116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - The beatdowns came often for James Ferentz and his fellow offensive linemen in his first two years.
Ferentz, Iowa's junior starting center, competed against several future NFL players like Matt Kroul, Mitch King, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug in practice. They broke down Ferentz and his linemates in scrimmages and drills. But most importantly, the stalwarts also built him back up.
“Any chance you have to go against a player that's much more talented and more experienced than you, it's probably for the best,” Ferentz said. “ You just kind of get a feel for how they operate and the speed of the game.
“Obviously we had our battles, but they did a good job of taking us aside and saying, ‘You can do this.' It gave us confidence and you can carry that confidence further than you think sometimes, which is a good thing.
Ferentz and the rest of his offensive linemates now have the opportunity to shift from protege to mentor. The beatings they absorbed early in their college careers now translates into one of the Big Ten's most experienced units. Along the offensive line, junior left tackle Riley Reiff is the anchor, starting 21 consecutive games and the final 13 at left tackle.
Senior right tackle Markus Zusevics and junior center James Ferentz started every game last year. At guard, sophomore Nolan MacMillan has six starts and senior Adam Gettis has three career starts. That's 56 returning starts, not counting red-shirt freshman Brandon Scherff, who replaced an injured MacMillan in the starting lineup during spring practice.
“It's almost like a flip,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Last year we had a lot of experience coming back on the defensive line. This year it's the other way around. The offensive line, I thought, performed pretty well. I thought they improved as the season went on. Key thing for them to do is keep doing what they did last year and improve every week. They should.”
In the team's final spring practice, the offensive line routinely blasted the defenders off the ball almost in unison. The linemen collectively have a mean streak, something that offensive line coach Reece Morgan fully endorses.
“I think the guys take pride in trying to finish,” Morgan said. “That's what everybody on this football team, every coach is trying to do is try to get guys to finish. If they embrace that and they continue to make that something that's a focus for them, I think they have a chance to develop into a pretty good unit.”
The pendulum in Iowa's trenches clearly has swung from the defensive line to its offensive counterpart. The Hawkeyes' vaunted defensive line, which has produced seven NFL players since 2007, is short on starts. The defensive line loses Klug, Ballard and consensus All-American Adrian Clayborn, a first-round draft pick by Tampa Bay. It returns just two players with starting experience - defensive end Broderick Binns and defensive tackle Mike Daniels.
But Binns answers the questions with challenges. He's motivated to show people “that we can be as good as those other teams.”
“I like flying under the radar, so that's fine with us,” Binns said. “We don't have to be ranked No. 5 in the country to go out and prove everybody wrong. I think this is the best thing for us.”
Daniels is the unit's showcase performer. He earned national linemen of the week honors with four tackles for loss against Ball State. He's thick, quick and intense, something James Ferentz notices every day in practice.
“I feel bad for other guys who have to block Mike because he's one of a kind defensive lineman,” James Ferentz said. “He's short but he's strong. He's got the speed of a real small guy but he has the strength to really hit you like those 330-pounders.
“Mike's not the most fun guy to go against. It's one of those things, iron sharpens iron hopefully. Mike's a guy I really try to be like and bring that kind of intensity to practice and having him around is really fortunate for me to go against him every snap, because you know Mike's not going to slow down. When he has a chance to finish you, he finishes you. He forces you to fight every snap.”
The rest of the defensive line is filled by people made famous more by the recruiting process and less by their on-field performance. Outside of Daniels and Binns, only senior defensive end Lebron Daniel has any vital playing experience. Oft-injured linemen Joe Gaglione, Steve Bigach and Tom Nardo join unproven Joey Forgy, Mike Hardy, Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis in a one-month showdown for playing time.
The defensive line lacks size along with experience. Of the 10 players listed on Iowa's preseason two-deep chart, only three players are listed at 280 pounds or heavier. Daniels (280) is the only listed starter.
That creates different challenges for Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. The last two seasons Iowa has rotated only five players, a number that could double this year.
“We're going to be moving around and stunting inside so we try to keep our guys where they're not just battling on those double teams all day,” Kaczenski said. “We're not as big as we have been in the past so we're going to have to play a lot more guys. We may to move them around a little bit more. We're not going to sit up there and probably be able to two-gap 75 snaps like we were with Adrian and Christian.
“We're probably going to have to do some things to help these guys out and obviously we're going to play multiple guys. The days of playing four or five guys are over for a few years here.”