Leistikow: Painful history lesson shapes Iowa's offensive-line philosophy

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When your offensive line is named the best in college football and then five starters return from that line the following season … you wouldn’t expect there to be major offseason tinkering.

Yet Iowa’s coaches have been mixing and matching and juggling the front five throughout fall camp in advance of next Saturday’s season opener against Wyoming (11 a.m. on Sept. 2, Big Ten Network).

Why mess with a good thing?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Some of the August experimentation with the reigning Joe Moore Award-winning line is to challenge the experienced players.

Redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson (77), right, holds the line against freshman defensive end Brandon Simon (93) during the April 21 spring game. Jackson (6-5, 320) could be working his way into the Hawkeyes' 2017 offensive-line rotation.

But a bigger part of it is meant to fast-track the young ones.

“We’re trying to find out if we can get a couple guys pushed forward that haven’t played in games and get them into that rotation by Week 4 or 5,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said, “where if something does happen, we feel pretty confident about what we’re going to put on the field.”

That’s a lesson that Ferentz, 34, learned the hard way in his first year as Iowa’s offensive line coach in 2012.

Those Hawkeyes were off to a pretty good start. Halfway through the season, they were 4-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten Conference, having just picked off Michigan State in double overtime in East Lansing, Mich.

They came home the next week as a slight favorite over Penn State.

In the first quarter, a personnel crisis hit. Three plays apart, starting left tackle Brandon Scherff (broken fibula) and starting right guard Andrew Donnal (torn ACL) were lost for the season.

Iowa got routed, 38-14 — and it wasn’t even that close.

Flung into the fire after the Scherff and Donnal injuries were freshman Jordan Walsh (who had only a few snaps of college experience) and little-used juniors Nolan MacMillan and Connor Boffeli (who didn’t play a snap in Iowa’s first nine games).

The Hawkeyes finished the season on a six-game losing streak. They averaged 2.8 yards a carry in those losses. They sunk to last in the Big Ten in rushing offense.

A performance hardly befitting of the Hawkeyes' offensive-line tradition.

The lesson learned: Always be depth-building.

That’s why, in 2015, coaches began giving true freshman James Daniels (at age 17) meaningful early-season snaps at left guard. The decision pulled proven starter Sean Welsh out of the lineup for a few series here and there in tight wins against Iowa State and Pittsburgh.

“At that time, I didn’t really feel that Sean deserved to come out of the lineup,” Ferentz said last week. “I didn’t think, maybe, that James deserved that playing time. But we knew he was going to develop, and that we were going to need him at some point.

“That was a hard conversation to have with a guy like Sean Welsh, who was doing everything right. … I wouldn’t say Sean was real excited about that plan, you know? But that’s our job. We have to do things like that.”

The plan proved valuable. Left tackle Boone Myers suffered a stinger in Week 4 against North Texas. Right tackle Ike Boettger sprained an ankle in Week 6. Both missed extensive time.

Suddenly, Daniels was a vital part of an offensive line that went to Northwestern in shambles — and yet still managed a dominant performance, leading the team to a 40-10 win, behind 492 yards of offense against the nation's No. 9-ranked defense.

Those Hawkeyes, of course, polished off a 12-2 season behind five different starting line combinations.

Then, last fall, Iowa used nine different starting combinations after injuries cost every Week 1 starter at least one game.

So that brings us to 2017.

Ferentz, who as coordinator had ceded offensive-line duties to staff newcomer Tim Polasek, spoke last week about bringing along freshmen Alaric Jackson (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) and Tristan Wirfs (6-5, 315). Ferentz said both guys were progressing quickly, mentally, to match their physically ready bodies.

It’ll be interesting to see if and where each behemoth fits into the season's plans. Monday’s release of the two-deeps vs. Wyoming will offer clues.

Here’s what we've seen since fall camp began in late July:

  • Although he’s been predominantly a right tackle the past two years and is listed No. 1 there, Boettger has been working a lot at left tackle. It wouldn’t be a shock if he’s become the primary blind-side protector of quarterbacks Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers this fall.
  • Myers, the listed No. 1 at left tackle (with 17 career starts there), worked with the second unit at left guard during the Kids Day open practice. The senior's status is worth monitoring.
  • Daniels might end up being the most important piece to the puzzle. He’s a star-in-the-making at center.
  • Welsh, the team’s best pure blocker, is the No. 1 right guard but has been adding work at right tackle. That’s enabled Keegan Render (the listed left-guard starter) and Ross Reynolds (possibly the sixth man) to get first-team reps at the guard positions.

Where does that leave the youngsters?

The coaches may want to get Jackson and/or Wirfs ready to rise quickly to the top line — especially if Myers is iffy. University photos and videos have shown both rookies working at times with the No. 1 unit.

If they're ready, that'd allow Polasek and Ferentz to leave Welsh (whose 6-3, 295 frame is more suited to guard) inside, with Render and Reynolds fortifying the other guard spot.

And don’t forget: Sophomore Levi Paulsen got one start (at right guard) last fall at Illinois and did a fine job in that 28-0 shutout.

Iowa seems to be on the right track in depth-building one of the program’s most nationally respected units.

It sure doesn’t feel like 2012 anymore.

That’s why the Hawkeyes are preparing for the worst … and in the process, to borrow one of their key mantras, “Preparing To Be The Best.”

“Can we get some young guys involved and get them out there,” Ferentz said, “and get them game reps? Knowing that … certainly, with that position, we’re going to need more than five before the year’s all said and done.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.