Big Ten: Mike Elgin
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Mention the 2007 season to Bryan Bulaga, and the Iowa left tackle contorts his face in disgust.
A number comes to mind.
"Forty-six," Bulaga said. "We try to forget it."
Iowa's offensive line allowed 46 sacks that season, which placed 114th out of 119 FBS teams.
Any line can have an off year, and there were certainly circumstances that contributed to the Hawkeyes' struggles. But the staggering sacks total was so un-Iowa, given the program's tradition of stout line play, particularly under head coach Kirk Ferentz, a former line coach with the Hawkeyes and in the NFL.
The Hawkeyes have turned the page and appear ready to draft a new chapter in their proud offensive line history.
After clearing a path for Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene last fall, Iowa returns three starters up front, including second-team All-Big Ten tackles in Bulaga and Kyle Calloway. The Hawkeyes lose mainstays in guard Seth Olsen and center Rob Bruggeman, but they have plenty of upperclassmen -- Andy Kuempel, Dan Doering, Julian Vandervelde, Rafael Eubanks, even Dace Richardson if he stays healthy -- to fill the gaps.
"Bruggy and Seth were big-time players for us and leaders, but we need to move on toward next year, getting a new identity," Bulaga said. "We've done a good job of that so far this spring. I don't think we've missed a lot of beats on it."
Iowa's recent offensive line tradition includes players like Robert Gallery, Marshal Yanda and Eric Steinbach, and the hope is Bulaga will be the next star. The affable junior added seven pounds during the offseason, now checking in at 6-foot-6, 312 pounds.
Bulaga takes a streak of 18 consecutive starts into the fall.
"He's an easy guy to coach," Ferentz said. "He's pretty good physically, and he's got a great attitude, so we're just thrilled that he's on our football team. A guy that works hard like he does and has an attitude like he does, it's a contagious thing. He makes other guys better."
Ferentz notes that the problems in 2007 stemmed mainly from youth. Iowa graduated Yanda, Mike Jones and Mike Elgin the previous year and thrust Bulaga, Calloway and other young players into starting roles.
"We went through the same thing back in '84," said Ferentz, who then served as the Hawkeyes' line coach. "In '82 and '83, we had a veteran group. We had seven seniors in our two-deep, so '83 was a lot of fun but '84 was a lot of growing pains."
Ferentz expects to see continued growth from Iowa's veteran-laden line this fall. With questions at running back, wide receiver and even quarterback, to some degree, the Hawkeyes will lean on the five men up front.
Bulaga said 46 sacks allowed two years ago still comes up from time to time in the O-line meeting room, but he and his linemates are more focused on reducing a different number, 27, Iowa's sacks allowed total from 2008.
"This group's worked hard," Ferentz said. "We have no idea what our starting lineup's going to be right now, but we've got a group I think is going to be represented.
"We're a little bit more veteran now, and that's a good thing."