Hawkeye takeaways: Likening Sean Welsh to Marshal Yanda, plus Josey Jewell's unusual day

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CHICAGO — Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh rightfully got a lot of attention at Big Ten Football Media Days this week, in part because of his recent revelation about his struggles with depression.

But it's easy to overlook that this guy is a physically dominant player, even if he doesn’t necessarily look like he would be.

Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz, back in April 2016, linked Welsh’s style to another former Iowa player: Marshal Yanda, who today is considered the best guard in the NFL and making millions playing for the Baltimore Ravens.

Sean Welsh speaks to reporters during Big Ten Football Media Days this week.

Ferentz revisited that comparison Monday, now that Welsh has 35 career starts under his belt — and could reach 48 or even 49 with a healthy, strong season.

“The parallel — the similarity — is Marshal didn’t always look the prettiest, getting into this stance — all that stuff. But wherever you lined him up, he blocked the guy pretty well,” Ferentz said. “Sean’s done the same thing for us. I’d hate to think where we would have been two years ago without him.”

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In 2015, Welsh slid out to right tackle against Northwestern after a rash of injuries took out Iowa’s two starting tackles. Iowa won that game, 40-10, on the way to a 12-0 regular season.

A guard by nature, Welsh slid out to tackle again for one start last season — a 28-0 shutout of Illinois.

Listed at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, Welsh enters 2017 as perhaps one of the most underappreciated linemen in the Big Ten. He was a third-team all-conference selection last year, although USA TODAY made him a second-team all-American.

Again, there’s that Yanda/Welsh comparison.

Yanda was a second-team all-Big Ten honoree in 2006. No flash, just under-the-radar football results. Yanda was a third-round NFL Draft pick in 2007.

“Ironically, Marshal’s too short to play tackle in the NFL. But when they needed somebody to block (Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James) Harrison, they put him out there, and he did pretty good,” Ferentz said. “It says a lot about a kind of football player the guy is when he can do it, even when he doesn’t have the quote-unquote measurables.”

Maybe next year

For Kirk Ferentz and Iowa football, there’s good news and bad news about the NCAA’s low-blocking rule that still has the longtime Hawkeye coach miffed.

The good news: They’ve heard Ferentz’s complaints and are working on a solution.

The bad: Nothing new will be implemented to help alleviate those concerns in the 2017 season.

Ferentz was openly critical of officiating after last year’s Rutgers game, in which lineman Ike Boettger was called for an illegal block below the waist — which called back a 75-yard LeShun Daniels Jr. touchdown run.

“Four different weeks, four different interpretations on the rule,” Ferentz said then.

He was still bothered about the issue over the summer, calling it his No. 1 pet-peeve rule.

On Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days, league director of officiating Bill Carollo acknowledged that recent changes to the rule were being examined — something that “was really led by a couple of letters that Kirk Ferentz has written.”

So give Iowa’s coach credit for persistence.

But rules changes are done in two-year cycles, Carollo said, so making any change this season is not in the cards. The latest language, which was implemented in 2016, states pretty vaguely that the idea is to “prohibit a player who leaves the tackle box from blocking below the waist toward the initial position of the ball.”

Said Carollo: “We've probably had five or six changes in the last 10 years on how or what to call for low blocks. So it's a really good question. I've been working with the Iowa coaching staff for the last couple of years on this.

"Unfortunately … it's been put off to next year.”

Josey's unusual day

Josey Jewell was the first Iowa football player invited to back-to-back Big Ten media shindigs in Ferentz’s 19 years as head coach.

The Hawkeye linebacker may have been regretting that distinction Monday afternoon.

A man approached Jewell, seated at a podium for an hour-long session with reporters, handed him a tattered notebook and made an odd request: Draw the Tiger Hawk logo that appears on Iowa’s helmets from memory.

“This is going to be way too hard,” Jewell said as he took the pen and paper, with teammate Sean Welsh’s version of the logo already drawn.

Jewell struggled with his artwork — “this doesn’t even look right,” he said halfway through his attempt — and handed it back to the man, who reassured him that the Illinois players had also struggled with the assignment, then promptly left.

It was that kind of day for Jewell, a preseason all-American who doesn’t necessarily relish his time with the media. He’d much rather be playing football or fishing. But he handled all the awkward questioning with grace.

Other examples:

  • What one player from the Nebraska team would you like to add to your roster, Jewell was asked. Jewell hemmed and hawed before concluding: “It’s hard to determine (just) one on that team.”
  • How do you feel about Iowa State’s Joel Lanning transitioning from quarterback to linebacker, another reporter wondered. Jewell said he doesn’t know Lanning but had heard about the unusual situation. “If he’s still sticking, he must be a pretty tough guy,” Jewell said approvingly.

There were Hawkeye football questions mixed in, of course. Jewell said his most vivid memory from a rivalry game revolved around his role in an Iowa loss to Iowa State in 2014. Jewell, then a redshirt freshman, came onto the field in a nickel package and was promptly flagged for holding, helping set up the Cyclones’ winning field goal.

“That’s one that really sticks in my head. You can kind of tell I kind of focus on the negative sometimes,” Jewell said. “It just shows you what you need to work on. You try to use that negative towards positive.”

Much like his media day experience.

Fitzgerald's surprise

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on Tuesday said he couldn’t believe that more teams didn’t double-team wide receiver Austin Carr a year ago.

Though he didn’t mention Iowa by name, Fitzgerald had to be delighted that the Hawkeyes used single coverage on Carr — who would be a Biletnikoff Award finalist — in their Oct. 1 matchup at Kinnick Stadium. Carr caught three touchdown passes in the 38-31 Wildcats win.

“We sat there midway through the season and said, ‘There’s no way we’re not going to double him this week. There’s no way.’ And they didn’t,” Fitzgerald said. “And we’d say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

If you recall, it was in that postgame session that then-Iowa cornerback Desmond King said his team was “outcoached … in the passing game.”

Carr started getting more attention by late October in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin.

“The Badgers and the Buckeyes did a really good job in some situational things,” Fitzgerald said, “where it’s, like, ‘Yeah, well, not a surprise — they’re (regularly) playing for the Big Ten championship.’”

Remembering Bobby

Without specifying the plan, Nebraska coach Mike Riley said Tuesday the program will do something during the upcoming season to remember Bobby Elliott, who died earlier this month in Iowa City at age 64.

Elliott was on Nebraska’s staff for only a few months — brought there on a recommendation from new defensive coordinator Bobby Diaco, a former Hawkeye linebacker — before complications from cancer left him in hospice care.

In that short time, Elliott left an impact on Riley, also 64. 

“That has been one of the hardest things for me,” Riley said. “... My relationship with Coach Elliott, working with him, was way too short — just a few months.”

Elliott was a former Iowa defensive back in the 1970s and eventually a key assistant for 13 years under Hayden Fry in Iowa City. He also had coaching stops at Iowa State and Notre Dame before his final stint at Nebraska.

“I really thought that, on a personal level, this was going to be a really fun guy for me to work with,” Riley said. “But I really thought we would absolutely — through the end of all of this — be good friends. And, so, I will really miss that opportunity with him.”

Mark Emmert contributed to this report.