When left tackle Brandon Scherff and left guard Andrew Donnal went down with injuries during a disastrous series of three plays last fall against Penn State, Ryan Ward's name came up.
He was a true freshman, trying to hang on to his redshirt. It probably never was serious, but it did go as far as a question in a Kirk Ferentz news conference.
"I'd rather not," Ferentz said. "With the freshman offensive line, we'd rather not dip into that pool if we can avoid it. He gives us some flexibility in practicing. The pool got a little shallow, so he's moved up the charts."
Ward's brother, Patrick, signed a free-agent deal with the Miami Dolphins after starting three seasons at Northwestern. Another brother, Kevin, will be a freshman walk-on at safety for the Hawkeyes this fall. His dad, Brian, was an O-lineman at Illinois.
Blood lines, check.
Key 2012 factor: Ward stayed redshirted. Again, it never felt as though the 6-5, 290-pounder was headed into playing time as a true freshman, but the thought that he could've is still kind of a big deal. Ward would've been a 19-year-old against 21 and 22s. Bryan Bulaga pulled that off. Riley Reiff and Brandon Scherff redshirted. Let's stop here before the expectations become unwieldy.
Offseason factor: Ward has put on at least 20 pounds since arriving at Iowa. He showed up a 25-pounder. He also came to Iowa with a 30 on the ACT and a 4.0 GPA. The focus is there.
Competition: What is Ward? Coming out of spring he was listed as the No. 2 left tackle, behind Scherff. Of the top four tackle prospects during the Ferentz era -- Robert Gallery, Bulaga, Reiff and Scherff (short resume, yes, but he's on track) -- three had break-in time at guard spots (Bulaga, Reiff and Scherff). So, can Ward work his way into the top five and a starting job on the inside? It's not out of the question. Also, Scherff will be a fourth-year junior. You know where this conversation is going. Lots of variable, sure, but if Scherff plays to expectation, the NFL question will be on the table (let's not be ingenues here, you know the whole point is to get paid). That's where a full season as a left tackle apprentice might make sense for Ward.
Why No. 42?: Well, the fact that I just laid out a scenario where Ward could be a starter, says this might be too low. Let's assume he stays as the No. 3 tackle. Historically, there hasn't been a lot of playing time in that. There's insurance value that is immeasurable, but No. 3 tackle is a fixed position. You won't see Ward covering kicks.
Outlook: Ward is an exciting prospect. He's probably "next" at left tackle, a position at Iowa that, assuming progress with Scherff, will likely have put five players in the NFL (Gallery, Bulaga, Reiff, Marshal Yanda and, probably eventually, Scherff). If he doesn't win a spot in Iowa's top five, it doesn't mean he's "behind schedule." He is, after all, just a redshirt freshman and will be 20 after the first week of camp.Click here for an interactive look at the complete Top 45 series.