In wake of Alaric Jackson's injury, Iowa's offensive line produces despite shuffling
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As much as coaches work on building contingency plans throughout practice and fall camp, the Hawkeyes certainly didn’t expect to use this one this early Saturday night.
Yet, there Alaric Jackson was, crumpled on the Kinnick Stadium turf just minutes into No. 19 Iowa’s 38-14 season-opening win over Miami (Ohio). The Hawkeyes’ prized left tackle was sidelined with a knee injury with the year barely off the ground.
Jackson’s night ended there. His availability moving forward remains in question. Head coach Kirk Ferentz didn’t have a concrete answer postgame, saying he’d know more when he next meets with the media on Tuesday.
“We don't know right now what the extent of it is,” Ferentz said. “No sense mourning right now or worrying about it.
Until then, give the rest of Iowa’s offensive line massive credit for adjusting on the fly. The ground game and pass protection didn’t miss a beat, even with reserves shuffling in much sooner than anticipated.
Sophomore Kyler Schott was the immediate replacement. He entered at guard, which shifted Levi Paulsen to right tackle and Tristan Wirfs to left tackle. More reinforcements came later in the form of redshirt freshman Cody Ince, sophomore Mark Kallenberger and true freshman Justin Britt. Ferentz said he planned to play numerous offensive linemen — but this wasn’t a case of garbage-time action.
Iowa needed its up-front reserves now.
“You’ve just got to know that you have a job to do,” Wirfs said. “Injuries are a part of the game. We’ve just got to keep trucking along. Everyone cares about (Jackson), and we wish him the best. But I think he would say the same thing if anyone else went down.”
Jackson’s injury only accentuated how impressive Iowa’s ground-game showing was. The Hawkeyes, which struggled mightily at times to established rushing consistency in 2018, averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 41 attempts. Mekhi Sargent (14 carries, 91 yards and a touchdown) was the reliable bell cow. Toren Young was a nice change of pace and slammed the door shut with his fourth-quarter touchdown. Even freshman Tyler Goodson had a solid college debut late.
Much of the production came with up-front inexperience in the game. And even the more established pieces around Jackson weren’t loaded with high-end moments.
The Paulsen brothers, who started at both guard positions, had been reserves for much of their careers. Saturday marked Tyler Linderbaum’s first game at center as well. Even Wirfs — Iowa’s rock and likely future first-round draft pick — had to deal with sudden change, flipping sides once Jackson exited.
Things flowed well, all things considered.
"I mentioned Tristan going left. He hasn't done a lot of that in practice. He does some. So that was a big part," Ferentz said. “Then Levi and Kallenberger was in there, too. We rotated guys around a little bit and played a lot of guys inside.
“Britt played, Ince played. That's the first time they've ever played. Both Paulsens were in there. And (Kyler Schott) was in there getting some reps. And then the guy — we forget he's a first-game player, actually — is Linderbaum. But he played pretty good in there too. Some young faces, but I thought overall those guys played well.”
Still, losing Jackson for any significant time would be a catastrophic result. The injury’s severity fluctuated based on his in-game actions.
After gingerly jogging off under his own power, Jackson moved to the stationary bike and seemed primed to re-enter. But trainers laid him down by the bench and removed his helmet. One drive after another passed with no Jackson in sight. He finally was given crutches and hobbled to the locker room shortly before halftime.
Jackson wasn’t in uniform for the second half. Both Wirfs and Ferentz said they talked to Jackson postgame, reporting he was in good spirits. But Jackson’s lack of mobility heading to the locker room cast an ominous cloud.
Time will tell the ultimate outcome. Iowa at least can draw some silver linings from the way those next in line played.
“Everybody was ready to play,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. "(Offensive line) coach (Tim) Polasek does a great job of getting every single offensive linemen ready to play, no matter how old they are. It just goes back to the preparation that all those guys put in.”
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.