers
April 19: Defensive tackles and DE/OLB
April 21: Linebackers
April 23: Cornerbacks
April 24: Safeties
April 25: Kickers and punters
But the biggest position switch of all involves Mattison, the son of Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

Mattison played defensive end for Iowa before signing with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2008. Mattison moved from defense to offense during a stint with the Ravens in 2009 and has remained in the league as a reserve guard.

"That's one of the more intriguing things about Iowa offensive linemen," Rang said. "Their technique is so good that we're seeing a high number of them being able to play different positions early in their careers.''

Rang cited the example of Bryan Bulaga, a left tackle at Iowa who moved to the right side with the NFL's Green Bay Packers and adapted so quickly that he capped his rookie season by becoming the youngest player ever to start in a Super Bowl.

Riley Reiff, a projected first-round pick in next week's draft, also played left tackle at Iowa and could move to a different position in the pro ranks.

"A lot of people believe he'll project best as a right tackle or even inside as a guard, and he spent his [college] career at left tackle," Rang said. "That's the type of versatility you consistently see from Iowa offensive linemen, whereas with most prospects at most programs it takes them a year to acclimate."

Bulaga and Reiff could help Iowa follow the pattern of Boston College.

Boston College was our pick as the best producer of NFL guards and centers when we last did the Position U. series in 2006. In this year's version of the same project, Boston College was Offensive Tackles U. instead. Reiff is about to become the second Iowa tackle drafted in the first round over the last three years, while some of the Hawkeyes' most notable NFL guards and centers are nearing retirement. Perhaps if we do this project again a few years down the road, Iowa will be better known for its offensive tackles instead of its interior linemen.

One thing's certain, though: As long as Ferentz remains in charge of the program, Iowa will continue producing plenty of NFL-ready linemen.


Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.




 

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