MIAMI — Get to know Riley Reiff. Going into his sophomore season, he might be the most important Hawkeye.
Of the five offensive linemen who started in Tuesday’s 24-14 Orange Bowl victory, the 6-foot-6, 290-pounder could be one of two returnees for the 2010 Hawkeyes.
Center Rafael Eubanks and guard Kyle Calloway will graduate. Junior Bryan Bulaga is up in the air. He’ll announce a decision on his future later this week as he ponders an early entry into the NFL draft. Part-time starter Dace Richardson passed on a possible sixth year of eligibility and will try to break into the NFL.
So, if Bulaga goes, that would leave Reiff and guard Julian Vandervelde as the last men standing.
“We’re going to lose some seniors, but we’ve got people who are ready to go,” said Reiff, who broke into the starting lineup when Bulaga went down with a thyroid condition earlier this season. “It’s a lot of work and we’re ready to get back at it. I feel like I am. It’s going to be a lot of hard work.”
That’s the right attitude, anyway.
If Bulaga enters the draft — all signs point to that — Iowa’s offensive line could be Reiff at left tackle, Vandervelde at left guard, senior Josh Koeppel or sophomore James Ferentz at center, junior Adam Gettis at right guard and then junior Markus Zusevics, senior Kyle Haganman or junior Woody Orne at right tackle.
Or maybe freshman Nolan MacMillan breaks in somewhere.
“We’ve got a very strong junior class and some guys coming up the ladder,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Wegher had a nice night and Robinson, certainly. So, we’ll get some players back, but we’ll have our challenges.”
Off the bat, less than 24 hours into the 2010 season, you’d have to say the O-line and linebackers would be challenges.
Iowa loses two smart, savvy linebackers in Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds. In the wings are Jeff Tarpinian, Tyler Nielsen and Troy Johnson.
Tarpinian saw some time at weakside linebacker when Jeremiha Hunter sprained an ankle at Ohio State. He also saw the field in 3-4 alignments. With Hunter and Tarpinian out, Johnson earned Big Ten defensive player of the week after a brilliant performance against Minnesota. Nielsen has climbed the special teams ladder and has positioned himself as the heir apparent to Edds.
Junior Amari Spievey might also leave early for the NFL draft (again, all signs point to this happening) and open a spot at one of the corners. Sophomore Micah Hyde and junior Jordan Bernstine would be candidates to fill that spot. Hyde played briefly in the Orange Bowl when cornerback Shaun Prater left the game with an ankle injury. Bernstine took a redshirt year after suffering a broken ankle in fall camp.
Prater will return with safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood. They combined for nine interceptions, including Sash’s Big Ten-leading six picks.
The defensive line will be loaded. Ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns return along with tackles Karl Klug and Christian Ballard.
That’s 27 sacks lining up across opponents next fall.
“We definitely have to be the leaders of the defense now,” said Clayborn, the Orange Bowl MVP with nine tackles and two sacks. “With Pat and A.J. going out, we’ve got to be up to the challenge. We just have to be the leaders.”
The O-line is up in the air, but nearly every skill position is nailed down.
Quarterback Ricky Stanzi returns. Job one for him will be curbing the interceptions that kept him from having an all-Big Ten year. He finished with 17 TD passes to 15 interceptions, including four that were returned for touchdowns. Georgia Tech’s Jerrard Tarrant took one back 40 yards in the Orange Bowl.
“We’re excited to get back to work and get into the offseason program,” Stanzi said. “It’s all about investing. If you put in the time, it will work out. That works for a lot of things in life. It’s no different in the sport of football. . . . If you don’t put in the effort, you’re not going to enjoy things like this.”
Running back shouldn’t be a problem.
Ferentz and staff will have to figure out what to do with a glut of four sophomore running backs — Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher, Jewel Hampton and Jeff Brinson. Robinson led the Hawkeyes with 834 yards. Wegher finished the season with 641 yards and a freshmen record eight TDs, including a 113 yards and a 32-yard TD that put away the game in the fourth quarter.
Hampton (ACL) and Brinson (ankle) missed most of the season with injuries. Hampton took a redshirt.
Wide receiver got a little more interesting after Tuesday night.
Derrell Johnson-Koulianos suffered knee and hip injuries in the first half of the Orange Bowl. He was hopeful it wasn’t serious, but there was no definitive word.
“The doctors looked at me in great detail and they think that some things got strained and nothing major,” said Johnson-Koulianos, who needs 31 catches for 401 yards next season to become Iowa’s career leader in receptions and receiving yards. “Luckily, we got the win and I’ve got all season to recover if it happens to be something.”
Marvin McNutt, who finished the year with eight TD grabs and a 19.8-yard average on 34 grabs, will start. Colin Sandeman had a career game in the Orange Bowl with four catches for 53 yards and a 21-yard TD. Sophomore Keenan Davis will likely see his role elevated. He caught four passes this season.
Tight end Allen Reisner will get the chance to assume the mantle from Tony Moeaki, whose Orange Bowl included four catches for 85 yards and excellent blocking.
Kicker Daniel Murray, who limped around the postgame after being tackled on a fake field goal attempt, returns and will be pushed by sophomore Trent Mossbrucker, who redshirted this year after kicking 13 field goals last season. Punter Ryan Donahue will be a senior and should be the best or one of the best punters in the Big Ten, just as he was this year and last.
“You flashback to after our first ballgame, coming off the field,” Ferentz said. “I don’t think anybody envisioned us sitting here tonight with our 11th win. That’s just a good reminder of how tough it is to win in college football.
“Nothing comes easy. Doesn’t matter how many seniors are experienced players, we come back and we’ll have to earn it all again next year.
“It’s going to be fun trying.”