Leistikow: Getting to know Iowa's top five offensive tackles (and they might all play)
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Going into the (belated) 2020 season, there was not a more experienced college football team at offensive tackle than Iowa. Left tackle Alaric Jackson had started 34 games over three years; grad-transfer right tackle Coy Cronk had 40 starts to his credit over three-plus seasons at Indiana.
What a difference a year makes.
Instead of having 74 career starts at tackle, Iowa has a mere two — both by Jack Plumb last season — going into the 2021 campaign.
Big dip. But a big concern?
We'll find out more when the Hawkeyes try to block a top-20 Indiana defense on Sept. 4 at Kinnick Stadium. Until then, we can let new offensive line coach George Barnett shed some light on the position. Barnett interviewed with The Register at the team's recent media day.
'We got a lot of guys':Iowa's offensive line still a work in progress in summer
There are five tackles in the mix to play meaningful snaps, including two true freshmen. Here’s a little more info on each guy. Then we’ll discuss how things might unfold this fall.
Jack Plumb, redshirt junior (6-7, 296)
As a Green Bay native, it should come as zero surprise that Plumb studies the craft of Packers stalwart David Bakhtiari, considered one of the NFL’s elite left tackles. But recently, Plumb was given another assignment by Barnett: Study former Hawkeye Brandon Scherff, the 2014 Outland Trophy winner.
Plumb was fed old Iowa practice footage of Scherff, as a glimpse into the daily habits that created the eventual No. 5 overall NFL Draft pick of the Washington Football Team. Plumb’s initial observations? "Plays with great aggression and intensity. Locked in on his fundamentals."
This is Plumb’s fourth year in the Iowa system. Though Plumb was listed at No. 1 left tackle on the preseason depth chart, he was working with the second unit at the "Kids Day at Kinnick" scrimmage. Plumb has the flexibility to play left or right tackle, and Barnett wants to see a little more explosiveness.
"Laterally he moves really well. He’s working on his punch still," Barnett said. "That’s what he’s improving on. He knows the offense. Smart kid.”
Nick DeJong, redshirt sophomore (6-6, 292)
The Pella native impressed as a walk-on true freshman in 2019, earning the reward of game snaps against Middle Tennessee. DeJong has since been put on scholarship and is closing in on what he hopes is his first career start. DeJong took all the No. 1 reps at right tackle during Kids Day, and that’s where he stood on the preseason depth chart. It seems DeJong’s consistent work is paying off.
“Ultimately, that’s what makes Iowa great,” DeJong said. “You come here, you do the work, you get the job done and you get the spot.”
DeJong has the type of athleticism Iowa loves in its tackles. He was a tight end for Pella but also played basketball and was a Class 3A shot put champion in 2019.
“Once you learn the fundamentals and you learn how to play the position, you learn to play with confidence,” Barnett said. “I think that’s kind of the phase he’s in right now. He’s really fun to watch.”
Mason Richman, redshirt freshman (6-6, 296)
“Athletic” is the word that consistently comes up when Richman is discussed.
"That’s helped me out a lot,” Richman said, “being able to handle these defensive ends and adjusting to different plays on offense and different assignments we have. A lot of our defensive players, (like) linebackers, require a little more athleticism."
The Kansas native was listed as the No. 2 left tackle in the preseason, but he took all the No. 1 reps on Kids Day and looked like a veteran. Richman has been focused on the left side of the line of scrimmage and could play guard, too. While Barnett said more veteran players are making incremental gains, Richman is improving quickly every day.
Oh, and one more thing.
“He’s very competitive,” Barnett said. “He likes to strike people.”
Connor Colby, true freshman (6-6, 298)
Probably No. 4 in Iowa's tackle pecking order, but like Richman, he is improving quickly. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has said it’s a matter of when, not if, Colby becomes a Hawkeye contributor.
Enrolling in January helped Colby get a leg up in his development. He is listed as the No. 2 right tackle, and that’s where he played exclusively on Kids Day.
“Really picked up where he left off out of the spring. Just competitive, man, likes contact,” Barnett said, a comment that affirms Colby's fierce finishing of blocks on his Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School tape. "You always catch yourself going, ‘How old is he?’ That’s pretty cool."
David Davidkov, true freshman (6-6, 286)
While Davidkov wasn’t on the preseason depth chart, Barnett brought him up as another fast learner. Davidkov certainly comes with a lot of intrigue, as he picked the Hawkeyes over Michigan and Ohio State.
Davidkov, another early enrollee, was slowed by an ankle injury in the spring but Barnett said on media day that “he’s rolling. … You’re starting to see quite a bit of growth.”
The influx of imposing young players like Richman, Colby and Davidkov has created urgency in the tightknit offensive-line room.
“At the end of the day," DeJong said, "we’re all getting better."
How will the tackles shake out?
Iowa has been blessed with excellent tackle play in recent years, particularly from 2020 first-round NFL Draft pick Tristan Wirfs (already a Super Bowl champion with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
Offensive line is rarely a concern when it comes to Iowa, given it is the head coach’s area of expertise and passion. But it’s definitely a position of interest this fall, with a lot of young players and a new coach in Barnett.
It's possible that decisions are already made at left and right tackles, but Barnett said that given the circumstances he was inclined to let things play out as long as possible.
"If you try to hurry a position battle, I think you can misjudge or prejudge someone, especially in this program where every day means something," Barnett said. "The emphasis is so much on development. You’ve got to let it take its course."
Iowa has a history of letting some battles play out through September and beyond, often giving two equal-caliber players time to develop in the line of fire. It's also possible that the early-season absence of starting right guard Kyler Schott plays a factor in who plays where. If Iowa feels it has three tackles among its "best five" linemen without Schott, perhaps Richman or DeJong could kick inside to guard for the opener.
One thing is almost certain: Iowa will need more than two tackles this fall. In both the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Iowa used eight different starters on the offensive line and 12 total starting combinations. That's why offensive-line development is always so crucial, especially at Iowa.
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.