The offensive tackle addresses what his unit can improve after a 3-0 start. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Offensive line play can be a difficult area for a football outsider to grade. Statistics are helpful, so is the eye test, and so is winning.
But maybe the best measure for this year’s Iowa front five can be found in Kirk Ferentz’s reticence to say what’s really on his mind.
“I'm afraid to even say this,” the Hawkeye head coach said in response to a question about his left-guard rotation. “But right now, I think we're playing pretty well inside.”
That’s a pretty encouraging quote, related to the play of center Austin Blythe (no shocker there), right guard Jordan Walsh and left guards Sean Welsh and James Daniels.
And as for the new tackles, Ferentz likes to poke the media about how much was written about the offseason concerns of sophomores Boone Myers (left) and Ike Boettger (right). Both guys, who are replacing NFL draft picks, have not been noticed through three games (a good sign for an offensive lineman). After the opening 31-14 win over Illinois State, Myers said he wanted to prove "we're not as bad as everyone thinks we are."
“They’re making progress,” Ferentz said. “It's been really nice not to have a lot of discussion about them. That’s been great in comparison to August and July.”
The Myers/Boettger story is still barely past the prologue. But let’s examine the three tests outlined earlier as it pertains the whole line.
Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow and Rick Brown discuss Kirk Ferentz's weekly press conference and preview Saturday's game against North Texas.
One, there’s the cut-and-dry stats. Of course, the sample size is small, but the Hawkeyes are averaging 4.9 yards a carry through three games, compared to 4.1 in 2014 — with a line that included Outland Trophy winner and No. 5 NFL Draft pick Brandon Scherff.
That figure, though, gets an asterisk because C.J. Beathard (Big Ten-high 142 rushing yards for a quarterback) has given the Hawkeyes an added dimension with his ability to scramble.
However, it’s worth noting that just four of 84 carries for running backs Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels Jr. have resulted in lost yardage.
On the to-do list: Not letting Beathard take (unofficially) 13 direct hits like he suffered against Pitt.
“You don’t really want to hear as an offensive lineman that your QB is getting hit,” Blythe said. “I think that’s where we need to step forward as an offensive line.”
The Hawkeyes play host to North Texas on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Brian Powers/The Register
Two, there’s the eye test. Inside, where Ferentz is most happy, is centered around the steady second-team all-Big Ten lineman in Blythe calling the line signals, and a three-man rotation that’s been effective at guard. Welsh, the starter on the left side, played the majority of Iowa’s 11 series vs. Pitt, but freshman Daniels got in for three series — two of which resulted in 10 points in the 27-24 win.
“He's a good young player. We've made the decision to play him,” Ferentz said of the first true freshman to play on his line since Bryan Bulaga in 2007. “If he goes in there, it's not because we're mad at either of the other guys, but we're happy with James, and we want all three of those guys to play a lot.”
Iowa has been especially effective running behind Walsh and Boettger on the right side, including a 24-yard burst by LeShun Daniels at the outset of the Iowa State win. Boettger says he’s learning from Walsh’s physicality and experience.
“I love having that older guy there,” Boettger said. “It’s very helpful.”
Three, there’s winning. And it’s more than game victories for 3-0 Iowa — it’s about conquering one-on-one battles. A prime example of that is Walsh, who had an up-and-down junior season but has perhaps been the Hawkeyes’ best lineman through three games.
“As a senior, I think he’s playing his best football,” Blythe said. “Finishing guys, just being physical.”
Are the Bullies of the Big Ten back? It’s too early to tell, of course, and Saturday’s 2:32 p.m. game vs. 0-2 North Texas will serve as an opportunity for the Hawkeyes to get sharper before the Oct. 3 Big Ten opener at Wisconsin. As Ferentz spoke about his starting tackles Tuesday, he offered big-picture context with 75 percent of the regular season yet to play.
"They're off to a good start with three games. They're hardly there yet. It's kind of like our team, hardly there yet," Ferentz said. "But their potential is there."
IOWA (3-0) VS. NORTH TEXAS (0-2)
When, where: 2:32 p.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium
Television: ESPNU (announcers: Anish Shroff and Ahmad Brooks). Iowa is 7-0 all-time on ESPNU.
The line: Iowa is favored by 24.5 points.