Leistikow: Clock ticking for Iowa football's unproven offensive line

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — While quarterback is Iowa’s highest-interest position of the college football offseason, perhaps the biggest question-mark position is the offensive line.

While that might seem crazy to say for a Hawkeye program under Kirk Ferentz that has produced five linemen taken in the first round of the NFL Draft — and may have a sixth next week in Tyler Linderbaum — it’s the reality. The offensive line struggled a year ago. And now it’s losing a generational talent at center.

On Wednesday, second-year Iowa offensive line coach George Barnett met the media and preached a message of patience and development with his young room. It seems very possible based on Barnett’s assessment that 80% of Iowa’s starting offensive line on Sept. 3 against South Dakota State will be sophomores or younger.

A poor up-front performance would sabotage Iowa's repeat Big Ten West title hopes in the fall, but Barnett noted there is no “microwave” to cook up five Linderbaums by September. The nervous wait for the Hawkeye fan base is on.

A realistic goal is to have a functional offensive line in four months, then one that will continue to improve over the course of the 12-game regular season. One of Barnett’s central messages is that perfection isn’t possible. Getting bogged down by mistakes can slow a player’s development. Yet they all know, the clock is ticking ... and there's a lot of pressure on their position group.

“This is an imperfect game played by imperfect people on imperfect days, and you have to be able to roll with the punches,” Barnett said. “And you’ve got to teach the kids the same thing. There are going to be days when it’s tough — especially young kids.

“If you do that, they set a foundation for themselves of being able to handle imperfection and tough days. (Then) their future, there will be a lot of good days, too.”

With that, here are some highlights from Barnett’s 25 minutes with the media … plus an overview from running backs coach Ladell Betts.

Let’s begin with one of the few veterans up front, Jack Plumb.

Speaking of the NFL Draft, there’s a chance Plumb might be unfortunately included early in the first-round TV coverage on April 28. There’s a widely shared clip from the Big Ten Championship Game of Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson — a projected top-two pick — pushing Plumb so easily and effectively that Plumb backpedaled into the body of quarterback Spencer Petras as he prepared to throw.

But saying, “I wouldn’t doubt Jack Plumb,” Barnett gave a passionate defense of the rangy Green Bay native. The way Barnett spoke about Plumb, it sounds like the 6-foot-7, 296-pound fifth-year senior is ticketed for a starting spot again at right tackle. Nine-game starting tackle Nick DeJong is getting stronger looks at guard this spring.

"Had some rough moments last year, mostly in drop-back protection moments,” Barnett said of Plumb. "But if you watch his last four games, bowl practice and the bowl game, his run game and play-action play raised quite a bit. Unfortunately for him, some people just remember the singular plays."

Mason Richman (78) and Connor Colby (77) are trying to develop fast while at the same time taking a patient approach, offensive line coach George Barnett says.

Freshmen took their lumps but could be stars of the line.

Trajectory-wise, it would stand to reason that the experience that left tackle Mason Richman and right guard Connor Colby got last year would make them better in 2022.

Richman (6-6, 296) started all 12 games he was healthy and had some forgettable moments, but he also was paving the way downfield on Sam LaPorta’s long touchdown catch on the Citrus Bowl. He’s got an athletic and aggressive style that the Hawkeyes love from their linemen.

“A lot of growth there,” Barnett said. “He’s a tenacious player, for a young kid.”

Likewise, Colby (11 starts as a true freshman) was known as a physical demon out of Cedar Rapids Kennedy. Barnett would like to see more of that as Colby also looks to shake a few bad habits he picked up last season while trying to survive.

“His feet will be on the ground better,” Barnett said, “and I think that’s going to allow him to show that real personality.”

It sounds like David Davidkov — the highly acclaimed prospect who picked Iowa over Ohio State and Michigan — is progressing nicely as a possible swing tackle. Colby has dabbled outside, and DeJong would be a tackle option as well.

The Logan Jones project continues to gain steam.

There’s certainly a Linderbaum vibe to Jones. Intense Iowa kid who loves the game of football and is a physical monster. Jones (6-3, 282) is on the Linderbaum plan, going from the defensive tackle to center. But remember, Jones is less than five weeks into it, so we need to pump the brakes on further comparisons.

Nonetheless, Jones has acclimated quickly with everything he’s been asked to do. Barnett emphasized that Jones has such a knack for the game that coaches don’t want to mess with his mojo. Obviously, he has to learn the offense — Iowa asks a lot of its center — but that’s more of a classroom thing. On the field, Jones seems to have "it" as he vies with Tyler Elsbury and Matt Fagan this spring to succeed Linderbaum. But he's on the clock, too.

"He has so many good gifts as far as athletic ability and twitch and tenacity,” Barnett said, “that we have to make sure we don’t overburden him with, ‘Hey, you’ve got to learn this today.’ He’s got to continue to play off rhythm and feel.

“He knows what he’s doing, and he puts his body in really good situations.”

Ladell Betts is entering his second year as Iowa's running backs coach.

And now for a bullish word from the running backs coach.

Betts has a super-thin room this spring, with just two available scholarship running backs. But he views both as No. 1 options in any situation. There is no “thunder and lightning” combo with sophomores Gavin and Leshon Williams (no relation), just two guys capable of every-down reps. I asked about their pass-blocking skills (hey, it’s spring — this is the time for minutia), and Betts gave this response.

“I say this in all truthfulness, there’s really nothing that I’m uncomfortable putting them on the field for,” Betts said, “whether it’s two-minute (drill), third down, short yardage, first-and-10 … it doesn’t matter. I think they’re complete players."

With Deavin Hilson injured and the only other available back being walk-on freshman Zach Brand, Williams and Williams should get plenty of carries in Saturday’s spring scrimmage (9:45 a.m., Kinnick Stadium). Given Iowa’s history of running-back injuries and the limited depth, incoming true freshmen Jaziun Patterson and Kaleb Johnson became natural topics.

“They’re downhill runners. They’re downhill guys,” Betts said. “’Jazz’ is a between-the-tackles, physical kind of guy. And Kaleb is a big-bodied guy that has some smooth transition to his running style.”

One or both rookies may be asked to play this fall, so Betts has been staying in touch with them to verify they'll arrive in good shape come June.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.