Four Downs with the offensive line (spring edition)
Finding Reiff's replacement is paramount
QUICK LOOK BACK: If you measure offensive line production by rush yards per game and sacks allowed, Iowa was representative in 2011.
Sacks are an iffy measure. It's hard to pin any given sack on one thing, with the quarterback's decision making and wide receiver's blitz recognition also on the table. But just for measure, Iowa's sacks per game last season was 2.23, which is about the mean for the Hawkeyes the last five seasons, with the high coming in 2007 at 3.83 and the low in 2010 at 1.54.
Also, rushing yards can't exclusively go on the offensive line. In Iowa's system, a back has to read the play and make the correct cut. As a measure, however, Iowa again was representative with 137.7 yards rush yards per game, just off its five-season average of 143.04. The Marcus Coker show also averaged 3.95 yards per carry, which is right there with Iowa's five-year average of 3.94.
Certainly, Iowa rushed the ball effectively in 2012. Still, it finished 12th in the Big Ten, which shows what you already know: The Hawkeyes were incredibly one-dimensional in how they attacked on the ground last season. Coker carried 280 times, fifth-most in Iowa history. You can't argue Coker's overall effectiveness. He finished second in the Big Ten with 115.33 yards a game, but he, and Iowa's offense along with him, could get stuck. The Michigan State game serves as a good example, when Coker carried 21 times for 57 yards.
A lot was expected from the 2011 offensive line. It returned three starters, including all-Big Ten left tackle Riley Reiff. Adam Gettis settled in nicely at one guard. Matt Tobin learned on the job at the other guard spot.
Overall, this group held its own. It didn't elevate the offense, but you can make that argument for the entirety of 2011.
2011 — 137.69 (12th)
2010 — 148.38 (8th)
2009 — 114.23 (10th)
2008 — 188.69 (4th)
2007 — 126.25 (10th)
FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: Reiff made the wise decision to enter the NFL draft. He gave up one season of eligibility at Iowa, but he also would have been 24 entering the league next April. As it stands, he's a potential top 10 pick and that means a four-year contract with $12 to $14 million guaranteed. He proved everything he needed to prove, wise move.
Right tackle Markus Zusevics also will eventually be in the NFL after he heals from a torn pectoral muscle suffered at the Combine in February.
This leaves Iowa without a returning tackle for the first time since 2007, when the Hawkeyes allowed 49 sacks. That's a concern.
Sophomores Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal are locked in a 1A and 1B battle this spring. Scherff had three starts at left guard last season. He also was slowed out of camp with a concussion. Donnal saw little time. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said he had a strong string of practices in December.
Junior Brett Van Sloten jumped in at right tackle in the Insight Bowl when Zusevics left the game with stomach flu. He held serve against an athletic Oklahoma defensive line. Junior Nolan MacMillan joins the chase after missing 2011 with a variety of injuries, including rhabdo, shoulder and a sports hernia.
Ferentz identified Scherff, Donnal and Van Sloten as the competitors at tackle. You already know for Iowa it's the top five players who'll get the start, so if someone loses one tackle, perhaps he could win the other.
Ferentz also mentioned Tobin at tackle. The 6-6, 290-pounder also saw time as Reiff's backup last season, so there's some more position flexibility at tackle.
Scherff seems to have been groomed for left tackle. He practiced there a lot last fall and said he'd love the job (check the link).
He's a big dude at 6-5 and 310 if not more. "His locker was right next to mine and he was one of the biggest guys I’ve ever seen," Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg said.
Less is known about Donnal. He hasn't seen significant minutes. When Iowa landed him in 2010, the 6-7, 302-pounder was considered a good get. He played in the U.S. Army All-American game. At 6-7, it might take some time for a defensive end to run around his wingspan.
I would expect Van Sloten to stick at right tackle.
THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBRACTIONS: Reiff's departure puts pressure on a pair of sophomores to quickly mature. During recruiting, Iowa took a late run at Illinois prep Reid Sealby and landed him. Later, recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson said depth concerns spurred the late offer.
And if you look at it, depth is somewhat of a concern. After Scherff, Donnal, Van Sloten and MacMillan, the next tackle would be . . . maybe incoming recruits Sealby and Ryan Ward. Granted, that's a three deep, which is rarely tapped on the O-line, but it also shows Johnson was right.
Remember Dan Heiar? He was the guard recruit from Iowa Western Community College who was in an accident and hospitalized. He took a redshirt last season and then left school. He might've helped on the inside where Conor Boffeli is suddenly an extremely important player.
Boffeli, 6-5, 290, is a fourth-year junior who's been basically the backup center behind James Ferentz the past two seasons. He's still the backup center, but now he's also the co-No. 1 at right guard along with redshirt freshman Austin Blythe (6-3, 275). That's quite a jump in profile, but Boffeli is a fourth-year. He should be ready to contribute.
After Ward and Sealby, other additions include juco center Eric Simmons (6-3, 300) and incoming freshman Mitch Keppy (6-5, 290).
Could Simmons see the field this season? It's possible, but a redshirt is more likely. Simmons was a full qualifier out of Madrid High School and has four years to play three seasons at Iowa. He probably redshirts and comes in next season as No. 2 center behind Boffeli or guard.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Walsh (6-4, 270) also is in the mix this season. This spring, he's listed third at right guard. Junior Drew Clark (6-4, 288) is No. 2 at left guard.
SECOND DOWN -- BATTLES BREWING: Without question, left tackle is the most interesting battle on the offensive line. Left tackles get paid millions in the NFL.
It's also important because this is Vandenberg's blindside. It needs to be steady. Every coach in the country would prefer to have a logical succession at left tackle. It feels as though it's set up to be Scherff, but he's still going to have to win it.
A wildcard here could be new O-line coach Brian Ferentz. What does he want in a left tackle? It probably won't differ much from what Iowa (former O-line coach Reese Morgan and Kirk Ferentz) looked for in the past. When Reiff is drafted in the first round in April, that'll make three first-round left tackles in the Ferentz era (though Gallery and Bulaga haven't played there in the NFL). Also, Marshal Yanda played left tackle in five of his last six games his senior season at Iowa (2006). He plays guard for the Baltimore Ravens and just signed a five-year $32 million contract.
Left tackle at Iowa is a money position. Should be plenty of motivation.
How much of a competition is right guard between Boffeli and Blythe? They both want to play. Game on.
If MacMillan can stay healthy, can he push Van Sloten? Yes, he can. The healthy is the question.
The only unquestioned position is center and James Ferentz. After that, the competition should fuel the fire.
FIRST DOWN -- PREDICTIONS FOR 2012: Let's give a two deep a shot.
LT -- Scherff, Donnal (Scherff has a foot in the door with PT last season.)
LG -- Tobin, Clark (Tobin started 10 games last season. He's going to be tough to unseat.)
C -- Ferentz, Boffeli (Ferentz will push for all-Big Ten.)
RG -- Boffeli, Blythe (I thought Boffeli would push for PT last season, but Tobin emerged and Adam Gettis was solid.)RT -- Van Sloten, MacMillan (If MacMillan is healthy, this could get interesting. Van Sloten is a fourth-year junior, so he should be ready to start.)