Leistikow: Offensive line the early focal point for 2018 Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — At least one-third of Kirk Ferentz’s first press conference of the 2018 offseason was devoted to talk about his offensive line.

Is there anything more Iowa football than that?

Wednesday’s first question was about center James Daniels’ recent decision to skip his senior year and enter the NFL Draft.

Ferentz’s answer showed why this was a good question — and a legit concern — about a major loss to the 2018 Hawkeyes.

ANALYSIS:How will Hawkeyes replace James Daniels on offensive line?

Iowa right tackle Tristan Wirfs, left, and the Hawkeyes make their way to the team locker room prior to kickoff against Boston College during the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017.

“I’ll say this about James: I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a more talented center prospect,” said Ferentz, who is entering his 20th year at Iowa — which matches Daniels’ age. “And that includes my time in the NFL.”

Whoa. That’s quite notable.

As is this: Ferentz went on to say he thought Daniels could start at guard for almost any NFL team next year.

Ferentz, Iowa’s offensive line coach from 1981 to 1989 and an NFL line coach from 1993 to 1998, doesn’t throw around those compliments freely. And now the best center prospect he's ever coached is gone.

Throw in the fact that Iowa is losing first-team all-Big Ten Conference guard Sean Welsh off an offensive line that pushed for only 3.8 yards per carry in 2017 … and count me as concerned about this position group, too.

Or at least I was more concerned until I heard Ferentz say this later in the press conference … still talking about the O-line:

“I'm counting on our offensive line to take a big step,” he said. “We're losing two really good players for sure. But we've got a lot of guys coming back now that are going to be more in the flow of things.”

Go on …

“I'm really excited. I think we have the potential to take a big step in that whole enterprise (offensively),” Ferentz said. “I think improvement up front will get us there. Can't guarantee it. But I'm confident that it's going to happen.”

Well, that sounds encouraging.

Again, Ferentz is typically hesitant to anoint any player or position group before they’ve proven anything. And the 2018 offensive line will have a lot to prove.

For now, I’m reluctant to get too optimistic about an offensive line that wasn’t great last year and now must proceed without (by far) its two best blockers.

But if Ferentz is publicly excited?

There must be something there.

Offensively, I’m bullish on quarterback Nate Stanley; same with the tight ends Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and fast-rising Shaun Beyer. I think Brian Ferentz’s first year as offensive coordinator was a step in the right direction.

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But success for those guys — as well as the likely running-back tandem of Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young, and a collection of young receivers — all starts at Iowa with a competent and preferably dominant offensive line.

Let’s examine what we can say definitively about the front five"

Back will be two tackles who became unexpected freshman starters — Alaric Jackson (who Kirk Ferentz said is approaching good standing after being suspended for the Pinstripe Bowl) and Tristan Wirfs.

These are big guys (Jackson 6-foot-7, 320 pounds; Wirfs 6-5, 315) with big upside and, now, a combined 20 games of starting experience.

Jackson was a first-team freshman all-American by the Football Writers Association of America.

Wirfs , a former U.S. Army All-American out of Mount Vernon with exceptional athleticism and strength, hasn't even gone through his first winter strength program at Iowa under Chris Doyle. That begins for everyone Jan. 17.

“I'm really excited, again, just going back to that bowl film,” Ferentz said. “You watch the film. There's so many things technically we can do better, but that's experience.”

With good health, there is reason to feel good about Iowa’s tackles. And there’s excitement, too, about redshirted freshman Mark Kallenberger of Bettendorf, who was working at second-team left tackle with Jackson out at Yankee Stadium.

“He's a really competitive guy, tough-minded and doesn't back down from anything,” Ferentz said of Kallenberger, who probably has and will further grow his fall-listed 6-6, 260 frame. “So he's got a lot of work to do. But, yeah, we really like him.”

Again, sounds good.

What about center? That’s always been a position of great importance at Iowa, from Bruce Nelson to Brian and James Ferentz to Austin Blythe to Daniels.

It sounds like the early plan is to slide Keegan Render (20 career starts, 19 at guard) to center as a fifth-year senior.

The Indianola product pulled off the switch for one game (against Wyoming) with very little prep, so give him an entire spring and summer snapping the ball … and he’ll probably be OK. Meantime, offensive line coach Tim Polasek can keep developing redshirt sophomores Cole Banwart of Algona and Spencer Williams of Cedar Falls behind Render.

“But there are so many things that can happen between now and September,” Ferentz warned. “That's the fun part, just to see who is going to do what.”

At the two guard spots, it’ll be Next Best Man In. Waukee and Adel product Ross Reynolds, who shared time with Render at left guard, would seem to be a good bet to start as a fifth-year senior. Maybe Levi Paulsen, the starting right tackle vs. Boston College, will slide back inside to right guard. Maybe Kallenberger finds a home at guard.

Maybe someone else we don't expect cracks the lineup.

No doubt, the offensive line has become a major priority for the Hawkeyes entering the 2018 offseason.

As it should be at Iowa.

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.