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 ATP2k12:
Today: Offensive Line
In a typical year, there are so many moving parts on the offensive line that it's one of the last positions we address on ATP. So far, 2012 has been anything but typical. While halfback is a smoldering crater of despair and the defensive line is calling a temp service for help, offensive line looks disturbingly stable.
Center: James Ferentz (#53, Senior (RS), 6'2", 285, Iowa City HS)
If it feels like we've known James Ferentz forever, well, we have. We saw him wearing bad 90s plaid when his dad took the job. We watched him play high school football while his older brother was morphing from project to NFL prospect. We clapped with knowing approval the first time he got picked up. We didn't laugh nearly as much the second time. And we watched him, like his brother before him, turn from undersized offensive line project to the bona fide leader of the offensive line. The only difference for James is that he now takes his orders from his dad and his brother.
Over the last two years, he's learned the line calls and interior blocking scheme with veterans around him, especially at tackle. His job this year is much more difficult: Breaking in at least three, and likely four, new underclassmen around him. Ferentz is responsible for 26 of Iowa's 45 returning career offensive line starts; Matt Tobin is second with 10 starts, and he's not even guaranteed to get to 11. This is a Ferentz line in 2012: Ferentz at head coach, Ferentz at offensive line coach, Ferentz as the on-field leader. It's going to make this season extremely interesting.
Left Tackle: Brandon Scherff (#68, Sophomore (RS), 6'5", 310, Denison (IA) HS)
In 2007, with the season on the verge of disaster and the offensive line inexperienced and underperforming, Kirk Ferentz threw caution to the wind and replaced an average-at-best upperclassman with true freshman Bryan Bulaga. He immediately became arguably the best lineman on the team. In 2009, with Bulaga at left tackle, Ferentz moved his backup to left guard to replace an underperforming upperclassman. Riley Reiff again became arguably the team's best offensive lineman, and inherited the left tackle spot from Bulaga a year later. Last year, with former walk-on Matt Tobin struggling at left guard, Ferentz made the move a third time: Enter Brandon Scherff, a massive redshirt freshman inevitably pegged as a tackle. However, where Bulaga and Reiff performed above their experience level when playing guard as freshmen, Scherff struggled mightily, eventually leading to Tobin's return to the starting lineup.
You can understand our concern, then, considering that Scherff is now the only thing standing between the Big Ten's best defensive ends and the backside of our senior quarterback. We take solace in a few things. For one, Scherff is bigger than his two predecessors, and is in many ways a throwback to Robert Gallery's pure size on the left flank. Second, Scherff is the strongest guy on the team, to the point that Chris Doyle is sending OMG SHIRTLESS pictures of him on Twitter. Third, and most importantly, there is a small but growing contingent of the Iowa coaching staff which is completely convinced Scherff will be better than Reiff or Bulaga, that he could indeed be the next Gallery. He has the size and the strength. We'll soon know if he has the rest.
Right Tackle: Brett Van Sloten (#70, Junior (RS), 6'7", 292, Decorah (IA) HS)
In recent history, Iowa has reserved left tackle for technicians, the guys who understand leverage and hand position and footwork, usually former wrestlers like Bulaga and Reiff. Right tackle, on the other hand, has been the province of the big maulers like Kyle Calloway, players who can use their size to block the quarterback's sight-side defensive end (usually the lesser of the two ends) and seal the edge on the zone stretch play. Marcus Zusevics wasn't one of those guys, instead opting to rely on technique to play on the right edge. Van Sloten, the prohibitive favorite to start at right tackle this season, is a return to form, a massive brawler designed for the zone stretch. He participated in all thirteen games last season, including an extended run at right tackle during the Insight Bowl loss to Oklahoma, but has never started. He's going to get his chance, and soon.
The Steno Pool
Matt Tobin (#60, Senior (RS), 6'6", 290, Dyersville Beckman HS (Worthington, IA))
Austin Blythe (#63, Freshman (RS), 6'3", 275, Williamsburg (IA) HS)
Connor Boffeli (#59, Junior (RS), 6'5", 290, Valley HS (West Des Moines, IA))
Nolan MacMillan (#76, Junior (RS), 6'6", 290, The Hun School (New Jersey))
Like most years, the interior positions are a bit of a train wreck, a combination of upperclassman development projects, perpetually injured coach favorites, and The Next Big Thing underclassmen. Iowa's usual preference would be two upperclassmen in the starting roles, at least for the first few weeks. I'm relatively certain that won't be the case in 2012.
