IOWA CITY, Iowa - Given his choice between a veteran group of skill players and a veteran-filled offensive line, Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe considers it no contest.
"I'd take five guys returning up front every time," O'Keefe said. "That's not the situation we face right now, but it would be my preference."
As the Hawkeyes work through their second full week of fall camp, O'Keefe and offensive line coach Reese Morgan are watching the evolution of a newcomer-filled line that will complement the talent Iowa returns at the offensive skill positions.
"You can't force it. The cohesion, the necessary levels of communication, they have to develop on their own over time," O'Keefe said.
The Hawkeyes must replace two first-team and two-second team all-Big Ten selections and are building their offensive front around senior Julian Vandervelde and sophomore Riley Reiff.
The pair has combined for 35 starts and opened camp at the top of the depth chart on the left side.
While James Ferentz and Josh Koeppel compete for the starting nod at center, juniors Adam Gettis and Markus Zusevics opened camp on top of the depth chart at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
"We hear people questioning our offensive line. We know people have some doubts. We're determined to prove people wrong," said Gettis, a 6-foot-4, 280-pounder from Frankfort, Ill.
Gettis' run-blocking skills allowed him to quickly climb the depth chart, and he did start at left guard in Iowa's season-opening win against Northern Iowa last fall.
"That game taught me a lot, that I had some work to do, but it is experience that is helping me now," Gettis said.
"My focus has been on fundamentals since that time and that's been big."
The 6-5 Zusevics, a former high school volleyball player at Prospect High School in the northwest Chicago suburbs, has added nearly 70 pounds to his 295-pound frame since arriving at Iowa.
He shares Gettis' focus on fundamentals and feels he is prepared to step into a starting role.
"I've been working toward this season," Zusevics said. "I'm learning how to use a 300-pound body to my advantage and physically, I'm ready to compete."
Zusevics said he believes his volleyball experience still helps him with his footwork and reflexes.
"There is some carryover from an athletic standpoint and even though it is something that a lot of people don't think about when they talk about offensive linemen, mobility is important and I feel I can use that to compete," Zusevics said. "It's a group effort, though."
And that must evolve over time, Morgan said.
"It never happens overnight with an offensive line and honestly, there is no way to rush it," Morgan said.
"It has to evolve. The most important thing we look for is daily progress. Those small steps will ultimately lead to the cohesion that it takes."
Heading into camp, Morgan said he believes Iowa has identified its top six linemen.
"They're not necessarily ready yet to step on the field and play a game, but they have what it takes to develop into a good, solid unit," Morgan said.
"We're young right now and that usually leads to a few surprises, but the only way to gain experience is to play."
With so many newcomers blending in, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said he expects the Hawkeyes to be "a little rough around the edges" early in the season, but he likes the development he sees, particularly from Gettis.
"Adam has really looked very, very good," Ferentz said following Saturday's scrimmage. "He's become much more consistent. He's flashed that occasionally in the past, but now he's doing it every day."
O'Keefe views the first 12 practices as especially "critical," saying they set a tone.
"There are three areas we initially look at," he said.
"First, are they playing physically and are they ready to play?
"Second, do they have an understanding of the system and the blocking schemes we use?
"And third, are they fundamentally and technique sound and capable of not only executing, but of meshing in with those around them? That's where it all starts, and all three are critical."