Assume the Position 2013: Offensive Line

Jonathan Daniel

As Iowa opens fall camp, could there really be a sign of hope?

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.

Previously on Assume the Position 2013:

1. Tight End
2. Linebacker
3. Running Back
4. Defensive Tackle
5.
Cornerback

Today: Offensive line

Iowa high school football doesn't generate a ton of skill position talent. In most seasons, the state is lucky to graduate more than two skill players capable of contributing at the FBS level. The same goes for secondary talent. Even finding players capable of playing in the defensive front seven often requires Iowa to leave its friendly in-state confines.

What Iowa produces, more than anything else, are linemen. Big, brute beast linemen, who spend a year in the weight room before they see the field, then slowly work their way through the Iowa system and into the lineup. Offensive line play is in Iowa's DNA, a trait more prevalent than any other.

At the start of the 2012 season, the offensive line was the first in the Ferentz era to hail entirely from Iowa. That quirk was eventually scrubbed out, due to injuries and ineffectiveness and positional movement, but the fact remains that offensive line is the most Iowan of Iowa's position groups, a trait that remains in 2013.

The Bookends

Left Tackle: Brandon Scherff (#68, Junior (RS), 6'5, 315 lbs., Denison (IA) HS)
Right Tackle: Brett Van Sloten (#70, Senior (RS), 6'7 300 lbs., Decorah (IA) HS)

As Jacobi documented last week, injuries across the line -- and to Scherff in particular -- decimated Iowa's running game last season. Kirk Ferentz was previously asked about the effect of injuries on last year's offensive line, and how his players have responded to criticism of their play:

We're not saying there's some places maybe where you can get by with injuries, but I've got 18 years now here and it just doesn't work that way. When you lose some key players, it's going to affect you. And we could have screamed and hollered all we wanted, and we did a little bit, but, I mean, you know, players know what's going on. It's just you got to be intelligent about what you are doing. You ask your players to do their best.

So, you know, they've been kicked around a little bit. And, believe me, they take great pride in their performance and I think we'll see a much more cohesive, you know, better-executing group up there. That's just common sense. And because they've worked hard. We're not there yet. We certainly didn't see it out there the last spring scrimmage. Think of a couple plays there that were kind of ugly. By the end of camp, I think we'll be ready to go.

So, clearly the line is a work in progress that will need some extra -- wait a second. We made a mistake, because that Ferentz quote was from 2008, and the line that looked so ugly as first-time starters the previous season, a line that was bookended by future pros Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, was the blunt object clearing the way for Shonn Greene's 2008 tour de force.

If we're giddy about anything for the 2013 season, it's the offensive line in general and these two tackles in particular. Scherff might not have the technical ability of Bulaga or Reiff yet, but he's clearly got the strength and mentality of Gallery. He lost half a season to a broken leg, and he's spent more time than he wants in the weight room, and he is one pissed off sonofabitch.

Van Sloten is a return to the right tackles of yesteryear: Tall and wide, with solid technique and enough mass to blow up defensive ends and outside linebackers in the run game. And where Scherff is relatively inexperienced -- three starts at left guard as a freshman, seven starts before the injury last season -- Van Sloten was a fixture on Iowa's special teams unit for two seasons before making all 12 starts at right tackle in 2012.

If Iowa is to return to form in 2013, it will begin with the zone running game and pocket protection for an inexperienced quarterback. Scherff and Van Sloten are the keys to that, and we could certainly do worse.

The Successor

Center: Austin Blythe (#63, Sophomore (RS), 6'3, 300 lbs., Williamsburg (IA) HS)

Blythe had an interesting first season as a nominal starter. For one, he ascended the August depth chart despite being just a redshirt freshman, earning plaudits from the coaching staff for his hard-nosed blocking and beating out seasoned upperclassmen for a starting guard spot between Van Sloten and James Ferentz. He made nine starts in all at right guard, but those starts were of two different varieties. His first four starts -- the first four games of Iowa's season -- were meritorious. But when Blythe went down with an injury before the start of Big Ten play, backup tackle Andrew Donnal took his place, and the running game came alive. As the Hawkeyes sat at 2-0 in the conference, with Mark Weisman keying what little production the offense could muster, Donnal had firmly supplanted the freshman, injury or no. Donnal then tore his ACL against Penn State, and Blythe reassumed his place on the depth chart with ackluster results. Iowa's running game never got back on track, and the Hawkeyes limped to the finish line.

He's always been rumored for the center spot, and now Blythe presumably will move into the position vacated by the graduating Ferentz. It remains to be seen whether he can administer the offensive line in the same way that Ferentz (and, before him, Raf Eubanks and Rob Bruggeman) did. But the staff clearly has faith in him, and offensive linemen typically make a big jump in Year 3. Iowa definitely needs that leap out of Blythe.

The Ministry of the Interior

Left Guard: Conor Boffeli (#59, Senior (RS), 6'5, 295 lbs., Valley HS (West Des Moines, IA))
Right Guard: Andrew Donnal (#78, Junior (RS), 6'7, 305 lbs., Anthony Wayne HS (Monclova, OH))

Boffeli and Donnal have each run their own paths to the top of the depth chart. Whether they stay there through 2013 is anyone's guess.

Conor Boffeli is a rarity at Iowa: A recruit from Valley High, the state's largest high school and one of its most successful football programs. Iowa has traditionally struck out in the Des Moines suburbs, but Ferentz was able to land Boffeli as a project. Originally a tight end, he's been a two-deep fixture for two seasons at center but only made his breakthrough late in 2012, when injuries on the interior line forced him into the lineup. Normally, I would be skeptical of a fifth-year senior with only three starts to his name, but Iowa turned Matt Tobin from a turnstile to arguably the team's best lineman in the course of 12 months. Taking a 6'5, 250-lb. high school tight end and building him into a Big Ten lineman looks easy compared to that.

