Leistikow: What drives Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum, the No. 1 lineman in college football?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — His thick, muscular frame filling out his sharp black suit accompanied with a light gold tie, Tyler Linderbaum strode inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday morning and scanned the vast home of the Indianapolis Colts. The Iowa center made sure to soak in the atmosphere and appreciate that he was representing the team he’s cheered for since a child at the Big Ten Conference’s football media days.

Briefly, anyway.

Linderbaum isn’t much for individual attention or accolades, something that he’s receiving plenty of during the build-up to the 2021 season. Linderbaum is overwhelmingly a preseason first-team all-American, considered by prominent analytics service Pro Football Focus to be the best lineman in college football.

Yeah, he saw the PFF assertion that he is ranked the No. 3 college player regardless of position (behind Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler and LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.).

No, he doesn't care.

"I don’t know how you can say an offensive lineman is the third-best player in the country," Linderbaum quips, a small window into the dry sense of humor behind his no-nonsense public exterior that his closest friends and family get to see. "I don’t know how they come up with that stuff."

If he sees an article (like this one) praising his play, he is unlikely to read it. Maybe that’s why he also adds this quote that might seem curious on the surface.

"I kind of enjoyed not getting recruited that much," Linderbaum said. "Just that underdog mentality.”

Bottom line: Linderbaum doesn’t want to hear how good he is or how good he’s supposed to be or how he could be a first-round NFL Draft pick next cycle.

“I can tell everyone that I have all these preseason accolades, but what does that do for the Iowa offensive line?" Linderbaum says. “Nothing."

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Tyler Linderbaum is literally Iowa's center of attention heading into the 2021 season. Here, he takes questions from BTN's Dave Revsine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

A dominant force in practice and games

During spring practices, Iowa’s defensive line experienced many injuries. That meant second- and third- and even fourth-string guys (including young walk-ons) were thrust into the defensive-tackle rotation in the Hawkeyes’ well-known physical practices.

Those poor kids.

Without naming names, senior defensive end Zach VanValkenburg reports that they had no chance against Linderbaum's motor, which has one speed: Maximum. The scene sounds like something from one of those crash-dummy car commercials.

"Oh jeez. Yeah,” VanValkenburg says. “Some of the freshmen that had to come in. … It’s a pretty steep learning curve."

Say no more.

While Lisa Linderbaum describes her son's off-field personality as being like “a Teddy bear,” Tyler (6-foot-3, 290 pounds) is known for his tenacious and downright mean blocking style, no matter how much weight he might be giving up. If you ever get a chance, cue up the 2019 Iowa State game — the converted defensive lineman’s second career start at center. Watch the power he delivers to lead Nate Stanley’s quarterback-sneak touchdown in the fourth quarter, then the unbridled jubilation of Linderbaum, who stood six yards deep in the end zone after clearing out two Cyclones like a bulldozer without getting knocked to the ground.

Linderbaum matches an aggressive mentality, where he tries to set the game's tone on the first snap (just "letting the opposing defense know what kind of game it’s going to be"), with meticulous preparation. He devotes Iowa's off day on game weeks (Thursdays) to practicing his accuracy on shotgun snaps. Watch his craft — his snaps are almost always perfectly placed for quarterback, close friend and three-year housemate Spencer Petras.

More:Leistikow: What's the deal with Iowa football's recruiting slump?

According to PFF, Linderbaum allowed only three QB pressures on 280 pass-blocking snaps in 2020 and had the service's No. 1 offensive-line grade in the country. Linderbaum is so fundamentally sound, so technically sound, so strong … that he takes care of business before a defender even knows what’s happening.

Plus, he’s fast. Remember the 80-yard touchdown run by Tyler Goodson to cap Iowa’s 28-7 win against Wisconsin last season? Linderbaum paved the way initially, then sprinted all the way to the end zone, practically keeping pace with the first-team all-Big Ten running back.

