Offensive line scramble spotlights Iowa’s 2016 inconsistencies

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s offensive linemen have been asked to stand tall and answer for their struggles all season.

A revolving door of big guys, dragged out of relative anonymity and off injury lists, took turns analyzing up-and-down play and side-to-side moves.

Which position will the next starter play?

Why can’t you protect C.J. Beathard?

How can these blocking problems be fixed?

As Iowa seniors spoke Tuesday about playing their final home game against No. 15 Nebraska on Friday (2:30 p.m., ABC), the young unit’s starters got an afternoon out of the spotlight. But their story will be remembered as the story of the Hawkeyes (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten Conference) this season.

Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh (79) has started at right guard and right tackle in 10 games this season as just one member of a unit seemingly in flux for all of 2016.

“(Assistant coach) Brian Ferentz has done an excellent job with them and really been coaching them up,” Iowa senior running back LeShun Daniels Jr. said.

“He’s going to put guys in there to be successful. Over the last couple weeks, they’re really starting to trust each other and believe in each other to do their jobs.”

The line’s scrambled 2016 statistics speak for themselves.

Seven different starting lineup combinations have appeared in 11 games. All five positions have featured multiple starters. Preseason tackles Cole Croston and Ike Boettger moved spots in Week 6, swapped in Week 8, and were both out injured last Saturday at Illinois.

But Daniels and Akrum Wadley have each rushed for more than 800 yards. The group is a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, given to college football’s top offensive line.

“We can’t use guys coming in or guys going out as an excuse, ever,” Iowa junior lineman Sean Welsh said after beating Michigan on Nov. 12.

“It’s about the next man in. We’re all versatile and we’re all here to play, so we’ve got to execute. No excuses.”

Iowa’s line has been just like Iowa’s offense: inconsistent and oft-maligned; occasionally patchwork; good enough to become bowl eligible for the 15th time in the past 16 seasons.

“I would argue the offense has really done a good job in the last two weeks of helping the cause,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “You know, the objective is to have at least one more point than your opponent. We’ve been able to do that two weeks in a row, so that’s been a real team effort. Lots of good complementary team football.”

Leistikow: Simplicity is Iowa's best gameplan vs. Nebraska

Ferentz’s youngest son, Steve, was the lone offensive lineman at Tuesday’s media availability inside Iowa’s Football Operations Center. He spoke about his family, his Senior Day expectations — “I'm sure there will be a prop bet on whether there are water works from me” — and his classmate and roommate Croston, the left tackle turned right tackle turned injured reserve.

Their final season has been challenging, especially coming off a Rose Bowl berth.

Yet their meeting room has remained cohesive.

“You take the same approach, no matter what your role is,” Steve Ferentz said. “It’s a day-by-day process and you’re just doing what you can to help the team and get better as an individual. Whether it’s giving the defense a good look, backing a guy up or just showing the younger guys the work ethic that’s necessary around here.

“I might not be playing, but there’s a role for everyone.”

Steve’s older brother Brian has had to adjust to injuries and plans on the fly in his fifth year as an Iowa assistant. The 33-year-old dealt with three separate starting units last season, which proved to be a warm-up for 2016 despite the promising returners.

Forget the unit Pro Football Focus rated No. 1 in the nation earlier this season. The Hawkeyes are just happy to have healthy starters — likely Boone Myers, Keegan Render, James Daniels, Levi Paulsen and Welsh — ready to play this week.

“Obviously, you know if somebody different is in there or not,” LeShun Daniels said. “But when it comes to game time, we know that whoever is put in there is going to get the job done. We’re not going out there worried they’re going to miss a block because they’ve been coached so well.”

Boettger and starting tight end George Kittle have practiced this week, but Kirk Ferentz called them “wait-and-see” cases for Friday. They could be key blockers against a Nebraska squad ranked 21st in the nation in total defense.

“We’re focused on running the ball,” Kittle said. “We do that pretty well, and I’m completely OK with that.

“I said at the beginning of the season, I prefer pancaking somebody to catching the ball and that’s still true today. Run-blocking is fun. It’s about whatever is best for the team.”

Iowa is seeking its first victory over Nebraska (9-2, 6-2) at Kinnick Stadium since 1981.

Analysis: Nebraska result sits squarely on Iowa's defense

Shaken-up starters

Eight different Hawkeyes have started games on the offensive line this season. Below lists how many games each has started and where.

Name                   Class      Positions             No.

Boone Myers     Jr.           LG, LT                   10

Sean Welsh        Jr.           RG,RT                   10

Ike Boettger       Jr.           RT, LG, LT            9

James Daniels    So.         C                            9

Cole Croston      Sr.          LT, RT                   7

Keegan Render  So.         RG, LG                  6

Lucas LeGrand   So.         C                            2

Levi Paulsen       R-Fr.      RG                         1

Friday's game

NO. 15 NEBRASKA (9-2, 6-2 BIG TEN) AT IOWA (7-4, 5-3)

Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Time/TV: 2:30 p.m., ABC (Allen Bestwick, Mike Bellotti, Kris Budden)

Line: Iowa by 2

Weather: Cloudy with highs in low 40s, wind 10-15 mph