Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.
Today: Offensive Line
This is the highest offensive line has ever placed in ATP. Usually, due to sheer number of players available for five spots, the offensive line falls into the final two or three spots. But it's a strange year, both in the offensive line and in the depth chart in general. It's probably a good thing; after all, the best Iowa teams have been built on experienced players at the point of attack.
The Great One, Volume Four
Left Tackle: Riley Reiff (#77, Junior (RS), 6'6", 300, Parkston (SD) HS)
It's getting to be that time for the recruiting class of 2008. The attrition is largely over (and, Lord, has there been attrition; only 14 of 25 signees are still here). Some, like Vandenberg, Castillo, Herman, Gimm, Swanson, and Bigach, are on the verge of getting their chance. Some, like BHGP favorite Casey McMillan and Joe Gaglione, are three years in and still nowhere to be found. And then there are two, Shaun Prater and Riley Reiff, who have so established themselves as part of the squad that they feel like veterans.
Reiff came to Iowa as a defensive end, shirking an early verbal commitment to Nebraska when Callahan was given his walking papers. He was in trouble before his first practice had even begun, getting picked up for running naked through downtown. We all shook our heads; while Reiff was not the first, and would not be the last, player to get in early trouble, the track record for such players was not good. Yet his response was silence. We heard nothing about Reiff during his redshirt season; we didn't even know of his position change until the next spring.
We knew the next fall. After a disastrous performance by the line in the season opening nailbiter against UNI, Ferentz installed Reiff at left tackle in place of the injured Bryan Bulaga. Reiff, who had never played a snap before that day, was surprisingly competent. Over the course of the 2009 season, "surprisingly competent" became "stalwart of the offensive line" as Reiff started at left tackle, left guard, and right tackle. He was arguably the best lineman on a team with a first-round NFL draft pick and two (probably soon-to-be three) other eventual professionals. When Bulaga bolted early for the NFL, Reiff's position on the left was written in pen at the top of the depth chart, where he will stay until he leaves for the NFL at the end of this season.
Reiff's first year as a full-time starter at left tackle was a bit of a mixed bag. For the most part, Reiff handled himself capably, and he was named second team all-conference when it was all said and done. But Reiff struggled with the best of the conference, in particular J.J. Watt. There remains room for improvement here; whether it comes this season at Iowa or next in the pros remains to be seen.
The Mad Russian
Right Tackle: Markus Zusevics (#56, Senior (RS), 6'5", 300, Prospect HS (Arlington Heights, IL))
Zusevics performed admirably in his first year as a starter, taking the right tackle spot for all thirteen games. He played every meaningful down of 2010 without injury or incident. His footwork was clumsy at times, and he didn't exhibit the same sort of agility as Reiff (or as Kyle Calloway the year before, for that matter), but he also rarely gave up the right flank without a fight or whiffed on his zone blocking assignments in the run game. He's not the kind of gargantuan bookend we're used to seeing on the right and, for that fact alone, he might not be any more than an NFL free agent. But regardless of where he goes after this season, he's back on the right this year; barring the unfortunate, nobody else will take that spot. I have absolutely nothing more to say here.
Center: James Ferentz (#53, Junior (RS), 6'2", 275, Iowa City HS)
It's been an eventful few years for James Ferentz. First, he got picked up a couple of times for doing dumb stuff with his buddies during his redshirt season, stuff we'll not prey upon here. He spent the next year making up for it, barely seeing the field (one brief appearance late in the blowout of Iowa State), and looked to be at least two years from a starting position, both physically and mentally.
And then spring practice broke last April with Ferentz listed next to Josh Koeppel at center. And then Koeppel got smashed by a truck while riding a moped, and Ferentz was the starting center for the season opening win over Eastern Illinois almost by default. He never gave it up, starting all thirteen games and doing all the typical Iowa center stuff: Calling out blocking assignments and handling second-level zone moves with aplomb. He's got two more years and no real competition (unlike Bruggeman and Eubanks in years prior), and should only improve from here.
The Melting Pot
Adam Gettis (#73, Senior (RS), 6'4", 280, Lincoln Way East HS (Frankfort, IL))
Nolan MacMillan (#76, Sophomore (RS), 6'6", 290, The Hun School (New Jersey))
Brandon Scherff (#68, Freshman (RS), 6'5", 315, Denison (IA) HS)
This is where we're supposed to say that this spot is for Adam Gettis until notified otherwise, that an upperclassman is going to get the benefit of the doubt over a sophomore with Kirk Ferentz and Reese Morgan, that Gettis has always been on the verge of landing the guard position and finally has a clear path. The problem is that we wrote the same damn thing last year and the year before. In 2008, Gettis entered and exited August camp as a starter and lost his spot after one game. In 2009, he again won the starting position in fall camp, but missed the first two games with injuries, only started two games, and wasn't particularly impressive in his limited time on the field. By the end of the season, he was buried behind a backup center and a redshirt freshman. Now we're supposed to believe Gettis is going to start as a senior. Fool me once, etc.
