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Leistikow: Unappreciated Iowa lineman Ross Reynolds faces tough final test in Outback Bowl

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — If there’s one position that gets underappreciated and even forgotten on a football team, it’s the offensive guard.

We all hear about strong-armed quarterbacks, elusive running backs, flashy wide receivers, explosive defensive ends, hard-hitting linebackers and shut-down cornerbacks.

“But if you’re an offensive guard,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said, “you’re just a guy. That’s kind of how it works.”

In his only year as a college starter, Iowa left guard Ross Reynolds (59, pictured with teammate Keegan Render after the win at Minnesota) has given the Hawkeyes a big lift.

Ferentz should know. While known more for being a center during his playing days at Iowa, he was also an offensive guard.

Guards don’t get any catchy descriptors.

“I kid with our guards all the time, that’s why you want those guys snapping,” Ferentz said, a reference to them becoming more flexible for maximum job security. “… Because guards are a dime a dozen. I can go down to Kum & Go and find two guards.”

Ferentz’s dry humor on the topic is his way of conveying how difficult it can be to notice (or even care about) strong play at offensive guard.

And in left guard Ross Reynolds, the Hawkeyes have had a good one in 2018.

A really good one.

Offensive line coach Tim Polasek uses Reynolds’ nasty streak — which he's used to lead the Hawkeyes in knock-down blocks — as an example to younger, bigger line-mates like Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.

Pro Football Focus has consistently graded Reynolds as the team’s best run-blocker. He’s also been instrumental on the interior of one of the country’s most effective offensive lines in protecting the quarterback. Iowa’s 13 sacks allowed are tied for third-fewest among Power Five teams.

It’s been a story of perseverance for Reynolds, who finally broke through as a full-time starter as a fifth-year senior. He spoke candidly about being out of shape upon his arrival from Waukee High School. His progress was slowed by a knee injury as a freshman. Even in his third year in the program, he hadn't made it to the travel roster.

It seemed like Reynolds wasn't going to pan out.

“All of a sudden, he’s had two really nice years,” Polasek said. “… I think he’s got more than a shot to play in the NFL.”

How did Reynolds go from being buried on the depth chart to potential pro?

The native of Adel doesn't have a riveting explanation for what happened. But he did say that he looked at Polasek's arrival as offensive line coach in the winter of 2017 (as Ferentz transitioned to coordinator) as a fresh start.

“When he got here, that first spring … everything just started clicking,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds was rotated into the 2017 line as a backup guard, learning from Boone Myers, Sean Welsh and classmate Keegan Render.

Reynolds credited strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle and his staff for developing his body. Unlike most players, Reynolds actually trimmed weight under Doyle — becoming leaner and stronger, especially in his lower body.

At 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, Reynolds is Iowa’s smallest starting offensive lineman. But he now owns the program’s record for guards in the hang-clean lift, at 450 pounds.

For perspective, Iowa’s center record in the hang-clean is held by Austin Blythe. Iowa’s tackle record is held by Brandon Scherff. Both are NFL starters.

“Every time you walk down the hallway, you see the records on a wall,” Reynolds said. “It’s a goal.”

Reynolds’ final college game is Tuesday’s Outback Bowl here at Raymond James Stadium.

And it’ll maybe be his fiercest test yet.

Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (94) is shown next to Alabama coach Nick Saban following their game in November. Simmons is turning pro after the Outback Bowl.

He will often be matched up against one of the top defensive tackles in the country: Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons.

Reynolds and Render, the center, will sometimes team up to contend with a player who is a 300-pound beast and expected to be chosen in the top 20 of the upcoming NFL draft.

Simmons has 14½ tackles for loss — a massive number for a defensive tackle.

“The key is technique — just being right on everything,” Render said. “Because somebody like that is going to expose one little flaw.”

If Reynolds does a good job, odds are that very few people will notice.

That’s just the way it is at football’s most unappreciated position.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.