Iowa football takeaways: How the Hawkeye offensive line is shaping up in spring practice

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa may be without starting right guard Levi Paulsen for the duration of spring football practices, but a pair of second-year players are making big impressions on offensive line coach Tim Polasek.

Polasek met with reporters Tuesday and initially let it slip that Paulsen is injured and won’t return before the Hawkeyes’ public scrimmage April 20. Later, when asked about it, Polasek said, “we’ll leave that to coach (Kirk) Ferentz” to announce.

Iowa football offensive linemen Levi Paulsen and defensive end Sam Brincks go through a drill during a spring football practice on Wednesday, March 28, 2018, at the Iowa football performance center in Iowa City.

In Paulsen’s absence, sophomore Cole Banwart has been working as the starting right guard, Polasek said. The Ottosen native is also the backup center this spring.

“We are seeing some guys that are taking the pajamas off and stepping into their big-boy pants,” Polasek raved, singling Banwart out as tops on that oddly descriptive list.

“I’m super excited about his future because he has continuously gotten better. The only thing that stopped his constant growth has been injuries,” Polasek said. “His grit. His toughness. He’s a Hawkeye. His teammates matter to him. He’s trying to do the things we’re teaching him the way we want them done.”

Mark Kallenberger, shown here as a recruit at Bettendorf, is an impressive young offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes.

Another fresh face who may be climbing into the top six players on Iowa’s offensive line is redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger of Bettendorf. He is the backup left tackle for now, but could work his way into the rotation at guard.

“Mark has been real consistent over the last four or five months in our program,” said Polasek, in his second season with the Hawkeyes.

Polasek related a conversation he had with a grinning Kallenberger on Monday.

“He wanted to high-five because it was the first time he’s been on his target weight for more than a week,” Polasek said of the 6-foot-6, 282-pounder.

Hawkeye coaches are constantly assessing personnel. When talk turns to the offensive line, Polasek said, it goes like this:

“Who can provide depth? Who can get into the top six or seven? Do we have our best five out there right now? And Mark’s name comes up constantly. And so we’ll try to provide some opportunities for him that are different than those tackle spots.”

Translation: Iowa would love to work Banwart and Kallenberger into the offensive line rotation in some capacity. With two openings for new starting guards, look for the youngsters to make a strong push for playing time throughout the spring and summer.

Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs explodes off the line in an offensive play against Boston College during the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017.

Two tackles, no permanence yet

Polasek said if Iowa were to play a game this week, it would likely start Alaric Jackson at left tackle and Tristan Wirfs at right. That’s the opposite of the way the two behemoths are listed on the depth chart, but is reflective of the way they’ve lined up during practice.

Wirfs started at left tackle in Iowa’s Pinstripe Bowl victory while Jackson sat out a one-game suspension. It was during the leadup to that game that Polasek said he may have learned something about Jackson’s best position.

“A.J. is the one that really struggled on the right side to some degree,” Polasek said of the 6-7, 320-pound sophomore who started exclusively at left tackle during the regular season. “One guy’s right hand is better on the right side, the other guy’s left hand is better (on the left side). Really, the feet in pass protection, both have been pretty good. We’re really happy with that. They’re both really comfortable from a schematic standpoint.”

Both players are getting time at each tackle spot, however, as Polasek strives to ensure Iowa doesn’t become “one-sided.” It is likely to continue that way.

“I do think there’s something to be said about, if a guy’s a right-hand dominant guy as far as pass protection, that hand being on the chest of a defensive end quicker,” Polasek said.

As for Wirfs, a highly regarded sophomore from Mount Vernon, Polasek said he’s pleased to see the young player taking on some leadership responsibilities.

“We need him to be a great leader,” Polasek said of the 6-5, 320-pounder.

“He’s just such a stronger personality off the field, like during the meetings now, and he’s not as reserved to ask a question or to get the group going a little bit. Because he is a powerful personality and some day he’s going to push through for us and be a good leader.”

Render is the ringleader

Polasek said moving senior Keegan Render from guard to center this year was an obvious solution for an offensive line in flux. He said it became apparent last summer that Render could flourish in that role, even though James Daniels was entrenched at center at the time. Daniels decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft, where he is a projected first-round pick.

Polasek has been impressed by how quickly Render learned to identify defensive fronts and bark out signals to the line.

“He’s our best vocal leader, and I’m not sure that toward the end of last year that wasn’t the same,” Polasek said of the Indianola native. “It really feels like he can lead best from that center position.”

Iowa tight end Drew Cook signs autographs during the open practice on Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.

In deep TE group, watch out for Cook

Fans became familiar last season with Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, young players who burst onto the scene at tight end to combine for 54 catches, 814 yards and 14 touchdown receptions.

While that pair remains the headliners of the tight-end group, Hockenson relayed Tuesday that there are a lot more names Hawkeye fans might be getting to know … either this season or down the road.

“This tight end group, the coaches have said, is one of the best we’ve had,” said Hockenson, who became an every-down option last fall as a redshirt freshman. “Everyone, it’s a solid group. You could put anyone in there, and we wouldn’t be worried.”

The Hawkeyes list Shaun Beyer and Nate Wieting as the top two backups, but don’t forget about Drew Cook. The former quarterback from Iowa City Regina is acclimating to his new position quite well, Hockenson said.

(Of course, he’s got the bloodlines for it — his father, Marv Cook, is one of the top tight ends in Hawkeye history.)

Asked what kind of strides Cook (a 6-5, 250 junior) has made, Hockenson said: “Pretty big ones. Drew, he’s a good guy, and he knows what’s expected from him. Coming from a quarterback and not getting hit much and going to tight end and having a lot of physicality every day, he’s really stepped up. You can tell he loves the tight end position.”

Brincks keeps trucking

A year ago, Sam Brincks was in danger of getting lost in a deep rotation at defensive end. But the junior from Carroll persevered and worked his way onto the field, where he recorded 17 tackles.

How did he do it?

“Just making sure the coaches trusted that I knew what I was doing, knew my responsibility and the technique to get the job done,” Brincks said Tuesday.

The senior is backing up Anthony Nelson at left end this year and is studying the junior starter carefully. Brincks feels comfortable in his ability to stop the run. Now, he wants to become a more dangerous pass rusher, perhaps even record his first career sack. Nelson had a team-leading 7.5 sacks last year.

“I know why I’m second on the depth chart and why he’s first,” Brincks said. “I think it’s because guys like that are better at what they do. I’m always trying to chase what they do. It’s motivation.”

Brincks proved he could be a contributor last year. If he can become a disrupter this fall, it would be a big boost for a Hawkeye front four intent on making game-changing plays.

Staff writer Chad Leistikow contributed to this story.