Our guess is that Gettis will eventually lose his position to Brandon Scherff, who looks like he might follow the Reiff/Bulaga route to the left tackle spot in 2012. A universal three-star recruit who chose Iowa over offers from the entire Big XII North who added forty pounds over his redshirt season, Scherff is now a mountain (especially when compared to the somewhat undersized Gettis). He has drawn accolades from the coaching staff from the moment he arrived on campus. With that size, he's inevitably moving to a tackle spot (my guess is left, especially if Reiff leaves early), but the old Ferentz tactic of getting a tackle some real-time experience at guard looks like the eventual play here.
Of course, there's the wild card, sophomore Nolan MacMillan. When healthy, MacMillan looks like a guaranteed starter. Despite being undersized, he nearly avoided a redshirt and saw practice time at tackle in his first month on campus. He was injured and eventually redshirted. Last year, he won a starting spot in August and actually started the first six games of the season. He was injured and missed the rest of the year. He left spring practice this April as the prohibitive starter at left guard. If he survives, he'll have every chance to hold that job, and he'll be good at it. It's just that the chances he makes it unscathed seem less likely every season.
While You Wait for the Others
Woody Orne (#72, Senior (RS), 6'5", 295, Fairfield (IA) HS/South Dakota St.)
There's a delicate process of immersion that generates Iowa linemen. The great ones start showing signs of life after a redshirt season spent developing strength and technique. The good ones take a bit longer. There have been some who did it faster, guys like Bulaga and Marshall Yanda. But the fact is a transfer lineman needs to have the strength and experience necessary to make up for the reduced amount of time in the Iowa linemen ecosystem. Woody Orne is, by all accounts, the strongest guy on the team and one of the strongest ever. However, the buzz over that pure strength is now gone, and the question marks remain. Orne's a good story -- overlooked by even the Iowa guys who find guys like him every year despite growing up in their backyard, spent a year at a small school where he dominated, then transferred back into the school where he always wanted to play -- but it might not have the happiest of endings.
Brett Van Sloten (#70, Sophomore (RS), 6'6", 290, Decorah (IA) HS)
Van Sloten, the next in a long line of two-star projects discovered by Ferentz & Co., might be ahead of schedule. He'd won the second-team right tackle job by spring of his second season and played sparingly in the first two games of the year, with consistent special teams duty throughout. He hasn't had any injury issues yet, and he's got the size to play any position right now. He's a longshot at guard and a potential backup should something happen to Zusevics, and he has to be the odds-on favorite for right tackle in 2012.
Andrew Donnall (#78, Freshman (RS), 6'7", 285, Anthony Wayne HS (Monclovia, OH))
He's a universal four-star U.S. Army All-American who turned down offers from everyone not named Ohio State. He's six-foot-seven and is probably 300 pounds by now. He dutifully served his redshirt season without incident. And he's not on the depth chart while Scherff is in contention for a starting position. Please please please oh God please don't let this be Dan Doering again.
Matt Tobin (#60, Junior (RS), 6'6", 285, Dyersville Beckman HS (Worthington, IA))
On the other hand, a walk-on from small-school Iowa that hadn't been mentioned in four years is now in the two-deep at left tackle for the second consecutive season. He probably won't move beyond that point; guys like Scherff and Donnall are there if Reiff leaves early, and Tobin is one of those classic Iowa depth chart filler guys, a program guy who could be a capable fill-in in a bind.
Conor Boffeli (#59, Sophomore (RS), 6'5", 285, Valley HS (West Des Moines, IA))
Boffeli -- One N, two F's, one L for those of you scoring at home -- is currently listed as James Ferentz's backup at center, a position that would place him in the starting lineup in his senior season (because, let's face it, James Ferentz isn't getting demoted). Of course, Josh Koeppel showed us that a backup center can make his way into a starting guard spot with a bit of hard work (remember, the assignments are similar), and Boffeli is certainly big enough for consideration at those other spots. It's not likely this season with the logjam on the interior line, but down the line he could feature at any number of spots.
Casey McMillan (#66, Junior (RS), 6'4", 305, Central Catholic HS (Billings, MT))
There were some signs of life from Big Montana this spring -- he got some mentions from the coaches, at least -- but it's still extremely unlikely that the patron saint of BHGP sees the field in the foreseeable future. At least from the looks of the pictures from the Women's Football Academy this summer, he looks like he's physically ready to play. Go get 'em, Big Grizz.