As VanValkenburg puts it, "The thing about Tyler, he’s just so quick. Especially with our zone-blocking scheme, he gets around people. Before you know it, the ball’s outside of you and you have no chance."

Ask Linderbaum about his best game on film and ...

He'll let some of that humor leak again.

"Northern Illinois. 2018. Defensive line. Go look at it," Linderbaum says with a straight face.

Huh?

"That was my first game. It wasn’t good at all," Linderbaum says, now grinning. "I looked like a chicken with his head cut off."

He played only two games and 18 snaps at defensive tackle as a true freshman, then came the December 2018 position switch as directed by head coach Kirk Ferentz, who saw Linderbaum as his new center after James Daniels turned pro early. It was that savvy eye of an offensive-line guru that has the Solon product positioned for a long-term football future.

But in the short term, he's literally the Hawkeyes' center of attention. He was named one of the top five players in the Big Ten West by a media panel and already is considered the most dominant center of the 23-year Ferentz era.

Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum (65) closely trails running back Tyler Goodson on an 80-yard touchdown Dec. 12 against Wisconsin.

"I don't know if it gets any better than Tyler," Ferentz said. "He's just a tremendous young person, first and foremost.

"Tremendous student, just has a lot of pride in everything he does, and it shows in the way he practices. But then beyond that, the impact he has on his teammates, especially his line mates. We feel so fortunate that he's our center right now."

If he stays healthy and Iowa has a good year, Linderbaum will have an excellent chance to become Iowa's 28th consensus all-American. As good as eventual first-round NFL Draft pick Tristan Wirfs was in 2019, he didn't enter that season with as much attention as Linderbaum does now as a redshirt junior who is on track to graduate in December with a business degree.

The last Hawkeye offensive lineman to experience this much national preseason love was Brandon Scherff, who like Linderbaum had a real choice to turn pro but elected to return to Iowa. That decision paid off handsomely for Scherff, who won the Outland Trophy as college football's top lineman in 2014 and was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Not that Linderbaum is thinking about any of that, either.

"Hopefully I go pro," he says. "We’ll see. Gotta keep working hard."

What makes Linderbaum so good?

During hours of interviews at the Big Ten's media days, Linderbaum good-naturedly waded through questions about what products he'd like to endorse, how many hot dogs he could eat in a contest and whether Ferentz could have arm-wrestling success against other coaches. He was honored to be here, sure, but ... providing polite answers wasn't making him a better football player.

"What makes him tick? Not this," Lisa Linderbaum says of the media spectacle. "Second place? That’s just not for him."

Tyler is the youngest of two brothers by 3½ years. Logan Linderbaum was a heavyweight wrestler at Minnesota State, and Mom says the two are still more than willing (and do) challenge each other physically. As a young boy, Tyler always wanted to prove himself with Logan and his older friends. Good genes helped, too. Father Todd (a Solon native) played three sports at Upper Iowa University; Lisa (originally from West Branch) played basketball and softball.

“Being the youngest, I’m always trying to excel and do better than my older brother,” Tyler says. “It’s in my blood that I thrive competing against others and trying to win."

At some point late in 2020, Todd and Lisa curiously broached the topic with their son: What are you thinking, Tyler, about the NFL Draft?

The answer was direct and abrupt.

"I’m not ready."

And that was that. Tyler didn't want to talk any more about it.

So, here we are. Linderbaum enters a high-attention fourth year at Iowa, knowing he’ll have plenty of eyes on him ... and that he's got his head down, ready to deal with them.

But not before looking up one more time. As he gets ready to depart Lucas Oil Stadium and fly back to Iowa City, he knows the plan is to be back here Dec. 4 for the Big Ten Championship Game.

To bring Iowa here for a game for the first time since 2015.

“If you ain’t first, you’re last, right?” Linderbaum says, quoting the immortal Ricky Bobby from “Talladega Nights.”

“You don’t come to the Iowa Hawkeyes to get second in the Big Ten West."

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.