Iowa football OL coach George Barnett explains in-game rotations: 'It's a bit of a sliding scale'
The Iowa football team's offense has been under an intense microscope during the first four games of this season. There have been questions and concerns at nearly every position, but one in particular has come into greater focus recently: the offensive line.
The room had questions entering this year, mainly how Iowa would replace first-round pick Tyler Lindrebaum at center. Then the Hawkeyes received bad news during the summer when it was announced that veteran guard Justin Britt would miss the season to injury complications and surgery. So far this season, head coach Kirk Ferentz and position coach George Barnett have rotated heavily on the line in search of the best five possible players. After two rough games against South Dakota State and Iowa State, Iowa had a pair of bounce-back performances against Nevada and Rutgers.
Barnett met with reporters via Zoom on Wednesday. On the heels of the Rutgers game, he shared his thoughts on how the group has progressed thus far.
"I think we're starting to see some improvement," Barnett said. "There may be baby steps at times, but for sure heading in the right direction. When we were going through the training-camp phase, they were seeing the same defense every day and and adjusting to that. Now getting into game weeks the challenge has been seeing a different front, a different blitz each week, a different third-down package, and seeing these young kids embrace that process has been encouraging. And the challenges will keep coming."
Iowa's offensive line will face its biggest challenge yet on Saturday when the Hawkeyes host No. 4 Michigan at home (11 a.m. on Fox). The Wolverines defense is the Big Ten's second-highest rated unit (just behind Iowa's) according to Pro Football Focus. Statistically, they're ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense (11 points per game) and eighth in total defense (244 yards per game).
What's the message this week? Barnett said it hasn't changed much from previous weeks.
"Keep improving," Barnett said. "Keep working the way we've been working. Understand how we've made improvement from training camp to now and don't try to change that right now, don't try to change the process of getting better. The last thing you want to do right now is squeeze the bat too tight. You want to stay in the routine, stay in your rhythm."
Barnett touched on several topics during his media session with reporters on Wednesday, primarily where the competition for playing time on the interior of the line stands. Here are three takeaways:
Barnett goes in-depth on guard competition, playing rotations
Most of Iowa's offensive line competition is at both guard positions. Barnett went into detail on Wednesday about what he's looking for at those positions and the process of substituting players in and out of the game.
"What we're looking for is physicality," Barnett said. "I thought last year at the end of the season, that's one thing we wanted to do is increase our physicality as a whole as an offensive line. We've got some competition going, who plays when and where, I think it's a sliding scale. We got a couple of older guys that have a little bit more knowledge base and a little bit more experience and certainly more practice experience. And then we have a couple of young guys that have a high level of physicality, but they have less practice experience and play experience, so each guy has a little bit of a sliding scale through them. "
Within its guard rotation, Iowa has only one player with prior game experience entering 2022: junior Nick DeJong, and that was at tackle. The other three players are experiencing game play for the first time: redshirt freshmen Tyler Elsbury, Gennings Dunker and Beau Stephens. DeJong, who is the most well-rounded in knowledge and practice/game experience, leads guards in total snaps. For the younger players, Barnett is trying to find what he described as the "rep threshold."
The question is simple: What's the max number of reps that each player can handle and still be effective? Over the last two weeks, Stephens has received the second-most reps, with Elsbury third and Dunker fourth. At this point, Elsbury and Stephens are more advanced in knowledge and need work on physicality. Dunker is physically imposing when he's in the game but has had considerably fewer reps since he's been on campus.
"Beau practiced last year, Gennings didn't practice one rep last year," Barnett said. "That's the discussion of the sliding scale. If Gennings keeps getting reps, guess what's probably going to happen. But you also have to check his rep threshold and how many reps can he do and still be effective. Gennings brings a pretty pure physicality to the game, really sharp kid and he's catching up practice-wise, fundamentally."
Barnett also provided clarity on why Elsbury wasn't in the rotation during the first two weeks. Backup center Mike Myslinski was in and out of the lineup, which meant Elsbury served as backup center. There was a large drop-off between Elsbury and the next center behind him, and according to Barnett it was too risky to play him at another position and risk injury and be left exposed if starting center Logan Jones were to be injured, too. Elsbury's 27 snaps against Nevada and 24 snaps against Rutgers likely means Myslinski is healthy again.
Barnett didn't specify how long the rotations would continue but noted that the number of reps each player can handle will naturally increase as they mature and improve. There's not a set plan on rotations for Michigan, just as there isn't for any game. The plan is to feel the game out as it goes.
"There's a little gut feel to it," Barnett said. "If you know the kids and look in their eye on the sideline, you get a pretty good gauge on what they're what they're doing well, what they're not and what they need at that time. I think going into a game and saying 'Hey, this is exactly how we're going to rotate,' I think you can get a little bit in trouble that way. I think you've got to have a general idea and then you have to kind of play it as it goes."
Where does Logan Jones stand after two weeks?
Barnett also shed light on his evaluation of first-year starting center Logan Jones. The parallels to Linderbaum were well-documented and through four games, he's seen his fair share of struggles. But Barnett feels like, given the circumstances, Jones has performed well.
"I've been very impressed how he's handled all the newness, all the first times," Barnett said. "His mistakes that he's made here and there, enjoy them while they last, they're probably going to go away as time goes. What he brings to the table is just a steady work ethic. He's really poised and physical, you saw last Saturday him start to get his timing a little bit and get a little rhythm to his play."
One of Jones' biggest issues has been timing, resulting in misfires along the line. Barnett confirmed those issues are a real thing and offered an explanation. He expects the issue to subside as Jones gets more comfortable.
"I think what happens sometimes the mind is going a little bit faster than the hand," Barnett said. "Thinking a little bit right up to the snap and just a slight hesitation or delay in thought process. At the center position there can be some changing parts in a hurry and you're in charge of guiding everybody and telling them who's going where and how. There's still moments that we teach through and coach through and that's to be expected."
Barnett offers high praise for the sophomore offensive tackles
When Barnett was explaining his sliding scale of players, he noted that there are cases where a younger player's good flashes and trajectory at a position outweigh a veteran at the position. That can be applied to Connor Colby moving to right tackle this season and the coaching staff's commitment to keeping him there. Jack Plumb is still in the mix and will play spot snaps here and there, but Colby is entrenched as the starter.
"I think he's started to smooth out a little bit," Barnett said. "I think he's starting to play a little bit better for sure. The biggest thing with him is maturity. The big thing I've seen with him the last probably three or four weeks is he's practicing better. He's handled himself better on a daily basis. You just see the kid growing up.
"Sometimes we think he's been here four years," Barnett added. "Within our group, he's the leader. And he just, you know, our young guys probably think he's a senior, they probably don't even know like, just the way he carries himself and things like that. So that's been impressive, because he's still a young kid. The more you see of Connor, the better he's gonna get."
On the left side, there's optimism with redshirt sophomore Mason Richman. He's been one of the few constants in the room. He started throughout last season and hasn't moved from his position from the off-season to now. And despite his sophomore eligibility, he entered the season with the most career starts among Iowa's current offensive line group with 12.
The maturity is there, according to Barnett, but as a sophomore there are still mistakes to clean up. Barnett commended Richman's work ethic and foresees growth from him as the season progresses.
"The big thing I continue to want to see is Mason playing with some emotion and play with a little bit more rhythm and feel. He is a perfectionist and he wants to do everything exactly the way you tell him to do it, which I appreciate as a coach, but I think as he grows and matures he's going to continue to play (with) a little bit quicker rhythm and probably a little less thinking."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.