Kirk Ferentz counting on Iowa offensive line to take a 'big step' in 2018

If Iowa finds consistency in the running game, it might find 10 wins


Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs (74) warms up prior to the game against Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, September 9, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs (74) warms up prior to the game against Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, September 9, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Classes don’t start at the University of Iowa until next Tuesday, so Alaric Jackson didn’t have to be in the Iowa weight room Wednesday morning, but he was.

Yes, Jackson, a sophomore offensive tackle, was suspended for the Hawkeyes’ Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College, so, maybe he’s a little more eager than most to get back to it.

Still, the read here is positive. Your sophomore offensive tackle, who was named a freshman all-American by the Football Writers Association of America this week, is throwing himself into 2018 a little less than a week before the Hawkeyes’ winter workouts begin.

This is what it’s going to take for the Hawkeyes (8-5) running game to make strides in 2018. Iowa was held to less than 100 rushing yards in five games last season, all losses.

Iowa’s inability to count on the running game being there consistently marked 2017 maybe more than anything else. Injuries to senior offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger were immeasurable setbacks, especially considering the fact that their replacements were freshmen, Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. The elbow injury that cost running back James Butler four games also didn’t help.

If the running game can find consistency, 2018 sets up for Iowa to do some good things. You can be “Cover U” or “DBU” or whatever kind of name you want to put on a program that regularly puts defensive backs in the NFL.

The fact of the matter is the faster Iowa gets back to being “O-line U,” the faster it gets back to championship possibilities. This is all an “if” that Alaric Jackson started lifting Wednesday morning.

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First on Jackson’s suspension, Ferentz said, “We’ve got a few things that he’ll have to check off the list here as we go along, but, hopefully, it’s straight ahead.”

And then the offensive line. Ferentz knows it’s not going to be automatic, but he put it out there for Iowa run game 2018.

“I’m counting on our offensive line to take a big step,” Ferentz said. “We’re losing two really good players for sure, but we’ve got a lot of guys coming back now who are going to be more in the flow of things and kind of ties in with our staff. We were basically a new offensive staff last year starting in February, mid-February, by the time we got everybody hired and in place. I’m really excited. I think we have the potential to take a big step in that whole enterprise. I think improvement up front will get us there. And can’t guarantee it, but I’m confident that it’s going to happen.”

You knew Iowa was going to lose senior guard Sean Welsh, an all-Big Ten caliber player. Junior James Daniels’ departure seemed to bubble up quickly if you weren’t listening. Before the trip to New York for the Pinstripe, Ferentz did hint to everyone that Iowa had two juniors who were contemplating an early move to the NFL. Cornerback Josh Jackson was the obvious answer. Daniels was a little under the radar and then he got the evaluation from the NFL draft advisory board that said at least second round and now he’s an ex-Hawkeye.

Ferentz was very optimistic about Daniels’ future.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a more talented center prospect, that includes my time in the NFL,” Ferentz said. “He’s got some skills that are just really unusual. And he’s a really intelligent guy. And one interesting thing about him, you get the feedback from the NFL folks, that’s strictly off film. They haven’t had a chance to investigate the kind of person he is and his intelligence.”

The “if you were playing a game tomorrow” question happened even though there isn’t a game for 230-plus days. Senior Keegan Render is the front-runner to replace Daniels. Render played one game at center last year. Then, it’s probably sophomore Cole Banwart.

“He’s demonstrated, I think, the traits that we’re looking for, not only as a center but just for a guy that is going to play out there,” Ferentz said. “So can he do it or not? We’ll find out this spring. But I think he’s demonstrated he’s coachable. He’s a really dedicated guy and really serious about what he does. Great work ethic. I think he’s got an opportunity.”

Probably Jackson and Wirfs at the tackle spots. Wirfs did play left tackle in the Pinstripe. Is the door open for a move from right, where he played most of 2017, to left?

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“Yeah, left tackle thing is not quite as sacred as everybody makes it out to be, but it’s like you’re the anointed one or the chosen one if you play that,” Ferentz said. “It’s important, don’t get me wrong, but I think both tackle positions are really important, but fundamentally they’re both the same.”

It’s not so much who plays where as it’s just having viable tackle candidates. Ferentz said 2017 would’ve been a different year with Boettger and Myers healthy. Also, 1) you need to push Wirfs and Jackson and keep them hardworking and sharp and 2) lack of depth made it difficult on the tackle spots in ’17. “Last man standing” doesn’t quite have the ring to it as “Next man in.”

In that regard, get to know redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger, a 6-6, 260-pound tackle prospect. His name came up Wednesday. He spent 2017 bouncing from a role on the depth chart to the scout team. You’re probably going to see him a lot this spring.

Let’s try an OL depth chart for 2018 — Wirfs and Jackson probably are the tackles, Render is the logical center candidate right now with junior Levi Paulsen and senior Ross Reynolds in position to move into the guard spots.

“There are so many things technically we can do better, but that’s experience,” Ferentz said. “It’s not just the maturity part, but experience and repetition. And you see clips of those guys really blocking good players well. Then you see too many where they need ... that’s the challenge.

“That’s the race that all players run. How technically proficient can they become and really good at what they’re asked to do, because we’re not typically going to line up and beat them in a combine. We can’t do that, so we’ve got to do it with consistency. And I think that’s really our offensive challenge.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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