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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows his team leads the nation with fewest turnovers (1) through four games. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — As an ominous vibe engulfed Kinnick Stadium following Alaric Jackson’s locker-room hobble, it would’ve been easy to sound the injury alarm. Even a program that breeds offensive linemen like Iowa does could’ve shuddered at losing such a valuable piece this early.

Not so fast.

What’s unfolded up front the last four games cements credibility with the next-man-in cliché. One Hawkeye behemoth after another comes shuffling through the revolving door, yet Iowa hasn’t felt a significant dropoff. The running game is flourishing, and quarterback Nate Stanley isn’t eating turf. Even with additional absences sprinkled in, Iowa’s makeshift offensive line has adapted.

And here come the reinforcements.

Jackson (knee sprain) is set to return Saturday in some capacity when the No. 14 Hawkeyes (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) travel north to No. 18 Michigan (3-1, 1-1) for a massive conference showdown. It almost feels like a free-agent acquisition with how well Iowa’s up-front unit has sidestepped the adversity.

“Any time you can survive injuries to starters and guys can go in and play — and hopefully not just get by but play well — that's a positive, certainly, because that's how you build depth,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “There's no better way than game competition. You can't substitute that.

“… Getting AJ back will certainly help us. And hopefully, we'll be a more diversified group now. We've seen a lot of improvement and growth.”

Jackson will re-enter the starting lineup at some point — potentially Saturday, if he finishes out Michigan prep with a quality practice week. Ferentz left the determination up for discussion when asked what Jackson’s immediate impact will be. At least to start, it could be a partial workload.

There’s no need to rush a full-fledged comeback, given how Iowa’s offensive line has performed since Jackson limped off during the season’s second series. Make no mistake: The Hawkeyes’ burly left tackle is an established voice who wields potency with every crushing block. Iowa needs him at full strength if it wants to reach 2019’s hefty goals. But there hasn’t been an obvious empty feeling in the trenches with Jackson sidelined.

Credit those who’ve slid in for that.

“They’ve done a tremendous job,” Stanley said. “You can’t be much happier with how they’ve done. They’ve responded to every situation that’s been thrown at them and have handled it extremely well. So, really happy with how those guys have played and prepared. And we’re looking for those things in the future, as well.

“Just because we might get one or two guys back doesn’t mean that type of preparation or mentality they had in those first four games is going to change.”

Masking the Jackson absence has been a collective effort — one that’s seen almost every offensive lineman reach outside his comfort zone.

For all of Tristan Wirfs’ hype and reliability, he entered his junior year with just one career start at left tackle. He’s added three with Jackson hurt. Levi Paulsen spent a bulk of fall camp with right-guard responsibilities, only to shift to right tackle less than a half in. Walk-on Kyler Schott got his first cracks at right guard before a foot injury shelved him. But in comes Cole Banwart off the injured list for a seamless transition.

Even the two offensive line starters who haven’t moved — center Tyler Linderbaum and left guard Landan Paulsen — are making their first runs as depth-chart headliners. Secondary pieces Mark Kallenberger, Cody Ince and Justin Britt have also added experience to their fledgling plates.

Aside from the tension-free blowout moments against Miami (Ohio), Rutgers and Middle Tennessee State, it’s hard to envision that much opportunity emerging for guys to showcase their versatility had Jackson stayed healthy.

With Iowa’s offensive output remaining strong, consider that a pivotal positive from a situation that seemed to offer none. There should be confidence in the cavalry, should Iowa need to dig deeper into its o-line bag again.

“Everybody’s just been jelling really well. Young guys have been stepping up. Everybody’s just been pushing and pushing each other to get better each day,” Banwart said. "We’ve just been working hard since camp. Everybody’s just been pushing forward so we have the opportunity when someone does go down, the next man in is just as ready as the guy who goes out. We’ve been fortunate that everyone has played very well.”

As a result, Jackson’s return should feel more uplifting than desperate. He’ll slide in permanently when he’s ready, alongside guys who’ve conquered a challenge numerous teams couldn’t complete.

No need to ring the alarm.

“The whole trick is surviving it,” Ferentz said, “and I think the offensive line has done a pretty good job of managing the bumps through the first four weeks.”

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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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