Getting vertical is different for Iowa's offensive line

Donnal's length, size and athletic ability are perfect match for Hawkeyes' blocking scheme

Iowa offensive lineman Andrew Donnal poses at Iowa Football Media Day at the Iowa Football Complex in Iowa City on Monday, August 4, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG-TV9 TV9)
Iowa offensive lineman Andrew Donnal poses at Iowa Football Media Day at the Iowa Football Complex in Iowa City on Monday, August 4, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG-TV9 TV9)

IOWA CITY — If anyone at Iowa should know how to get vertical, it’s Andrew Donnal.

The senior offensive tackle stands 6-foot-7, boasts long arms (hence length) and played varsity hoops for three years in high school. In fact his brother, Mark, plays basketball for Big Ten rival Michigan.

But getting vertical in the Iowa football sense has nothing to do with height or length. In fact, it has more to do with depth, explosion, power and acceleration. Getting vertical is the theme for offensive linemen like Donnal in the running game.

“When we talk about vertical movement all that means is, very simply, take the line of scrimmage and move it closer to the goal line,” Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “If you can do that at about four yards at a time, you’re going to have a pretty good offense. That’s the trick, finding out how to do that.”

The approach sounds simple and the execution appears manageable. But it’s more than that. An Iowa offensive lineman builds success in the Iowa run game with muscle memory built through thousands of repetitions.

Donnal, who weighs 305 pounds, has played multiple positions but now has found a home at right tackle. It’s his best position, where his length and footwork are assets and he’s fully recovered from an ACL tear two years ago. In one of Iowa’s primary running plays — the outside zone — Donnal’s abilities are tested regardless of where the ball is headed. If Iowa runs to the left, Donnal is required to cut off a backside defensive lineman. If the zone heads to his side, he must move his defender off the line of scrimmage and set an edge.

“The outside guys, the tackles are kind of the point of focus, the attacking point,” Donnal said. “We do have to set an edge or if we don’t set an edge or if the backside guy doesn’t cut him off or if the backside guys don’t do their job, the play is never going to work.”

Setting the edge requires an offensive tackle to engage the defender with near-perfect technique. The lineman’s eyes are fixed on an aiming point with his first step for positioning and the second step for power. The principles include staying square with shoulders and hips staying parallel, keeping knees balanced and underneath, remaining lower than the opponent and allowing no separation from the defender’s chest.

Iowa’s style of blocking begins and ends with the lineman’s backside knee aimed at the defender’s crotch. That enables the lineman to drive through and finish his opponent. It’s different from the traditional duckwalk style of blocking, which is less aggressive but allows for more change of direction.

“We’re trying to move our opponent as fast as we can and as strong as we can backward,” Donnal said. “The fastest way you’re going to be able to do something is to run. If you get your backside knee in the ground, in their crotch, then you have the leverage to move them and be able to run and move them backward.

“When you duckwalk or keep the stance and you’re not running like an actual athlete, then you’re not moving them as far. And if you’re not moving them as far, then there’s always a chance they can make the play. But if you run, then you’re using your true athletic ability to move a guy.”

The roots of Iowa’s style of blocking began in the 1970s. Former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Dan Radakovich taught the offensive line to attack opponents the way defenders charge ball carriers. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz’s mentor Joe Moore also taught that style of blocking, which has filtered to Iowa.

Brian Ferentz compares blocking at Iowa to moving a car. A person gets low, pushes with short, choppy steps and generates little separation. Once the car moves, the person accelerates. That’s how he teaches blocking.

“We want to attack,” Brian Ferentz said. “If you’re going to win a fight, it’s better to punch someone than be punched. That’s the essence of what we’re trying to do. We try to block with more of a defensive mentality, but we don’t really think of it that way. That’s just how you play on the offensive line to us.”

Every practice is a gauntlet with the offensive linemen getting looks from every opponent. An upcoming defense may have run one formation six weeks before a game, but the Hawkeyes will prepare how to block it. They build a plan, and they attack it.

“There are tons of looks and there’s a million ways to get a block,” Donnal said. “But in the end we’re trying to move them the opposite way that they want to go, and it’s a little bit more simple than everyone thinks. We’re doing complex stuff to do a real simple thing. We’re just trying to move them backward.”

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