Tyler Linderbaum is now a center. It’s been steady progress toward the starting job. Dargan Southard, email@example.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As the mid-afternoon sun pelts the practice turf behind him, Tim Polasek recounts the feeling he got throughout this particular recruiting process. It doesn’t arrive with every kid — only the elites — but Iowa’s offensive line coach knew this one was real.
Thing is, this wasn’t even Polasek’s guy. Reese Morgan naturally led the recruiting charge on Tyler Linderbaum, a Hawkeye-lifer defensive tackle prospect from the next town over. It was from the background that Polasek felt this attractive energy.
"I always felt a sense of, 'I like being around this guy. Man, I wish all of the recruits were like this guy,'" Polsaek recalled Friday at the Hawkeyes' media day. “I always sensed that — not necessarily that I would coach him — but hey, maybe I can impact this kid’s life.
“I knew he was going to impact mine.”
Call it a prophetic pairing, if you will, or maybe a preordained one. Either way, Polasek and Linderbaum have found each other after a circuitous freshman season. The 255-pound sack-chasing Solon Spartan is now a robust center pushing three bills — and a vital cog on Iowa’s starting offensive line.
Up front is a blend of heralded tackles and unproven guards, with Linderbaum planted in the middle. He’s quickly growing accustomed to his new home.
“Having him over on our side is pretty fun,” said right tackle Tristan Wirfs, the Mount Vernon product who’s plenty familiar with Linderbaum, going back to their prep days. “Tyler’s like a little pitbull — he just goes and goes. He’s picked it up so fast, how our offense works and everything. Especially at center, too — that’s probably the hardest position (on the offensive line) to come to.”
The first hurdle in jumping lines was combating disappointment.
Although Linderbaum had minimal action as a true freshman — two appearances with no statistics — defensive tackle had always been his spot. It’s from where he punished prep offensive lines as a Solon standout en route to U.S. Army All-American honors in 2017. It’s where he spent all of 2018 working, slowly building toward loftier responsibilities. Depth-chart leaders Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff would graduate after 2019. Opportunity to pounce existed in Linderbaum’s upperclassmen years.
Shortly after Iowa’s win over Nebraska to end the regular season, everything shifted.
“We got a break for two or three days, and I got called into coach (Kirk) Ferentz’s office to talk to him the day we got back,” Linderbaum said. “He said we’re going to make the transition to center. And the next day, I took snaps at center with one of the quarterbacks.
“It kind of bummed me out at first — just because I spent the whole year working with the defense, traveling and being around the older guys. There were a lot of different things running through my mind.”
It’s only natural for a position change to result in self-questioning — am I’m being moved for a better fit at my new spot, or because I can’t cut it at the old one?
Negativity might’ve come first, but that initial attitude Polasek observed soon prevailed. Linderbaum knew he had to trust the man up top with solid credentials.
Embracing the move became the lone option.
"At the end of the day, I had to look at it as, 'This is what coach Ferentz wanted me to do. He's been around (Iowa) for 20 years, and I'm going to take this role and attack it,'" Linderbaum said. "Ever since that day he told me, I've just been working on snapping and working on the playbook."
Bowl prep learning under outgoing center Keegan Render catapulted Linderbaum into a solid spring. From there, the progression has been steady toward the starting job. Ferentz hasn’t deployed a starting freshman center since Rafael Eubanks in 2006, but all indications are Linderbaum will become the next.
Polasek has thrown task after task at Linderbaum, who’s conquered most of them with an eagerness to learn. The veteran offensive line coach is quick to refrain from calling the redshirt freshman a polished product, but Polasek’s mental comp for Linderbaum exudes confidence.
“I gave him some things to do on his own — he banged them out. The last guy who responded with a self project like that was Carson Wentz,” said Polasek, who coached the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback during his time as North Dakota State’s offensive coordinator.
“I think that speaks to Tyler Linderbaum. Not comparing him to Carson, but character wise, holy smokes, he just went and knocked out assignments. This guy wants information. This is going to be fine.”
That wasn’t the only high-profile professional athlete mentioned alongside Linderbaum during media day. For a player who stayed reserved throughout numerous high-school interviews, Linderbaum has gravitated toward assertiveness behind the scenes. It’s needed even more now as the up-front voice.
“He’s pretty talkative in the room. I think he’s like Kawhi Leonard almost,” said Wirfs, referring to the NBA star known for his bland outward demeanor and competitive fire away from the cameras. “With us he’s all jokes and everything, but when he gets out here (in front of the media), it’s something else.”
Center isn’t a position where coaches want any shuffling. A consistent, steady season would do wonders for 2019 and beyond. With less than three weeks until his first collegiate snap, the Linderbaum renovation project appears right on schedule.
“That’s just who he is,” Jackson said. “He’s just a leader off natural basis.”
Polasek saw that early with Linderbaum, even from the other side. Now, everyone sees it too.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.