April 2, 2012

Spring Outlook: OL

It is the engine that drives the Iowa offense. It is Iowa's offensive line and when the Hawkeye offense is moving in the right directions it is because the Bullies of the Big Ten are dominating the line of scrimmage. While Coach Brian Ferentz has some holes to fill, he has plenty of talented players up front, starting with his younger brother, James, as center.

Starters Lost: Riley Reiff, Adam Gettis, and Markus Zusevics

Starters Returning: James Ferentz and Matt Tobin

Two Deeps:

LT: Brandon Scherff (SO) or Andrew Donnal (SO)
LG: Matt Tobin (SR), Drew Clark (JR)
C: James Ferentz (SR), Conor Boffeli (JR), Eric Simmons (SO)
RG: Austin Blythe (R-FR) or Conor Boffeli (JR), Jordan Walsh (R-FR)
RT: Brett Van Sloten (JR), Nolan MacMillan (JR)

The Numbers: James Ferentz has started 26 straight games for the Hawkeyes. Matt Tobin started ten games last year at left guard. Brandon Scherff started three games last year at left guard.

Overview

One of the deeper positions on the Iowa roster and easily the deepest on the offensive side of the football heading into the 2012 season. That has to make life a bit easier for new offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, who takes over the coaching duties from Reese Morgan after his move to defensive line.

Brian Ferentz will get the unique opportunity to coach his younger brother, James, who returns at Iowa's starter at center. James Ferentz said last year that he consulted with his older sibling during the season, so the two already have a close football related relationship. James Ferentz will certainly be the anchor of the offensive line from the center position and if you are going to build an offensive line, it's not a bad place to start.

The biggest hole to fill will be at both tackle positions with the graduation of Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics, who are both likely NFL Draft picks in late April. Brett Van Sloten gave a good accounting for himself in the 2011 Insight Bowl against Oklahoma when he was pressed into service. He's been given the time to develop behind Zusevics and heading into this junior season, he appears to be ready to take hold of the job. But, he will have a pretty strong battle on his hands with the Nolan MacMillan, who has performed well when he has been healthy. The healthy part has been a big issue for MacMillan, who basically missed all of last season due to various injuries.

At the other tackle position, Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal are going to have a pretty good battle this spring and into the fall. Scherff got his feet wet last year and had some good moments, especially in the run game. He certainly passes the old eyeball test. Donnal really came on strong during the bowl prep this past December and has put himself into position to push for a spot in the starting lineup.

At the guard spot, it would appear that Matt Tobin has a great shot at starting this fall after earning the starting spot for ten games last year. Drew Clark is giving a good push to Tobin this spring. The other guard spot is still very much an open competition with backup center Conor Boffeli and Austin Blythe battling it out for the top spot this spring. Right now it looks like the redshirt freshman, Blythe, has the upper hand as he was working with the first team in the few minutes of practice we saw last week. Now that doesn't mean it will hold, but the Iowa coaches were certainly very high on Blythe and his work in practice last season. Another name to keep an eye on is Jordan Walsh, who the coaches were also very high on.

Biggest Question

Who will start?

The time honored mantra coming out of the Iowa Football program when it comes to the offensive line is always the same, the best five will start. One thing about how they teach offensive line at Iowa, most players are trained to be able to play one or two positions and on the right or left side. That gives the coaches options when making the call as far as starters, but it also gives them options in the event of injuries during the season.

It's pretty clear that James Ferentz will be the starting center. He'd have to lose the job and perform poorly to get beat out this year. It's probably a good bet that Brandon Scherff finds his way into a starting spot, although he shouldn't consider himself a lock. The same goes for Matt Tobin at guard. If Donnal really develops, then perhaps he wins the left tackle job and then Scherff and Tobin could battle for the guard spot or you could have any combination of the three in the two spots. On the right side, it really seems like Austin Blythe is on the rise early in his career. The battle at tackle seems to be favoring Van Sloten, but MacMillan has always been pretty good when he has been healthy, so to put him into the lock category would be a bit premature.

The Future

The one thing that seems sure about the offensive line is that none of the incoming freshman play this year. Iowa has a lot of depth, so it would take a real surprising development from a player arriving on campus or injuries. JUCO transfer Eric Simmons is already no campus, but he has a redshirt year available and is expected to take it this fall. Incoming freshmen Mitch Keppy, Reid Sealby, and Ryan Ward are all expected to redshirt this year.


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