Every year, I look at Iowa’s offensive line as a paint by numbers canvas. We know what the final picture looks like, but we never really know how Kirk Ferentz, Brian Ferentz and Tim Polasek will color it in. We’ve seen it year in and year out, and it will come as no surprise to those that are paying any attention that the starters for the Northern Illinois game will more than likely change by the time Iowa takes on Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Or, at the very least, they will be shuffled around. That’s just how this works. That’s football, baby. Despite the summer’s increasing optimism and the coming depth charts — with their glaring “**’s” — it’s important to remember that all of this is fluid.
Iowa will find its best five players and figure out the best way to use them. That’s how it was and how it will always be.
Take the last two seasons as prime examples. In 2016, Iowa used seven total combinations on the offensive line and still came away with the Joe Moore Award for the most outstanding unit in all of college football. In 2017, things looked locked in heading into the season opener against Wyoming with seniors Boone Myers, Sean Welsh and Ike Boettger lining up alongside one of the most talented centers in college football in James Daniels.
The four of them didn’t play one game all together.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is, things happen. Injuries happen. Suspensions happen. Humongous freshman that cannot be held back, happen. Guys jumping to the NFL as juniors happen.
But, having the ability to not fail when all of that is working against you is all part of (gulp) The Hawkeye Process ™ (I’ve only lived in Philadelphia for three months and that phrase is already ingrained in me). Iowa can survive on the line with a Belichick/Thibodeau mentality of “Next Man Up” because they’re so good at identifying, developing and assessing the talent they have at those positions in the first place. There’s a reason why a guy like Keegan Render started 2017 at left guard, moved over to right guard and is now projected to kick one spot over to play center after Daniels jumped to the NFL.
Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
Listen, I understand why some of the national pundits are sleeping on Iowa’s O-line right now. It’s totally reasonable. Iowa wasn’t really the Iowa we’ve come to expect in the trenches last year. They couldn’t open up the holes in the run game consistently and they had a hard time keeping their young quarterback clean (this is where I remind you that Stanley was sacked 25 times) and that was WITH a second-round draft pick AND a dude that had 48 combined starts in Sean Welsh.
It’s fair to say that Iowa probably lost one game (if not two) due to the lack of experience on the line.
Still, I’m holding out hope that El Duo Ferentz and Polasek will turn this ship around. With the stable of young and intriguing pieces, a few program guys and some expert shuffling, Iowa should be playing with a full deck again in 2018.
The Cha Cha Slide
C: Keegan Render (6’4”, 307, Sr.)
After opening up the season at center against Wyoming due to an injury to Daniels, Render became a utility player the rest of 2017; plugging holes in the middle of the boat all season long. Yet, despite solid play at both guard positions, Render seems to be a lock to start 2018 at the center position:
Polasek has been impressed by how quickly Render learned to identify defensive fronts and bark out signals to the line.
“He’s our best vocal leader, and I’m not sure that toward the end of last year that wasn’t the same,” Polasek said of the Indianola native. “It really feels like he can lead best from that center position.”
With 20 career starts, Render is the veteran leader we’ve come to expect on the line; which is why the staff has slotted him in as the starter in the middle. Center is without a doubt, the most important spot in this system. It’s not enough to just be smart, you have to be athletic as hell.
There is some early buzz for redshirt freshman Levi Duwa, but I think the coaching staff will be conservative with him to start. Of course, if an injury happens at either guard position and Duwa is ready, the staff can Cha Cha Slide Render over where many believe he’s at his best anyways.
Either way, the Rimington Trophy nominee is going to help solidify the interior of this line in some shape or form.
The Next BIG Thing
RT: Tristan Wirfs (6’5”, 328, So.)
If Tristan Wirfs wasn’t born to play tackle at Iowa (or guard if you believe in the Mark Kallenberger hype), then it he was born to be a Vince McMahon giant (he was a state heavyweight wrestler in high school). There was and is nothing else he should be doing. The sophomore — who was the first true freshman to ever start at tackle for Ferentz — is a physical freak who now has a season’s worth of in-game experience to go with an entire summer of Chris Doyle’s “Make you Famous” work out plan. Are we in for a breakout season? I know that I’m an eternal optimist, but Wirfs has the look and feel of the next great Iowa lineman.
I mean in all seriousness, how many Iowa lineman can do this?
Right now, I’m slotting Wirfs in as the right tackle only because that’s where he played most of last season, but don’t be surprised if the coaching staff eventually switches him over to the blind side (something they have been experimenting with during camp after Wirfs made the move over for the Pinstripe Bowl).
The Former Hoopster
LT: Alaric Jackson (6’7”, 320, RS So.)
