Four Downs -- The Offensive Line (spring edition)

Tackle positions locked, look for competition on the inside

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QUICK LOOK BACK: Iowa's offense fought so hard for that one thing that could make it work and right when it found something -- an offensive line that could run block -- everything imploded in a matter of three plays.

Against Penn State, on a first down reverse call, left tackle Brandon Scherff (6-5, 315) had the pile fall on the back of his legs -- a hit you can't see and probably the worst kind of hit -- and wasn't able to get up. He suffered a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle that just didn't look normal. Iowa trainers got the air cast on and Scherff fought through the pain and tried to pump up the Kinnick Stadium crowd.

Running back Mark Weisman gained 4 yards on the next carry. He was coming back from an ankle injury suffered the week before and just didn't have it. The next week at Northwestern he suffered a groin injury.

And then on third-and-5 from Iowa's 30, guard Andrew Donnal, a 6-7, 305-pounder, fell to the turf in a pass blocking situation. He suffered a torn ACL in his right knee and was lost for the season.

In a matter of three plays, Iowa lost two offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. The offense lost the one thing that was really working for it -- a physical running game -- and from there, the Hawkeyes spiraled to 4-8, losing the next six games.

Iowa goes into the 2013 season tied for the seventh longest losing streak in the nation with those six consecutive losses. (Southern Miss has the longest losing streak after 0-12 in '12.

FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Center will be worth watching. It's too early to label it a "concern" perhaps, but sophomore Austin Blythe steps into a position that James Ferentz sucked the marrow out of for three seasons. Line calls, block count, Ferentz knew what needed to be done.

Blythe (6-3, 300) played well as a guard last season, but did miss three games after suffering a high-ankle sprain against Central Michigan. The brain game moves up a few degrees of difficulty at center. Blythe is smart and should be able to pick it up. It's also a position with a leadership element built into it. That'll be new for Blythe, who was the young guy as a redshirt freshman starter last year.

Blythe is the one full-timer Iowa returns to the inside. Iowa seems to operate better when it has experience inside. It's also easy to say that with the tackle talent that has paraded into the NFL's first round in recent years at Iowa.

The depth and competition here should be healthy. Iowa will go into 2013 with 14 scholarship linemen and some walk-ons (C Tommy Gaul and OT Cole Croston) who might be ready now and could be starters in the future.

The 14 scholarships here make up 16 percent of Iowa's roster. It's the biggest starting group on the field, but, for Iowa this year, the OL doesn't take up the most roster space. Iowa will have 15 scholarship wide receivers and D-linemen, which combines to fill 36 percent of the scholarships.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: James Ferentz and Matt Tobin will be fighting for NFL roster spots this summer. And that's OK, they are used to fighting for their place in the world.

Ferentz, who started 38 games for the Hawkeyes, has always had the "undersized" label. Tobin started his career at Iowa as a walk-on

and ended up a two-year starter, even starting at left tackle in place of Scherff the last five games of '12.

Of the three redshirts who'll play for real this season, it's hard to gauge who could see playing time first, Eric Simmons or Ryan Ward?

Simmons transferred from Iowa Western with four years to play three. He redshirted last season and is now listed at 6-2, 300 pounds. The Madrid native also is listed as a backup at left guard and center.

Ward (6-5, 290) spent last season as a backup left tackle. He probably wouldn't have played, but he was within range of playing as a true freshman. This year, he's listed as the backup left tackle and is up 20 pounds to 290. Remember, the mantra at Iowa is the best five OL. It's too early to put Ward in this weight class, but Bryan Bulaga and Riley Reiff broke in as guards before they were multi-year starters at left tackle.

Mitch Keppy (6-5, 295) and Croston (6-5, 250) are listed as backups at right tackle, behind senior Brett Van Sloten (6-7, 300). They sound familiar, don't they? Keppy's dad is Myron, who played D-line for the Hawkeyes from 1986-87. Croston's dad is Dave, who won Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year in 1986 for the Hawkeyes.

Redshirt freshman Reid Sealby (6-4) gained 25 pounds in the offseason and is up to 275. Incoming freshmen Colin Goebel (6-5, 280) and Sean Welsh (6-3, 285) are redshirt candidates.

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: Forget tackle. Those doors are closed.

Scherff has all-Big Ten potential. Van Sloten is in that neighborhood. They are unquestioned starters.

"If one of those guys gets beat out, that's going to be interesting because it means somebody else is really stepping it up," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Those two guys are ready to go."

There is competition on the inside.

Conor Boffeli (6-5, 295) is the front runner at left guard and Donnal, assuming he's healthy this spring, will be the right guard. They have six starts between them, so that's a start. Donnal started in two of Iowa's best rushing performances last season, Minnesota and Michigan State. Boffeli started against Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska.

Sophomores Jordan Walsh (6-4, 290) and Simmons will provide competition inside. Walsh played a little last season and could provide a push. Simmons is listed at guard and center.

Those two will fight for No. 3 guard, along with senior Drew Clark (6-4, 288). Iowa also gets some position flexibility with Boffeli's experience at center, but Gaul (6-3, 277) showed well in scrimmages last summer and could lock down No. 2 center.

Ward is likely the No. 3 tackle. Donnal has tackle experience and also could swing out there if needed.

FIRST DOWN — WHAT COULD HAPPEN: The offensive line will be the strength of the offense. The next step will be adding a passing game that will keep eight or nine defenders off the line of scrimmage. Or at least give defenses something to think about.

-- Iowa finished with 1,476 rushing yards last season, it's lowest total since 2009 (1,485). It also was the second consecutive years the Hawkeyes finished last in the Big Ten in rushing. The only season Iowa finished in the upper-third of the B1G in the last six years was 2008, when Shonn Greene set the school season rushing record (1,850). That should improve, but Iowa in the last six years in rushing yards in the B1G has gone 12, 12, eight, 10, four and 10. Those numbers certainly go against perception.

-- Even with all the moving parts, Iowa allowed 22 sacks last season, sixth in the Big Ten. That's actually the second fewest in the last six seasons, just two more than the 20 allowed in 2010. Also going against perception, the Hawkeyes haven't finished in the top half of the Big Ten in this stat in the last six years, going sixth, eighth, seventh, eighth, eighth and 11th (46 sacks allowed in '07). A lot goes into this number. It's a function of the offense, from QB seeing WRs to WRs getting open. But those numbers are surprising.  

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