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An “Offensive” Line, Indeed

Iowa’s offensive line is struggling for the second straight season. What has gone wrong?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa’s offense has been a disaster this season, even by the extremely low bar set by previous Hawkeye teams. However, one area in which Iowa’s offense has traditionally excelled is in producing quality offensive linemen. Even during past seasons in which the offense has struggled, the Hawkeyes can typically count on excellent play up front. Last year’s offensive line was a weakness despite the presence of Rimington Trophy winner Tyler Linderbaum, but there was genuine optimism surrounding the unit coming into the season which was stoked by quotes from players,

“We’re looking a lot better than last year.”

“I know we lost some older guys, but we’re onto better and newer things.”

“We go against defensive-linemen who are freak shows and even with that, we’re able to handle our business and do the right thing and be in the right place.”


“I’m really optimistic. I saw the growth that we made last year.”

“It’s awesome. The kids’ ability to come out every day with an energy to them, just the way they’re working and the physicality they’re playing with right now.”

and members of the press corps.

“Offensive-line play will soon be a strength again for Iowa football.”

“The interior needs a reboot with all the lost parts, but Mason Richman is a good young tackle, there’s experience at right tackle, and it’s Iowa. This is going to be fixed.”

“Iowa’s young linemen generated plenty of reason for optimism heading into next season.”

Halfway through Iowa’s season, it is clear that any preseason confidence in the offensive line’s development was misplaced. Iowa’s front five is somehow playing even worse than it did in 2021. Whether it is run blocking, pass blocking, or avoiding drive-killing penalties, the offensive line has been deficient. The Hawkeyes are dead last in the conference in rushing yards per carry (2.62) and per game (82.17), and rank near the bottom nationally in these statistics as well. Among Big Ten teams, Iowa trails only Indiana in tackles for loss (40) and sacks allowed (18) this season—and Indiana just fired its offensive line coach due to poor performance. A whopping one of every six plays Iowa ran against Illinois resulted in a tackle for loss.

Iowa’s interior offensive line has been a revolving door of disappointment, regularly failing to create holes in the running game and getting absolutely worked in pass protection. The struggles of Logan Jones (a great athlete with a bright future at Iowa) in his transition from defensive tackle to center prove just how special a case Linderbaum was for making that shift so smoothly. Freshmen guards Beau Stephens and Gennings Dunker are at least a year away from being starting Big Ten-caliber linemen, and veterans Nick DeJong and Tyler Elsbury have also struggled with consistency. Arguably the best guard on Iowa’s roster, true sophomore Connor Colby, is playing out of position at right tackle where he has not looked like the same player who grew into his own on the interior in late 2021. Sophomore left tackle Mason Richman may be the lone bright spot on this unit, but it’s debatable whether he would even crack the starting five on some of the better offensive lines to come through Iowa during Ferentz’s tenure.

While Iowa’s poor offensive line play is far from the offense’s only problem, it is magnifying several of the team’s most glaring issues on that side of the ball. Hawkeye quarterback Spencer Petras’ two biggest weaknesses are his lack of mobility and his struggles to complete passes against the rush, both of which are regularly exposed as he plays behind his sieve of a line. Petras’ best attribute (the deep ball) can rarely be deployed due to Iowa’s inability to protect long enough for such a play to develop. To make matters worse, Iowa’s wide receivers regularly struggle to create separation from their defenders, whether due to poor play designs, subpar route running, or both. This regularly requires the quarterback to sit in the pocket for a considerable amount of time before finding someone open, even on intermediate routes—a dangerous proposition given Iowa’s struggles with pass blocking. While Iowa could consider using its tight ends as additional blockers, this would deprive the Hawkeyes of some of their most reliable receiving targets. Meanwhile, the line’s inability to create holes in the running game has consistently put Iowa behind the chains, leading to long 2nd and 3rd-down attempts that make the team’s already predictable play calling even easier to anticipate. While Iowa should be able to lean on the run to help take the pressure off a shaky passing attack, the line’s inability to run block has forced the Hawkeyes to double-down on Petras airing it out, a formula which has produced two touchdowns in as many weeks.

It is worth asking how Iowa, a program highly respected for its offensive line development, is facing its second consecutive year of having one of the worst lines in the power five. Much of Iowa’s struggles can be attributed to youth; the Hawkeyes started exclusively underclassmen against Illinois and the team’s only senior lineman who came to Iowa with a scholarship (Jack Plumb) has barely played this season. A quick glance at Iowa’s 2018-2019 recruiting classes shows the level of attrition and underperformance the Hawkeyes have seen along the line, depriving them of several players who might otherwise be counted on to provide veteran leadership to the unit.

The Fate of Iowa’s OL Recruits (2018-19)

Recruiting Class Player Where are they now?
Recruiting Class Player Where are they now?
2018 Tyler Linderbaum NFL (also, was not recruited to Iowa as an OL, for the record)
2018 Jeffrey Jenkins Retired
2018 Jack Plumb 2nd-string
2018 Cody Ince Retired
2019 Ezra Miller Retired, then transferred
2019 Tyler Endres 3rd-string
2019 Justin Britt Injured, out for the season
2019 Noah Fenske Transferred

While it is impossible to say how much better the offensive line would be if players like Ince, Miller, Fenske, and Jenkins had stuck around, their presence would certainly give the Hawkeyes more veteran options to fall back on instead of pressing talented but raw underclassmen into roles they are unprepared for. Injuries have also played a factor, as Justin Britt and David Davidkov might both have been able to compete for starting jobs had a slew of injuries not robbed them of their season and most of training camp.

However, both Iowa’s absence of depth and its lack of sufficient preparation along the offensive line ultimately falls on the coaching staff. The coaches are responsible for recruiting players who have failed to develop into starting-caliber linemen in the fourth and fifth years in the program. The coaches are responsible for failing to get their young student athletes ready to play on Saturdays, or for failing to simply the blocking scheme enough to reduce miscommunications and blown assignments. Most egregiously, the coaches are responsible for looking at Iowa’s offensive line room without Tyler Linderbaum and deciding they did not need to seek out help in the transfer portal. Unless the coaches were truly counting on Britt and Davidkov to anchor the line this season (and how could they have, given how much time both players have missed due to injury?), the staff clearly erred by not more aggressively pursuing quality transfers at such an important position group. Offensive line coach George Barnett cannot be held responsible for the failures to recruit and retain players before his tenure began, but it is fair to question whether sufficient development has occurred at this position since he replaced Tim Polasek in 2021. Kirk and Brian Ferentz, both of whom have well-earned reputations for developing offensive linemen, must also look in the mirror and ask how they missed so badly on so many recruiting classes, only to fail to use JuCo or transfer portal players to compensate for these mistakes on the back end.

The optimism that surrounded Iowa’s offensive line last offseason may ultimately prove justified, as Iowa has recruited well at the position group over the past few seasons and has plenty of young talent. The same players who look overwhelmed as freshmen and sophomores could develop into stars as juniors and seniors; the 2002 offensive line, widely viewed as the gold standard of the program, took plenty of licks before evolving into the bullies of the Big Ten. Such dreams, however, provide no relief in 2022, where poor line play will continue to torpedo the hopes of Iowa’s offense being anything less than putrid. The Hawkeye coaching staff earned its reputation for crafting elite offensive lines. It must also shoulder the blame for its failure to produce even average play at the position for the second season in a row.