Why Mason Richman's switch from defensive line to offensive line is paying off for Iowa football
IOWA CITY — Mason Richman officially arrived in Iowa City some 20 months ago, knowing his football future was at a position he hadn't dabbled with since middle school.
"Since like seventh grade or something like that," Richman said. "You've got to start from square one right when you get here."
Well, Mason, you've come to the right place.
Two games into his second season as a rising left tackle, Richman appears to be on the productive track several Hawkeyes have taken before him. Iowa has had more drastic position shifts over the years than the Richman route of a prep-defensive-lineman-turned-Big-Ten-offensive-lineman. But the Hawkeyes' continued ability to successfully mold up-front pieces is among the many reasons why No. 7 Iowa (2-0) has two ranked wins entering Saturday's matchup versus Kent State (1-1).
"Just the confidence I have in (head coach Kirk) Ferentz and what he's done here the past 23 years now, helping guys get to where they want to be — offensive linemen especially — I'm truly grateful for," Richman said Tuesday in his weekday media debut. "I'm happy to take advantage of every opportunity I've gotten."
Now, it wasn't like this position change surprised Richman.
Iowa recruited the Kansas City-suburb product as an offensive lineman all the way and signed him as such in the 2020 class, even as other schools kept taking defensive looks. Offers from Air Force, Kansas, multiple FCS programs and six MAC schools — one of them being Saturday's opponent — couldn't compete with Iowa's offensive-line track record. Richman committed during a big recruiting weekend in June 2019.
After a senior season at Blue Valley High School that included 12 tackles for loss in nine games, first-team all state honors and being named a finalist for Class 6A defensive player of the year, Richman emphatically closed this pass-rushing chapter of his football life. He'd soon become responsible for shutting down his old spot.
That move was followed by another smart one. Richman enrolled early for the 2020 spring semester, giving him a jumpstart on this position transition even as COVID-19 wiped out a lot of that developmental period. That decision, Richman says, is paying off immensely in the present.
"Enrolling early was one of the better decisions I made in my life," Richman said. "I learned so much and got introduced to the guys, and that helped propel me to the player I am today. Also got used to the coaching staff and the routine. That was another big thing, getting into a routine that I actually like and enjoyed. That helped me get better each day."
Richman then withstood 2020's whirlwind fall as the offensive line knowledge increased and athleticism shined in a 6-foot-6 frame pushing 300 pounds. Richman saw brief action in wins over Michigan State, Minnesota and Nebraska, setting him up for a big leap this season. Three of Iowa's starting linemen in the 2020 finale against Wisconsin aren't on the 2021 roster. Opportunity to pounce had emerged for Richman and others.
Before becoming a starter, Richman first had to battle through a fall camp focused on figuring out the fronts. Inexperience peppered both lines aside from a few key veterans like Tyler Linderbaum and Zach VanValkenburg. The former offered a routine and approach worth mimicking. The latter taught a lesson on adversity another way.
"One thing about Mason — and this is important for every player — goes back to camp," Ferentz recalled Tuesday. "VanValkenberg really worked him — I think it was on a Monday — maybe the second week or whatever. The next day Mason came back, he stood right up to it, and did a really nice job. He had some scar tissue, but he didn't carry it with him.
"That's what you're looking for in players, a guy to come back and take the challenge and try to learn from what might have gone wrong. That's kind of how he's wired, does a lot of really good things out there. He's coming along."
That response previewed what Ferentz is watching now. Although Iowa's offense hasn't generated much love during this 2-0 opening, the Hawkeyes' offensive line could've been significantly more problematic. If Iowa has earned the benefit of the doubt on anything, it's projecting offensive line growth and cohesion over the course of a season.
Richman could easily headline that progression.
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"Mason works extremely hard, and that starts in the film room," said tight end Luke Lachey, another 2020 prospect who first knew Richman as that transitional lineman. "He came in playing defensive line in high school, and I've been really impressed with the transition to (offensive) tackle. He knows what he's doing. Tyler Linderbaum helps him out a lot, and so Mason has really progressed a lot. I'm proud of him."
At Iowa, the standard for position shifts are lofty, especially at offensive line. The Hawkeyes turned Robert Gallery's prep career at tight end and linebacker into back-to-back first-team all-Big Ten seasons at tackle. Brandon Scherff morphed from high school quarterback to first-round NFL guard. Two jumps over from Richman's left tackle spot is a former prep defensive lineman readying for a big professional paycheck at center.
Richman is a ways away from joining that star-studded list, but it's clear why he put the faith in Iowa to get him Big Ten-ready at a position he rarely played prior. That symbiotic relationship is blossoming sooner than many forecasted.
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.