Matt Tobin is, somewhat shockingly, the second-most experienced lineman on this team after starting ten games at guard as a junior. The former walk-on certainly has the size for it; he had been the preseason second-string left tackle in both 2010 and 2011, though he never actually started there. Tobin's performance at left guard last season was just good enough to get him temporarily replaced by Scherff, but was actually better than Scherff to the point that he took the job back a couple of weeks later. If nothing materializes, if Bofelli still can't find the lightswitch and Blythe needs more seasoning and MacMillan again can't cross the street without tearing a pectoral muscle, Tobin will keep that spot. There's still a good chance that someone passes him.
My guess would be that person would be Connor Boffeli, the former high school tight end turned guard who just hasn't taken the step forward some had expected. Boffeli is one of the few Valley High prospects Iowa has landed in the past five years -- though he wasn't exactly highly coveted, with his only other offer coming from ISU -- and the expectation has always been that, by this time, he would have the size and coaching to successfully make the conversion inside. He now has the size: He's added 40 pounds over the last three years, and by all accounts it's good weight. It remains to be seen whether the technique is there to match it, but if it is, the position could be his.
Austin Blythe looks like the unstoppable force, destined for right tackle. Blythe checks all the boxes for an Iowa lineman: He's a former champion wrestler, he's got a mean streak, his recruiting credentials are impeccable, he's more or less local, and by all accounts he has worked extremely hard as a freshman. At 6'3" and 275 lbs., he's the smallest of the options at guard, making him a natural fit next to either of the Hawkeyes' gargantuan tackles, but his lack of seasoning could well mean that he gets paired with the more experienced of those tackles, Van Sloten. Obviously, Iowa would rather use someone with a bit more in-game experience, but that's not going to stop them from using a guy they love. Blythe is a guy they love.
This is the annual section where we say that Nolan MacMillan has the eye of the coaching staff, that he's destined to take at least a guard spot if not the right tackle position, if only he can stay healthy. That all might be true. After all, it was MacMillan who improbably started six games at guard in 2010 despite missing most of spring and summer workouts with injuries. Of course, it was only six games because he was again injured, and 2011 was missed due to another injury. The coaches love his technique and footwork, and he's spent the injury time building himself into tackle-ish size. If he can stay healthy, he'll play. That's far from certain, though. He enters August camp as the backup tackle, but certainly has as good a chance of playing guard as anyone in the guard depth chart.
While You Wait for the Others
Andrew Donnal (#78, Sophomore (RS), 6'7", 302, Anthony Wayne HS (Monclova, OH))
Donnal was a real coup for Iowa's 2010 recruiting class, a universal four-star offensive tackle out of Ohio with U.S. Army All-America credentials and an offer list including Wisconsin, Michigan, Stanford, South Carolina, and most of the rest of the Big Ten. Three years later, he's listed behind classmate Brandon Scherff at left tackle and most of his other classmates in other spots on the line. The knock on Donnal out of high school was his lack of technique, easy to imagine for a guy who was 285 lbs. as a high school senior. Word is that the size is clearly there, but the technique hasn't matched the physical development. Could be a guy who responds well to a new coach and challenges for the open spots on the line (though probably not left tackle). Could also be a transfer candidate.
Jordan Walsh (#65, Freshman (RS), 6'4", 270, Glenbard West HS (Glendale Heights, IL))
Walsh will almost certainly take a spot near Blythe in the interior line, possibly in 2013. He was the only universal four-star offensive line recruit in the Class of 2011, with Scout actually rating him the #2 guard prospect in the country. He's the anti-Donnal: His technique is exceptional for a player of his age, but all you need to know about Walsh's physical readiness is evident in the fact that he actually lost five pounds in his redshirt year. Expect him to be up to 285-290 lbs. next fall and in contention for a starting spot. For now, though, it's backing up the guards at best.
Drew Clark (#50, Junior (RS), 6'4", 288, Marion (IA) HS)
Clark is currently listed as Tobin's backup at left guard, but he's fifth in line for an interior line position at best. He's sort of a garage sale find: Clark was a camp offer whose only other offer came from ISU (with some interest from Kansas and OMHR), but he has remarkably little experience for a redshirt junior and doesn't look particularly likely to gain any with the logjam at guard this year.
Tommy Gaul (#57, Sophomore (RS), 6'3", 265, Dowling Catholic HS (West Des Moines, IA))
The former walk-on enters August camp improbably listed as the backup center, which means a couple of things: He's impressed coaches enough to entrust him with making line reads and snapping the ball in a shotgun-heavy offense, and there's probably someone else working on snaps as we speak. It's a good story, and far be it from me to disparage a walk-on who's done well, but I would guess the handful of guards listed above will eventually yield a center ready to take the torch from James Ferentz in 2013.
Ryan Ward (#73, Freshman, 6'5", 275, Providence Catholic HS (New Lenox, IL))
Sure, he was an Army All-American with an offer sheet to match, but look at every one of the players above and count how many avoided a redshirt. Expect the same for Ward, an eventual tackle but a current weightroom inhabitant.