IOWA CITY — It’s when and not if for Bryan Bulaga.
He will return from the undisclosed illness that took the Hawkeyes’ all-Big Ten offensive tackle off the field for last week’s Iowa State game, coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. The illness needed regulating. He’s feeling better. But he hasn’t returned to practice.
The focus is on the “when.” Ferentz votes for sooner rather than later.
Bulaga hasn’t practiced since last Tuesday when he checked into the hospital for a couple nights. Coaches have different ideas on how much practice a player can miss and remain effective. Obviously, a player of Bulaga’s stature has earned some leeway. Last month, the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder was being asked if he was going to leave early for the NFL draft.
Still, the clock is ticking on Saturday’s game against Arizona (2-0) and former Hawkeye All-American safety and UA coach Mike Stoops.
“It really depends on when he’s cleared,” Ferentz said. “Probably, the big thing there again is it’s not a matter of if he’ll be cleared, it’s when he’s cleared. I’m getting nervous, though. Most players play better if they practice and most players don’t play well when they don’t practice. That’s not 100 percent true, but it’s pretty close.”
Ferentz said he ideally would like a player to be on the field by Wednesday. As of Tuesday afternoon, Bulaga was termed “day-to-day.” So, the “when” in this remained open ended.
“He’s day-to-day right now,” Ferentz said. “Day-to-day. We’ll know more tomorrow, I’ll know more Thursday and right on through. We’ll see how it goes.”
Ferentz declined to reveal the details of Bulaga’s illness. His description made it sound of though some regulation is required.
“They’re doing checks right now,” Ferentz said. “It’s just a matter of meeting certain levels and getting OKs to move forward. Right now, obviously, he’s not practicing.”
If Bulaga doesn’t suit up against Arizona, the Hawkeyes (2-0) will once again go with red-shirt freshman Riley Reiff at left tackle. The 6-6, 280-pounder from Parkson, S.D., saw his first career game action in last week’s start at Iowa State.
Immediately after last Saturday’s game, Ferentz said he thought Reiff played well. After Sunday’s video session, he stuck by that assessment.
“I thought he competed well,” Ferentz said. “This is no slam on (sophomore) Adam (Gettis). But he played better than Adam did the week before, and they’re both first-time starters.”
Reiff got a long look at guard during the first half of fall camp. Ferentz said Tuesday that coaches wanted him focused only on one position.
“I’ve been practicing hard, so I was ready to go,” Reiff said. “I didn’t know what was going on with Bryan. I was told to go in and step up.”
Left tackle, of course, is the position that protects a right-handed quarterback from a blindside sack. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi said he was completely comfortable with Reiff manning the position.
“I wasn’t worried about him at all,” said Stanzi, who completed 18 of 34 for 197 yards, two interceptions and a career-high four touchdowns against Iowa State. “He’s a good football player and he’s tough. That’s the biggest thing. His toughness gives him the ability to not get flustered in a game like that.”
The rest of Iowa’s offensive line will be the same as last week. Senior Kyle Calloway joins Reiff at tackle. The guards will be junior Julian Vandervelde and senior Dace Richardson. Senior center Rafael Eubanks missed some of the second half last week, but that was dehydration, Ferentz said, and nothing more.
Ferentz would really like to settle into one set O-line. Iowa had that last season and, combined with Shonn Greene’s talents at running back, it was dominant at times.
“About five games in, we had experience and leadership and found a line that really worked for us,” said Vandervelde, who’s still feeling the effects of offseason surgery on a torn pectoral tendon. “This year, we’re still kind of trying to find the five guys who’ll be our full-time guys. It’s an ongoing process and it’ll go on as long as it takes.”
Rumors on Bulaga’s health trumpeted loudly on Iowa-related Web sites last Thursday. One egregious post on Twitter had his career in jeopardy.
It’s a big loss, Ferentz said, but the season goes on. Reality sets in and games are played.
“I know it’s a big thing and I don’t mean to minimize it, but we’re not going to call off the season,” Ferentz said. “We’re not going to change or whole game plan. That would really be rare. Quarterback, maybe, but we can’t just shut it down because one guy is out.
“Other than him, no one wants him out there more than me and (O-line coach) Reese (Morgan), but that’s just football. You can’t dwell on those things.”