Iowa players and coaches are more focused on their upcoming game in Bloomington than the College Football Playoff rankings.
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Offensive lineman Sean Welsh was gone from the Iowa football team in the spring, but thankfully for the Hawkeyes not forgotten.
Coach Kirk Ferentz bristles at the thought of where his 8-0, 10th-ranked Hawkeyes would be entering Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game at Indiana if the redshirt sophomore had not returned to the program in time for fall camp. And in a nod to his Pittsburgh Pirates fandom, Ferentz threw in a baseball analogy to emphasize the point.
"I don't want to think about it quite frankly, especially at Northwestern," Ferentz said. "That was the fireman relief pitcher award of the day right there."
Even if you're talking about an Outland Trophy candidate, it's difficult to spot a clutch performance by a lineman. But what Welsh did on Oct. 17 in Evanston, Ill., was hard to miss. With Iowa's tackle depth decimated by injuries to starters Boone Myers and Ike Boettger, line coach Brian Ferentz identified Welsh as a one-game stopgap at right tackle, a position he'd never played before in a game.
All Iowa did that day was roll up a season-high 294 rushing yards, win on the road over a ranked team by 30, and Welsh held stud Northwestern defensive end Dean Lowry to one tackle.
Welsh returned to his usual starting spot at left guard last week against Maryland as Myers returned from a three-game absence. But three months ago, as Welsh strapped his helmet back on after a personal leave of absence, he wasn't sure what to expect.
"I was really nervous coming back in, thinking what it was going to be like," Welsh said. "It wasn't as bad as I thought. It's like riding a bike."
Even though Welsh left the team for several months, he said the thoughts didn't stray to quitting.
"I needed some personal time to deal with a personal issue," the Springboro, Ohio, native said. "I never thought about leaving the team."
He leaned on his fellow offensive linemen to get through a tough time.
"It took him a little bit to get back, but once he did, it was just clicking for him," said Myers, the starting left tackle and fellow redshirt sophomore. "He's light years ahead of where he was in the spring and even last year."
How did he come back even better after missing spring ball? Welsh stayed in town and worked out at the Iowa Football Performance Center, away from the team, to keep his strength and conditioning up.
He expressed eternal thanks for how Kirk Ferentz dealt with delicate circumstances, which Welsh preferred to keep private.
"He was very understanding. He was very flexible," Welsh said. "He was great with handling the situation. He gave me what I needed at that time."
Myers made a funny comment about the guy who lines up to his right – that when looking at the easy-going, quiet, 6-foot-3, 288-pound Welsh that one might say "eh" and not see the brawling blocker he's become.
"But then he gets out on the football field," Myers said, "and he's just destroying people. And it's awesome."
The Iowa coach points out the sophomore lineman's importance to the 2015 Hawkeyes.
Welsh has alternated series at left guard with true freshman James Daniels at times this season. It was Daniels' fast growth that allowed Iowa to try Welsh at right tackle for the Northwestern game. Against Maryland, Welsh took every snap at left guard for the first time in 2015.
"He just has a little bit of a knack for playing. Came with a real good skill set, fundamental set," Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a tough, competitive guy. For him to jump in there the way he did after missing time, I thought it would take him a little longer to look sharp. He looked pretty sharp during preseason."
He continues to look better every week. With Welsh, center Austin Blythe and right guard Jordan Walsh, the Hawkeyes have been salty up the middle – and happy to have their teammate back in the fold.
"A lot of these guys will be friends for life," Welsh said. "It's great to be back."
The Iowa left guard has been a welcome re-addition to the Hawkeyes.
Matchup: No. 10 Iowa (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) at Indiana (4-4, 0-4)
When, where: 2:30 p.m. CT, Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Ind.
TV: ESPN (Announcers: Mike Patrick, Ed Cunningham)
The line: Iowa is favored by 6.5
Hawkeye Huddle info: Fans are invited to join the National I-Club and UI Alumni Association from 12:30-2:30 p.m. ET at the Indiana Memorial Union (900 East 7th Street) approximately one mile from Memorial Stadium.