Wirfs is enormous, but he almost looks small when compared to last years Freshman All-American, Alaric Jackson. The former hoopster who talked his mother into letting him play football before his junior year of high school is another athletic, yet still somewhat raw, specimen. Unlike Wirfs, who came into his freshman season a ready made product, Jackson has been a mound of clay that the Iowa coaching staff has spent the last three years molding. With size you can’t teach and a basketball background, Jackson has all of the tools to be another NFL caliber lineman.
Will it all come together this season for the redshirt sophomore? That seems to be the question:
Polasek called Jackson a “pretty level-headed guy,” but wants to see the 6-foot-7, 320-pounder take the next step in his second year as a starter. “I think we got into some situations there that got sticky and he answered the bell. I think he went in there and did a really good job in the run game,” Polasek said of Jackson’s debut. “I really look forward to seeing how dominant of a guy can this guy become. Because he’s athletic enough, the size is there, and now can you maybe add a little bit of nasty toward the end of the play and really be a guy that finishes football plays the proper way?”
Whether or not Jackson answers these questions will determine how good the offensive line will be this season. But, it’s not hard to believe that the ceiling is the roof for these two tackles the next two-to-three years.
The Usual Suspect
LG: Raef Steinbach (6’4”, 295, Sr.)
Steinbach is your prototypical Iowa program guy. He was a 2-star lineman from Le Mars, Iowa with a few offers from the Valley Conference before Kirk Ferentz swooped in and brought him to Iowa City. Upon his arrival, he was given his redshirt as a freshman, went through multiple iterations of the Doyle gauntlet, saw some sporadic time during his third and fourth years on campus, all the while biding his time for the roster to shake out in his favor.
Steinbach is also NOT your prototypical Iowa program guy because he doesn’t exist. But I bet you read that last paragraph while nodding curiously as to why you’ve never heard of him before.
That’s because, while Steinbach isn’t real, the essence of him is. This year, that guy’s name is Ross Reynolds, who really is slotted to be the starting left guard and who really was a 2-star lineman out of Waukee, Iowa who really had a few offers from the Valley Conference.
And just like those that came before him (Boone Myers, Cole Croston), he’ll be asked to become a dependable and experienced member of the interior of the line.
It’s a Cole, Cole World
RG: Cole Banwart (6’4”, 296, RS So.)
I’m not going to lie to you all, this came as a surprise. I had someone else slotted to start the season at right guard and at the eleventh hour (literally, I changed this hours before it was due), I had to change all of that up after Iowa released their preseason depth chart at Big Ten Media Day. From what I’ve gathered on the kid, he’s everything I said about Ross Reynolds above:
Banwart is what you think about when you picture Iowa football – a grounded, country kid built on hard work. He’s what outsiders see all Iowans as when ABC or ESPN comes back from commercial of a Hawkeye game with the obligatory shot of the corn field and combine.
That’s impressive development from a two-star recruit whose only other scholarship offers outside of Iowa were from Northern Iowa and South Dakota State. He’s another diamond in the rough uncovered by Hawkeye assistant Reese Morgan, this time at Algona High.
That’s all fine and well, but can he play consistently on that surgically repaired knee that kept him out of most of the Pinstripe Bowl practices? We’ll soon find out. But Monday’s depth chart is a sign that Banwart is healthy and pointing in the right direction.
One last thing...
The Optical Illusion
Levi/Landan Paulsen (6’5”, 305, Jr.)
Look, I’m not going to pretend I know much about either of the Paulsen “brothers”. What I do know is extremely minimal, like, the coaching staff tends to bring them up when talking about finding ways to stay healthy and that they are twins.
Or are they?
There is a running joke on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver where he, John Oliver, says that he believes that the Olsen Twins are in fact just one person moving very quickly back and forth.
I thought this was an absurd joke that never truly landed. That was, until I saw Levi and Landan Paulsen:
That is the same human. I know it. Look at the beard! It’s the same shade of red and the same exact cut and length. If you folded that picture right down the middle, it would be the carbon copy.
Have you seen their bios on Hawkeye Sports recently?
Look at their height and weights! It’s the exact same. Not a single pound or inch off. And don’t you think for one GD second that I’m buying that Clark Kent horned rimmed glasses bit either.
YOU’RE NOT FOOLING ME!
If I was on the team I’d be livid that this optical illusion has run amok for three years. Not only
are they is he taking up two spots on the depth chart, but they’re he’s also taking up two scholarships. They He better be getting their his doctorate in advanced medicine and hieroglyphics with all of that extra learning.
The media might have you all believe that Levi is in heavy competition with “Landan” for one of the guard positions. But I’m not buying it. This is an elaborate plan set forth by some mad scientist in Moville that is trying to give this science experiment a normal Iowan life.