Leistikow: Iowa football's Tyler Linderbaum experiment off to promising start
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In early December, Kirk Ferentz exerted his authority as Iowa’s head football decision-maker to make a move that would, in one way another, shape the entire 2019 season.
As Iowa prepared for the Outback Bowl, Ferentz felt the time was right to take perhaps his most promising defensive tackle (a position of significant 2019 need) and turn him into an offensive lineman. The idea and the hope was that this player could learn fast enough to become the Hawkeyes’ starting center.
Was it bold? Absolutely.
Was it a gamble? Four months later, it sure doesn’t seem like it.
Tyler Linderbaum, halfway through his first set of spring football practices with the Hawkeyes, is making rapid progress.
Ask around the Hansen Football Performance Center, and the reviews on Linderbaum’s acclimation to his new position are consistent. And glowing.
Take this, from the listed No. 1 center.
“He’s learning the offense fast,” said Cole Banwart, who has taken almost every rep this spring as the No. 1 right guard. “I can’t express how well he has been doing with the transition from defense to offense, especially going to center.”
Here's what Iowa's outgoing center, who is in Iowa City preparing for the NFL Draft, had to say.
“He’s obviously a strong guy, and he’s a lot quicker than a lot of people give him credit for, too. That’s a big thing at center,” Keegan Render said. “You’re low on a lot of blocks. He’s got the quickness to get in front of them, and he’s got the power to finish them.”
And the take from Linderbaum’s new position coach?
“He’s a tempo-changer,” said Tim Polasek, pounding his right fist into his left hand as he spoke Tuesday. “Now, he’s got a long way to go. But we’ve been impressed.
"None of this has been a surprise.”
Perhaps the least-surprised person to hear all of this? The sage offensive-line guru who knew what he was doing.
Ferentz hasn’t deployed a starting freshman center since Rafael Eubanks in 2006, but he clearly saw the qualities he looks for in that crucial position with Linderbaum. The tenacity, the toughness, the pure football passion reside in the lone U.S. Army All-American in Iowa's recruiting class of 2018.
In fact, Ferentz in December said he wished he had five Linderbaums on the team: two to play defensive tackle, and three to lock down the interior of Iowa’s offensive line.
“Tyler Linderbaum is kind of what you’re looking for from a recruiting standpoint, from a competitor standpoint, from a toughness standpoint," Polasek said.
He reported that Linderbaum — who is up to a sturdy 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, a prototypical size for a college center focused on agility — has been persistent in asking for extra quizzes to improve the mental side of his game, too.
All of this sounds encouraging, as Iowa tries to develop high-end interior linemen to operate inside third-year starting bookend tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.
But it’s obviously early in the transition. Iowa normally grooms centers for at least a few seasons before unleashing them. Austin Blythe cut his teeth as a redshirt freshman guard before being elevated to center. Even James Daniels, a four-star natural center with immense talent and smarts, spent 19½ months on campus learning how Iowa plays offensive line before getting his first start at center.
Linderbaum hasn’t snapped the ball once against an opposing college defense. Coaches might get to the Aug. 31 opener and decide he's not ready. For now, he’s only seen the somewhat-friendly fire of Hawkeye practices.
Although laudatory of what Linderbaum’s accomplished in four months, Polasek wasn’t getting carried away with saying his young pupil, who turned 19 on Sunday, has arrived. Nor should we.
“We’ll know a heck of a lot more once we can get through another scrimmage,” Polasek said, “a couple more blitz periods.”
Why such a priority on moving Linderbaum along quickly?
To quote Ferentz from his December press conference outlining the reason for change: “What I kept coming back to is, I think we really had a little bit of a void at the center position.”
Banwart (6-4, 300) provides a safe, experienced option going into 2019. The redshirt junior has taken practice reps for three years at center now (behind Daniels and Render), but he's only started at right guard in games.
The Hawkeyes’ best-case scenario is that Linderbaum flourishes at center and Banwart locks down right guard, leaving just one spot to fill at left guard (a position where Ferentz isn't opposed to rotating bodies in an effort to bolster depth).
Iowa has another four months to figure out what to do on the opening Saturday against Miami of Ohio. If Linderbaum is the starter, it doesn't mean coaches think he's going to be perfect from Day 1.
In fact, they might be prone to put him out there, because they know he can handle whatever comes his way.
On that note, Render delivered some fitting final thoughts.
“I warned him, you get out there on your first third-and-long, things are going to be flying, people are going to be moving. So you’ve got to be ready," Render said. "He’s just a guy that keeps going to work, you know? He might get beat one play, he might get embarrassed.
"He’s got the mentality that I’m going to show up and put my nose to the grindstone and just keep going."
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.