Things to keep an eye on as Kirk Ferentz's team progresses through spring camp. James Kramer/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There is a 350-pound trophy in Iowa’s football complex suggesting that the Hawkeyes fielded the best offensive line in the nation last fall.
Senior guard Sean Welsh still isn’t sure what to make of the honor.
“I don’t know how you gauge that,” Welsh said Wednesday after four spring practices preparing for a new autumn’s worth of challenges. “The thing with the Heisman (Trophy) is, it’s so easy. You can pull out stats. And a lot of it is that ‘it’ factor, too. You can just see a guy and say, ‘That’s the best player in the country.’
"Offensive line, there’s five guys, so much going on and at times we really struggled, especially in the pass pro(tection). And there are other schools that handled it way better than we did last year, I think. So were we the best offensive line in the country last year? I don’t know. That’s a good question. There’s always something we can improve on.”
Welsh anchors a veteran offensive line that starts three seniors and two juniors. His preference, as it is for all offensive linemen, is to push forward. None of Iowa’s 12 opponents this fall is going to care about that Joe Moore Award, so why should he?
“It’s nice having that trophy and all, but we really have to earn it this fall,” Welsh said. “The time to celebrate and all that’s gone. The work going into the next trophy starts now.”
That starts with improved pass-blocking, the most unnatural action for linemen such as Welsh, since it takes away their initial aggression.
If run-blocking is about thrust, pass-blocking is about parry. And it wasn’t always pretty a year ago.
Iowa surrendered 30 sacks and another 30 quarterback hurries in an 8-5 season in which its passing game bogged down during Big Ten Conference play, in particular. The Hawkeyes gained an average of 145.6 yards per game through the air while going 6-3 in the league.
And that was with senior C.J. Beathard under center. This season, either sophomore Nathan Stanley or junior Tyler Wiegers will be a first-year starter, putting a greater burden on the line to buy them as much time to make decisions as possible.
A peek inside the March 29 practice in Iowa City. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Welsh knows this. It’s why pass-blocking is his personal priority whenever he has time to work on individual drills. Perfect technique needs to become second nature.
“I think what we need to do a better job of is understanding the big picture as a whole … and having confidence in our fundamentals that it’s going to sort itself out,” Welsh said. “And not be worried about getting beat.”
The line is the obvious strength of Iowa’s offense this season (flashy senior tailback Akrum Wadley is the other). That line includes senior Boone Myers, junior Keegan Render, junior James Daniels, Welsh and senior Ike Boettger, from left to right. There are 95 career starts among them, but a new leader in Tim Polasek.
Polasek joined the Hawkeyes’ staff as offensive line coach this winter after Brian Ferentz was promoted to offensive coordinator. Welsh greeted the hire with his usual inquisitive mind, researching Polasek’s background before they even met.
“You can tell he’s worked really hard to get where he is,” Welsh said of Polasek, who was most recently the offensive coordinator at North Dakota State.
“I had trust in our coaching staff that they weren’t going to hire anyone that would be different than what we’ve been experiencing for the past four years. But there always is, ‘What’s he going to be like?’ You can tell he’s a good football coach. Brian’s done a great job of telling him and showing him how we do things. All in all, it’s been a really smooth transition. Differences? There really aren’t any.”
Welsh, entering his fifth year at Iowa, is looking for a coach who will keep the expectations high, to push him and his linemates to be as good as that unwieldy trophy signifies they already are.
“Someone that can stay on my case and keep me as engaged as I was my first year here,” Welsh said. “The process is the same. The way we do things is the same. And having a coach that goes with that, I think that really helps.”