IOWA CITY — When Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek talks depth for his position group, he talks about a race to maturity and how, yeah, it can sometimes be frustrating.
“No matter what, we could come in here and tell you guys, ‘It’s all going great,’ you know what I mean? It’s not,” Polasek said. “It’s never good enough. The improvement isn’t happening fast enough.”
Polasek gave that “It’s all going great” a happy wanderer’s inflection. The standard doesn’t change, not even if, like last year, you lose your two senior three-year starters at the offensive tackle spots.
Right now, the coaches are pulling the players to that standard.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who served as Iowa’s O-line coach for five seasons before moving to coordinator last year, saw five, maybe six offensive linemen this spring that he knows are ready. Motivational ploy? Sure, probably. But just going off experience and knowing that Brian Ferentz doesn’t coddle, let’s go with this.
You need five, but you really, really need more like eight. Offensive line depth is like a 401(k). That number never feels like enough.
“I don’t think we’re at seven or eight, which is where you’d like to be,” Brian Ferentz said this week. “Probably feel good about five or six guys, and with Levi (Paulsen) missing time now, we’re going to find out about some other guys.
“ ... But as far as finding a six, seven, eight, I think we’re still in flux and in that process.”
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Here was the offensive line that played in Friday night’s scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium — tackles were sophomores Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson, guards were Landan Paulsen and Cole Banwart and the center was Keegan Render.
Junior Levi Paulsen was knocked out of spring practice with an undisclosed injury in early April. He’s expected back in June. His two career starts (Illinois in 2016 and the Pinstripe Bowl) are more than Landan, his twin brother, Banwart and Render, at least at center, his current position.
When Levi Paulsen returns, he’s probably the right guard. Render will be the center. Senior Ross Reynolds, who didn’t practice Friday night, probably has pole position at left guard, with Banwart for sure knocking on the door.
That’s three first-year starters at their positions on the inside of the O-line. With just two experienced running backs, Iowa had to be somewhat cautious about how much it turned on the jets during practice this spring.
“It just comes back to focus and execution,” Render said. “You have to trust what you’ve done in practice. Obviously, they’ve been going against our D-linemen the whole time. When you get out here, you have to block all of that out, relax and know you’ve got it.”
The running game/offensive line is going to be a mystery until Sept. 1 for outsiders. Iowa doesn’t do a ton of full-go contact in a lot of the 15 spring practices. Head coach Kirk Ferentz sees the O-line every day. He’s a believer.
“I think that’s one position we can evaluate pretty well in practice,” Kirk Ferentz said after Friday night’s scrimmage. “I’ve liked the way they’ve competed, both sides of the ball, interiorly and all the linemen, the ends, tackles on defense and all five guys offensively. We don’t have enough depth right now, but I think we have a chance to have a good line.
“ ... How good we can be, and then how much can we develop some depth? We’ve got a lot of questions that way.”
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Already with the offensive line questions? Well, Iowa failed to rush for 100 yards in five games last year and lost those. The yards per carry dropped close to a full yard from 2016 (4.45 to 3.76). Trend or a blip? That’s probably the Hawkeyes’ biggest question going into 2018.
From the players' perspective, they know the expectations. They spent their springs working on the things that will keep Polasek and Brian Ferentz off their backs.
For Render, it was landing the reach block on the nose guard/1 technique/or “shade.” His answer shows there’s a ton more to this than grunting.
“I think the thing that I accomplished (this spring) was trusting that even if he was going to return and go backside, I’ve done enough reps to where I know I’m going to redirect on him,” Render said. “Getting over that mental block and knowing that I’m going to reach this one and if I can, keep him flat and let the running back do the work.”
The race to maturity is on. This spring, Brian Ferentz saw five or six O-linemen he liked. They’re going to need seven or eight.
“A lot of guys took steps forward,” Render said. “Whether it was a backside elbow here and there or shooting hands in pass protection, we were a lot more detailed this spring. I think a lot of guys were focused on getting better because they know they’re going to be counted on this fall.”
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