Iowa football's revolving, evolving offensive line: Loss of Boettger likely elevates Tristan Wirfs
IOWA CITY, Ia. — A fifth-year senior limps to the sideline, and a true freshman must get up to speed.
It’s a familiar situation in college sports, and it’s where Iowa’s offensive line finds itself this week after starting right tackle Ike Boettger suffered an Achilles tendon injury in Saturday’s win over Iowa State. That will cost Boettger four to six months of recovery and likely end his Hawkeyes career, coach Kirk Ferentz confirmed Tuesday, although he took a sly swipe at Nebraska and the NCAA while holding out hope for a sixth year of eligibility for the Cedar Falls native (more on that later).
Boettger’s injury forces the Hawkeyes to do four things immediately:
- Slide their best lineman, Sean Welsh, from right guard to fill Boettger’s starting role.
- Insert Ross Reynolds at starting left guard, thus moving Keegan Render to the right side.
- Pull the redshirt off of highly regarded recruit Tristan Wirfs and get him into the rotation at tackle.
- Pray for no further offensive line injuries. Iowa seems to have the depth at offensive line to withstand one loss. A second would be extremely dicey.
Let’s start with Wirfs, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound man-child out of Mount Vernon who hasn’t played in Iowa’s first two games.
“Right now, we just have to plan like he will play at some point, because we're really running out of depth,” Ferentz said. “We've been practicing with him on the second team, pushing him forward as if he were going to play. He had an injury (during the) latter part of camp which really set him back and put him in a funk for about a week, but he's coming out of that and making progress.
“There are some things he does very well, and at times he does things extremely well. But the consistency factor is the biggest part. He was almost doing too well until he got hurt. It was about a week, but a week might as well have been a month. It just seemed like that because it really set him back. Now, we've seen him climb the ladder here a little bit the last two weeks.”
Hawkeye fans have been itching to see Wirfs, a four-star recruit and the Register’s high school male athlete of the year, in action. They’re about to get their chance, probably as soon as Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. home game against North Texas, which features a 3-4 defense and undersized ends (average weight of 248 pounds among the top four).
Wirfs would backup Welsh and Alaric Jackson, who has impressed in his first two career starts at left tackle.
At guard, senior Boone Myers can backup both spots, or also play tackle. He is listed as the second-stringer at both left tackle and left guard for now.
Combined with standout junior center James Daniels, the Hawkeyes would have a strong seven-man rotation on the line. They can win their share of battles up front with that group.
The flexibility of Welsh and Myers is vital. Welsh, a senior, is so accomplished that he has played both guard spots and right tackle in games, all at a high level. He was even listed as Iowa’s starting center for a time last season while Daniels was nursing an injury.
“I can't explain it. Wherever you put him, he does well. He's just one of those football players,” Ferentz, a former offensive line coach, said with a measure of awe. “Some can't move around. I mean, it's really disastrous to even think about it. You learn that really quickly. … We've had Sean everywhere. Doesn't seem to bother him. He looks the same, just keeps playing, and doesn't seem to affect him mentally or physically.”
Myers entered summer camp as the starting left tackle. An ankle injury slowed him, and the redshirt freshman Jackson took that spot and ran with it. Myers said he’s fully healthy now, ready to take on a bigger workload, and has gotten spot duty at guard in the first two games.
Ferentz said he anticipates Myers getting more snaps this week.
“I feel like I can play. I guess it’s just the coaches and what they think a good working lineup is. We’ve got a lot of guys who can play a lot of different positions,” Myers said.
“I tell Coach, ‘I’ll play wherever you need me.’ That’s punter, that’s whatever. I just want to play.”
(For the record, Myers is not being considered for punting duties).
Jackson is a fixture at left tackle, Ferentz said, with the 6-7, 320-pounder starting to come into his own. Welsh and Wirfs would be called on to man the right side.
“The progress he's made from being at 342-pound kid when he walked in here who was overweight to cutting down to 315, 317. We saw him go through that transformation, just was an indicator that this guy thinks right,” Ferentz said of Jackson. “He's not your average bear.”
This past Saturday, Iowa’s offensive line worked around the third-quarter injury to Boettger and played a superb game. A unit that has surrendered 30 sacks in back-to-back seasons kept sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley upright all game in a 44-41 overtime victory.
“We’ve been stressing that a lot this year is really just cleaning up the pocket for the quarterback, especially since we had a young guy. We knew we really need to tighten that up and give him a good pocket, so he can stay comfortable and make good plays,” Myers said.
Stanley threw for 333 yards and five touchdowns in his first road start. He was able to check down often to his second or third option on passing plays. That’s what a strong offensive line allows for.
“The relationship between the quarterback and the offensive line has to be pretty good. I feel like that they’ve worked super hard to keep me safe back there, and obviously I really appreciate it,” Stanley said. “It’s pretty awesome when you can go through a game and maybe only get hit when you scramble or something like that. Having that protection is pretty sweet.”
But not having Boettger stings. Ferentz spoke at length about the anguish he feels when a player’s season is curtailed, all the hard work that was put in to preparing for 12 games suddenly going unrewarded.
Myers put it more bluntly: “It just rips your heart out.”
Boettger’s next football opportunity, after the grind of months of rehabilitation, is likely to be in preparation for April’s NFL Draft. He’s good enough to get a professional shot.
Ferentz was asked if Boettger would have a chance at a medical redshirt, something Iowa defensive end Drew Ott was denied two years ago.
“By the book, no. But we live in a crazy world,” Ferentz said, before mischievously referencing once again the case of Nebraska’s Tanner Lee. “There is a quarterback I'm aware of that got an extra year because of a coaching change (at Tulane, Lee’s previous school), which I've never heard of that. I don't know what the precedent for that would be.
“But we've got a new line coach (Tim Polasek). Maybe we can get him a year because of that. We'll see. Certainly different styles and personalities with those two guys, so I don't know. Got to look in that policy book they've got.”