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The fifth-year Hawkeye assistant reacts to Ed Cunningham's rankings with humor, perspective. Chad Leistikow

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s easy to look at Iowa’s 2016 offensive line and chalk it up as an obvious strength.

That’s what ESPN did for its college football preview magazine. Analyst Ed Cunningham ranked the five best offensive lines in the country, and he put Iowa's No. 1 — ahead of Alabama’s, Florida State’s and Clemson’s.

But not so fast.

“I know who Ed Cunningham is,” fifth-year Hawkeye line coach Brian Ferentz said, “but he didn’t come to spring practice. And he hasn’t been around this fall at all.”

The son of Iowa’s 18-year head coach is flattered. He’s also very honest about where things stand.

When somebody asked him at media day whether the backup left tackle would get some playing time this fall, Ferentz deadpanned, “I hope not.”

It’s easy to see five guys with starting experience return from a Rose Bowl team.

The truth is, though, there’s more mystery than meets the eye.

Let's examine:

At Left Tackle:

Cole Croston has four career starts as the protector of C.J. Beathard’s blind side.

At Left Guard:

Boone Myers is still learning a new position; he’s never started at guard.

At Center:

The next snap Sean Welsh delivers in a college game will be his first.

At Right Guard:

James Daniels, 18, is coming off knee surgery and takes over for first-team all-Big Ten Jordan Walsh.

At Right Tackle:

Ike Boettger's last meaningful snaps occurred 10 months ago, Oct. 10 against Illinois.

They have to come together quickly. And their No. 1 job is to keep No. 16 healthy.

If Beathard isn’t able to play quarterback for an extended period of time, Iowa simply won’t repeat as Big Ten West champion.

In the area of protection, warning signs cropped up in the losses to Michigan State and Stanford. More concerning to Ferentz than the 10 sacks allowed in those games was how many times Beathard got pressured and hit.

Talented players joined smart schemes to create one-on-one pass-rushing matchups that the Hawkeyes didn’t want. Improper line communication left Beathard a sitting duck. He got crushed early in the Stanford game, and shortly thereafter hurried an outside throw that turned into a pick-six and 21-0 deficit.

With Michigan State and Stanford film available for each of Iowa’s 12 opponents to examine, how to adjust? This is one time Ferentz isn’t going to be openly honest.

“I’m not going to give you the answer to that,” he said. “I have a theory — a hypothesis — and we’re going to work on fixing it. But that was disturbing.”

And now that you’re more nervous about the line than you were at the beginning of this column, here’s a life raft of positive news on how the 2016 group is coming together:

“I’m encouraged by all the things I know to look for,” Ferentz said. “By all the indicators that we use as a staff, we’re encouraged. They’re checking those boxes.”

But — back to Ferentz's honesty again — he won’t know what he's got until the afternoon of Sept. 3, when the Hawkeyes and Miami of Ohio open the season at Kinnick Stadium.

“They’re still going to have to go play on Saturdays, and until they do that, you don’t know,” Ferentz said. “And that’s why the worst night of sleep you get all year is the one before the first game.”

There’s another indicator that’ll determine the success levels of Iowa’s 2016 front five.

But you won’t be able to see that one until ESPN comes out with its 2017 preview.

“If we can be the top-ranked offensive line in the country before next season,” Ferentz said, “then that would (have been) really good for 2016.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Brian Ferentz: At Iowa, 'We're about working'

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The offensive line coach talks recruiting and a blue-collar culture. Chad Leistikow

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