Leistikow: Iowa's offensive line overdue to play like bullies of the Big Ten

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The offensive line on a football team rarely gets much love.

Let’s be honest: We mainly notice them when the running back gets stuffed or the quarterback gets sacked or the referee throws a penalty flag for holding.

And here’s another dose of cold, hard truth: The Iowa offensive line of late has been pretty pedestrian, considering it’s ranked in the bottom third nationally in yards per rushing attempt in each of the last three years. That isn’t all on the blocking, but it’s a disappointing statistic when the longtime head coach is considered to be an offensive-line guru.

This 2020 Hawkeye offensive line doesn’t care about getting love, but it sure would like to move large humans around against their will. That would mean new quarterback Spencer Petras is being protected and Iowa’s talented trio of running backs are springing free for big gains.

And even though offensive line coach Tim Polasek lost the one guy that could make the highlight reels in Tristan Wirfs, his 2020 group has encouraging, collective potential.

“I like this group,” Polasek said. “I like the energy. I really like the leadership.”

Tim Polasek has a nice amount of depth building on his offensive line, but can it be a dominant unit in 2020? Iowa needs it to be.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz — another coach with expertise on the offensive line — indicated that three players had emerged as starters ahead of the Oct. 24 opener at Purdue: Alaric Jackson at left tackle, Coy Cronk at right tackle and Tyler Linderbaum at center. No wonder: Collectively, that trio has 87 career starts.

There’s excitement about Jackson, a second-team all-Big Ten pick in 2018 who got hurt in Week 1 last season and never fully recovered. Now, after immersing himself in a vegan diet, he’s transformed his 6-foot-6, 315-pound frame entering his fourth year in Iowa’s starting lineup. If he has a strong nine-game season, he could follow Wirfs as a first-round NFL Draft pick.

“He’s quicker, he’s more sudden,” Polasek said. “I see a change in the morning (at practice). He's got a little bit more energy.”

In the middle, Linderbaum is a preseason second-team AP all-American. The Solon product (6-3, 289) was Iowa’s second-best lineman a year ago, and it’s the redshirt sophomore’s thirst for football that has Polasek excited.

“He’s gotten better athletically, he's better physically, he’s stronger, he's bigger. He's tough as nails,” Polasek said. “And he really cares.

“Him and Petras, they live together, they're best buddies. These guys are football junkies.”

Tyler Linderbaum, at center, might be one of the Hawkeyes' most indispensable players for the 2020 season.

On the right side, Cronk (6-5, 305) was a godsend. He arrived in January from Indiana, where he was a team captain started 40 games at left tackle, as a graduate transfer. Fully recovered from a gruesome foot injury, his biggest challenge has been learning the ins and outs of Iowa's system.

“You would think he is like a sophomore getting ready to break through. That's how coachable he is,” Polasek said. “I really appreciate that.”

About the guards? That’s where Iowa struggled mightily a year ago. Deflating midseason losses to Michigan and Penn State saw Iowa guards getting repeatedly burned. The Iowa offense allowed almost as many sacks in those games (10) as it scored points (15). Ouch.

But, help seems to have arrived. The competition has been robust and fierce at left and right guard.

Junior Mark Kallenberger (6-5, 290) earned his first career left-guard start in the Holiday Bowl and played well, a long-awaited validation for the Bettendorf product’s potential. His flexibility to slide to tackle, should Jackson or Cronk go down, is valuable.

Junior Kyler Schott (6-4, 293) became an early-season revelation at right guard but missed five games due to injury. He’s got no room to relax with enticing freshman Justin Britt (6-3, 293) and sophomore Cody Ince (6-4, 285) pushing for playing time.

It also seems highly likely that Cole Banwart (remember him?) will snap up one of the guard spots. Banwart (6-4, 296) missed most of last season after getting seven starts at right guard in 2018. He is fully recovered from knee surgery and grinding again.

Nothing like good competition, from freshmen to seniors, to bolster much-needed depth. That's going to be particularly essential during the COVID-19 era. A player knows if he tests positive for the coronavirus, he’s out for 21 days.

“Every guy’s out there working hard,” Banwart said, “... just in case anybody’s going to be out this year (considering) the circumstances; if somebody tests positive.

“We’re just pushing to be the best, so that we have the best offensive line in the country.”

Six years of starting experience at tackle.

Tenacity and smarts at center.

A bevy of options at guard.

We’ll see how it pans out.

The titan of the Big Ten’s West Division, Wisconsin, always boasts a powerful offensive line.

The Hawkeyes claim to be "bullies of the Big Ten," but they are overdue to back that up and have a really good offensive line; one that consistently gets five yards or more on the ground on first down. Oh, what a luxury that’d be for Petras and running backs Tyler Goodson, Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin.

Brian Ferentz's play sheet might look a lot better, too, if Iowa can average more than 4.5 yards a carry for the first time since 2008.

“We’ve got a lot of guys stepping up and trying to become great players here,” Linderbaum said. “And I'm excited to see what what's going to happen in Week 1.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.