Where Boffeli was largely overlooked outside the state, Donnal was pursued by everyone. He was widely considered one of the top 25 offensive tackle prospects in the nation when he chose Iowa over offers from Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Stanford, and about 15 other programs in February 2010. He redshirted, and by the time he joined the active squad, he'd been passed by Scherff and Van Sloten.

Donnal played sparingly in 2011, and entered 2012 as an all-purpose second-string tackle. Opportunity did not arise on the end of the line, though. Rather, Blythe's injury against Minnesota opened a spot at right guard, and Donnal finally found his niche. He was effective against Minnesota and downright excellent against Michigan State, before an injury in the Penn State game prematurely ended his season.

Donnal could be in line for Van Sloten's spot on the right side in 2014, but if that is going to happen, he'll have to return to form at guard this year. As for Boffeli, Ferentz's affinity for seniors only goes so far, and a group of talented guards behind him will be pushing him every day from now until November. They both get the starting jobs at the beginning, but their future on the interior line is wholly up to them.

While You Wait for the Others

Ryan Ward (#73, Freshman (RS), 6'5, 290 lbs., Providence Catholic HS (Homer Glen, IL))

Here's where Boffeli and Donnal could find some competition: Ryan Ward, the 2012 top 20 offensive line prospect from the Chicago suburbs. Ward picked the Hawkeyes over offers from Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois, and a grab bag of the Big East, Big Ten, and SEC. The Bulaga parallels only begin there. He was an U.S. Army All-American and four-star prospect, and the plaudits started coming from the staff from almost the minute he stepped on campus.

Iowa didn't use him last year, though Ferentz & Co. probably could have used the help. There's not much chance he goes through 2013 on the bench, though. His height and size lends itself to left tackle eventually, and Iowa left tackles usually break through on the interior line within two years. That means Ward's coming, and right quick.

Jordan Walsh (#65, Sophomore (RS), 6'4, 290 lbs., Glenbard West HS (Glendale Heights, IL))

Of course, there's also Jordan Walsh, who looks like a prototype interior lineman and managed to win the starting spot with the first team for the spring game. He got decimated by Carl Davis, though, and needs to show some improvement if he's going to get into the mix. His blue blood offer sheet (Michigan, USC, Nebraska, Wisconsin, etc.) and Rivals rating (No. 10 national offensive guard; No. 3 player in Illinois) suggest he'll make it eventually. It's just that Iowa needs eventually to get here now.

Nolan MacMillan (#76, Senior (RS), 6'6, 295 lbs., The Hun School (New Jersey)/Toronto, Ontario)

We've reached the end of the line for The Other MacMillan, the ninth overall pick in this year's CFL Draft and a perennial candidate for every available line spot. MacMillan made his first start at Iowa against Eastern Illinois in 2010, despite missing much of spring practice due to injury. MacMillan started the first six games of the season before being knocked out with an injury. He missed the entire 2011 season with another injury. Last year, he made one start (against Indiana) despite two serious injuries to offensive line starters...and promptly left with an injury. He's got some versatility -- he's played every offensive line position other than center -- and the coaches like his technique, but there's basically no chance he stays healthy long enough to compete with any of the presumptive starters.

Eric Simmons (#58, Sophomore (RS), 6'2, 295 lbs., Madrid (IA) HS/Iowa Western C.C.)

Simmons is an interesting prospect: Despite being named first team all-state three times, he went completely ignored by pretty much everyone and landed at Iowa Western. One season at the junior college raised interest from a handful of FCS programs and, eventually, Iowa. Simmons redshirted last season and dropped about 10 pounds during the transformation. He played center at IWCC and is listed as a center here, which puts him perpetually behind Blythe, but Iowa's shown the ability to shuffle the interior line to play the best three players. One of these guys can move to guard if they both break through.

Mitch Keppy (#74, Freshman (RS), 6'5, 295 lbs., Riverdale HS (Port Byron, IL))

Keppy was one of Iowa's first commitments of the Class of 2012 -- his dad is a former Hawkeye, and Iowa beat everyone to the punch on an offer to the two-sport star -- and the massive future right tackle has already moved into the depth chart. He'll back up Van Sloten this year, and his place in 2014 largely depends on where Donnal goes, but he'll anchor the right side of the line eventually.

Cole Croston (#64, Freshman (RS), 6'5, 250 lbs., Sergeant Bluff-Luton (IA) HS)

Croston, a walk-on from northwest Iowa, found his way into the spring depth chart in April as the co-second string right tackle. But with Keppy waiting for a chance and Andrew Donnal potentially eyeing that spot for 2014, the 250-lb. Croston should not be a factor this season. There's nothing wrong with a promising walk-on, especially on the line, but if Croston is still 250, he's not physically ready to contribute.

Tommy Gaul (#57, Junior (RS), 6'3, 275 lbs., Dowling Catholic HS (Des Moines, IA))

Gaul, a walk-on center, played in garbage time against Tennessee Tech two years ago. He hasn't seen the field since, and with Simmons and Blythe ahead of him, chances of that changing are slim. He did leave spring practice tied with Simmons on the depth chart, so I guess there's that.

Casey Kreiter (#61, Senior (RS), 6'3, 250 lbs., Central HS (DeWitt, IA))

Kreiter enters his third season as Iowa's starting long snapper, and has been pretty much flawless in the role. He contributes beyond just snapping, recording eight tackles over the last two seasons on punt coverage and acting as a member of the leadership council for the last three seasons. He's everything you want from a player, and he's completely unheralded, and this is his final season. So well done, Casey Kreiter.

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