IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brian Ferentz displayed a quick wit and an extensive vocabulary Wednesday, but Iowa’s offensive line coach also conceded this:
“Defensive guys aren’t dumb. They sit around, and they are going to find the weakest link and they are going to put the best pass rusher over that guy.”
Making sure there is no weakling to exploit is the challenge for Ferentz, in his fifth year on a Hawkeyes staff led by his father, Kirk. The urgency is to shore up the pass protection after last year’s unit allowed 30 sacks, 10 of them in season-ending losses to Michigan State and Stanford. Iowa started the season 12-0 while keeping quarterback C.J. Beathard mostly upright.
Ferentz has experience at tackles in senior Cole Croston and junior Ike Boettger. It’s the inside of his line that is in flux this spring.
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Junior Boone Myers is moving inside to play guard, a transition made easier because the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder from Webster City is supremely athletic, Brian Ferentz said. Junior Sean Welsh, who has already played tackle and guard, is learning a new position as the front-runner at center while James Daniels recovers from a knee injury. Sophomore Keegan Render of Indianola has emerged as the top option at right guard for now, and he looks to be positioned to be the primary backup along the front when Daniels returns in the fall, Ferentz revealed.
It is those six players — with 10 others trying to work their way into the mix — whom Iowa figures to lean on when the 2016 season begins Sept. 3 against Miami of Ohio.
But Ferentz knows every opponent on Iowa’s schedule will be poring over film of those last two losses, plus a 10-6 victory at Wisconsin that included four Badgers sacks, looking for mismatches.
“Everyone we play has good pass rushers, and they can move from side to side, I've noticed,” Ferentz deadpanned.
“We open with Miami of Ohio; they have studied that tape. Iowa State is watching that tape. I know they are hungry to beat us. So they are watching that tape. North Dakota State, certainly, is not real impressed with anybody because they are a really good outfit; they have been watching that tape. Go down the list, and then our nine Big Ten opponents are probably all studying that tape. Obviously, that's been a point of emphasis.”
The goal is to cut the number of sacks allowed in half, back to the level of the 2013 season. Run-blocking is not as much of a concern, after Iowa gained 2,544 yards and scored 35 touchdowns on the ground a season ago. Having five linemen back who started at least one game will help.
“Run-blocking is more inherently natural. You really are just asking guys to come off the ball and hit people, which if guys are football players, they are generally pretty willing to do that,” said Ferentz, who was a three-year letter-winner at Iowa on the offensive line.
“Pass-blocking is much more difficult because it goes against every natural instinct. There's nothing natural about pass protection.”
Running backs coach Chris White promised that his fullbacks, in keeping with Hawkeye tradition, would do their part to help open holes for tailbacks LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley. To replace the graduated Macon Plewa and Adam Cox, junior Drake Kulick and redshirt freshman Brady Ross are atop the depth chart at fullback. Walk-on Austin Kelly is also earning some reps this spring. All have impressed White.
“The fullback position is so hazardous. And they get absolutely no love, no sugar. They get maybe a ball in the backfield on a flat route every once in a while,” White said. “Their teammates love it when they go in there and just light up a linebacker.
“And our running game, the physicalness of our running game would over the history of this program, wouldn't be the same without the fullbacks like we've had here. And these three, four guys, they are going to be just as good. We won't miss a beat. They are going to be good players.”