Leistikow: With key lineman out after hay-baling accident, Iowa turns to energetic Justin Britt
IOWA CITY, Ia. — While fielding a question about all-American offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum during Iowa football media day, Brian Ferentz dove-tailed into an answer about why it's so important to have reliable blockers “up the middle” — at left guard, center and right guard.
"A great interior defensive lineman can ruin the game faster for an offense than any other player on the field," Iowa's fifth-year offensive coordinator said. "So, if you’re best players are on the interior of their offensive line, no one’s complaining about that."
Of the many perceived strengths for this 2021 Hawkeye team, the middle of the offensive line would be at or near the top. But on Friday, we learned that one-third of that veteran trio would be missing for at least the Week 1 opener against Indiana.
In news that made national rounds as “the most Iowa injury ever,” fifth-year senior right guard Kyler Schott — deemed Pro Football Focus’ No. 8 returning interior offensive lineman in the country (Linderbaum, Iowa’s center, was No. 1) — broke a foot bone while baling hay on his family farm in Coggon.
Not great, considering two of the toughest defenses on Iowa's schedule are in Weeks 1 (vs. Indiana, Sept. 4) and 2 (at Iowa State, Sept. 11).
"I was up on a stack of hay bales and jumped down like I’ve done 1,000 times and landed funny this time," Schott said. "It didn’t work out for me."
The awkward landing broke the fifth metatarsal on Schott's right foot. As (bad) luck would have it, Schott suffered the same fracture on the outer edge of his left foot in September 2019, shortly after he had worked his way into the starting lineup.
Schott went almost two full months (from Sept. 14 to Nov. 9) between action — spanning two bye weeks and five missed games — with the left-foot fracture in 2019. The most optimistic time frame would make him available Sept. 11 at Iowa State. A more conservative estimate is Sept. 25 vs. Colorado State or Oct. 1 at Maryland.
Meantime, how well can Iowa get by without Schott?
Hello, Justin Britt.
The 6-foot-4, 302-pound redshirt sophomore from Indianapolis has the inside track for his first collegiate start — which would come against his home-state Hoosiers. Every time Iowa’s first-team offense took a snap during Saturday’s “Kids Day at Kinnick” scrimmage, Britt was at right guard.
Ask first-year offensive line coach George Barnett about the guard situation, and he'll point out how much Britt’s teammates (led by Linderbaum) believe in him.
“Justin’s doing a nice job. He brings so much energy to the table. Smart. Knows the offense. Bleeds off on other players,” Barnett said. “He almost reminds you of a senior how he carries himself.”
Yet Britt still has to prove himself on the Big Ten Conference stage. He arrived at Iowa while recovering from an ACL tear suffered as a high school senior. As a true freshman, he played in four games in a reserve, rotational role. He played in another four games in limited duty in 2020.
Britt said Linderbaum has taken him "under his wing," the goal being able to spread his own wings in Week 1.
“Lindy, I like to use him because he’s the leader of the offensive line. Same with Shooter (Schott), same with (left guard) Cody Ince,” Britt said. “I ask them questions if I don’t know something.”
Britt has an infectious personality that made an impression on head coach Kirk Ferentz in the recruiting process. An accompanying smile spread across Britt's face as the idea of starting his first game as a Hawkeye was broached.
"That’s the main focus, is to start. I hate the way it’s happening," Britt said. "I’m just wanting to be where the coaches need me the most."
Britt can be credited as one reason Iowa’s running game looked so good Saturday. But he has a tendency to block before thinking through his assignments at times. Correcting that will come with experience, but there is no soft-launch into the season. No. 17-ranked Indiana brings most of its starters back from a top-20 scoring defense.
“He gets so wound up, and he just wants to hit people so much,” Schott said. “Sometimes, he needs to slow down and really see what’s going on.”
Iowa coaches like what they've seen from redshirt freshman Tyler Elsbury, the second-team left guard. They could also slide a tackle inside (perhaps Nick DeJong or Mason Richman) to guard for the opener. Britt understands he hasn’t sewn up that Week 1 start yet.
If all goes well, Schott won’t be missed as much as he was in 2019 — when Iowa struggled mightily in pass protection without him and Cole Banwart in October losses to Michigan and Penn State. Those games proved Brian Ferentz’s point about how a weak middle can cripple an offense.
As for Schott?
He’s attending all the meetings, studying film. He’ll return at some point.
Playing in the Cy-Hawk game on Sept. 11 may be a stretch, but he’s not ruling it out.
“I would love to play in that game,” Schott said. “But if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be too bummed out about it. I’m going to be there to support my guys in the O-line room.”
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.