Months ago, we started our march toward a 2020 Iowa football season by previewing each position group for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Those previews, which can all be viewed here, were stopped when hope of a 2020 season faded. Now, we have revised schedule and hope of playing this year again. As such, we’re wrapping up our coverage by circling back on any remaining position groups which have not already been previewed.
Up this week is the offensive line.
The Iowa Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz have been built from the inside out. At his core, Ferentz is an offensive line guru and success in his mind is built on a strong running game and protecting the football. The Hawkeyes, as such, have been built on a strong offensive line and Iowa’s most successful years have churned out tremendous numbers of NFL linemen.
To be successful in 2020, Iowa will again need to lean on its line to both run the ball and protect a new starting QB.
A major hurdle to replicating the success of 2019 will be replacing All-American right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Wirfs was dominant on Iowa’s right side and went 12th overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last year’s NFL Draft.
The Hawkeyes have built tremendous depth in the OL room over the last several years on the recruiting trail and supplemented that with transfers this offseason, but it’s simply not possible to replace what was lost in Wirfs. He was a dynamic, athletic freak who absolutely mauled opponents in the run game and kept QB Nate Stanley clean for almost the entirety of 2019.
While Iowa is looking to replace an All-American at right tackle, they have a stalwart to anchor the left side of the line returning in Alaric Jackson. Jackson was a potential first-rounder entering 2019 before an injury cost him time in the lineup and productivity throughout the season.
Now the redshirt senior is looking to boost his draft stock and ensure new QB Spencer Petras has time in the pocket to operate. Fortunately for Hawkeye fans, that’s something Jackson is highly adept at doing.
Entering his fourth year as a starter at LT, Jackson brings with him 2,245 career snaps at the position. In that time, he’s given up just 6 sacks - two in each of the last three seasons. If you’re looking to build an Iowa offensive line, a stalwart like Alaric Jackson is about as good as you can hope for.
The Future Star
While Jackson is the headliner for Iowa’s offensive line in 2020, the man in the middle is a potential star. Tyler Linderbaum came to Iowa as a defensive tackle prospect, but quickly changed sides of the ball. After taking a redshirt year in 2018, Linderbaum became Iowa’s starter at center in last season.
It took little time to realize what the Hawkeyes had in their new center last season and what they had was a star in the making. Linderbaum is a mauler with a mean streak. His prior life on the defensive line really shows through in the run game and he’s a very strong pass blocker. In short order, Iowa went from question marks after replacing 2nd rounder James Daniels to wondering if they would be losing Linderbaum after the 2020 season.
Look for him to build on last year’s success and step into a leadership role along the line. With two years and 13 starts now under his belt, Linderbaum will be setting protections and destroying would-be tacklers. He’s expected to be an All-Big Ten player this season.
Iowa is in great shape at arguably the two most important spots on the offensive line with All-Big Ten expectations at both left tackle and center. But they still need to find a way to replace the departed Wirfs on the right side of the line. Enter: Coy Cronk.
Cronk is a newcomer to Iowa, which would typically mean he has little chance of seeing the field this season. But there is nothing typical about this year and nothing typical about Cronk. The redshirt senior is a graduate transfer from Indiana University and comes with 27 career starts at left tackle. That’s second on the Iowa roster behind only Jackson’s 34 career starts.
The Indiana native is expected to man the right side, opposite Jackson, and at 6’5” and 305 pounds (to Jackson’s 6’6” and 315 pounds) he gives Iowa a pair of bookend tackles that is about as good as you could hope when trying to replace a player the caliber of Wirfs.
Cronk comes to Iowa looking to boost his draft stock by proving he has the versatility to play on both ends of the line and run block in a zone scheme a la Iowa’s. He’s also looking to prove a season-ending ankle injury a year ago is no longer an issue.
He’s battle tested. He’s talented. He’s a third All-Big Ten caliber player on Iowa’s offensive line heading into 2020.
With both tackle spots and the center role likely filled, the question marks for Iowa in 2020 really lie in the two guard spots. It’s not a question of talent, but a question of who wins the two jobs. The offensive line room is loaded with depth, including a number of highly talented veterans and youngsters who will be fighting for a job in the rotation this season.
Cole Banwart is a 5th year senior, like Jackson and Cronk, who’s seen a promising career derailed by injuries. Banwart started two games in 2019 at right guard, but missed the final 5 games of the year due to injury. As a redshirt sophomore in 2018, it was a similar story, where Banwart earned 5 starts, but mised much of the rest of the season with injuries. If healthy, he’s a strong bet to start at right guard in 2020.
His biggest competition is likely to come from his replacement in 2019 - Kyler Schott. Shooter, a former walk-on redshirt junior, performed well in place of Banwart over the course of eight games, including six starts, at right guard last season. He proved himself early as a tremendous run blocker with a mean streak. He doesn’t have the size of Banwart, or the experience, but he has upside on a line that is already stacked with size and experience.
On the other side of Linderbaum we see more depth and uncertainty. Redshirt junior Mark Kallenberger has been the heir apparent at tackle since he arrived on campus in 2017. But with Wirfs and Jackson in front of him there’s been little opportunity to step in. As such, Kallenberger has been the stopgap at virtually every spot along the line. He’s earned time at left tackle, as well as starts at both left and right guard. Now, there’s an opening for a full time role at left guard with Cronk taking over at right tackle. Is this the year Kallenberger becomes a full time guy?
Possibly. But the competition here will be steep as well. Redshirt freshman Justin Britt stepped on campus last season immediately earned playing time. At 6’5” and 293 pounds, Britt has great size and is a tremendous athlete. While he didn’t start any games in his true freshman season, Britt saw action in four games and if not for an injury likely would have burned his redshirt. Look for the staff to mix and match at guard early in the season until they can find a combination that works best. Regardless of who ultimately starts, the depth here is reassuring for Iowa fans who’ve seen myriad injuries along the line over the years.