Iowa Football

Iowa football recruiting 2019: Offensive line reload

The Hawkeyes found a pair of tackles and a pair of interior prospects; maybe Miller gets a look in 2019

Iowa football commits Noah Fenske, Tyler Endres, Ezra Miller, and Justin Britt pose for a group photo during a recruiting event Saturday, June 23, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)
Iowa football commits Noah Fenske, Tyler Endres, Ezra Miller, and Justin Britt pose for a group photo during a recruiting event Saturday, June 23, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)
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Yes, Iowa has had just one offensive lineman drafted in the last two seasons. Around here, that probably feels like a slump.

It’s not, not really. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s program had 17 O-linemen drafted since 1999. James Daniels left with a season of eligibility remaining and was picked in the second round last spring by the Chicago Bears. Before Daniels, the last Hawkeye O-lineman drafted was Williamsburg’s Austin Blythe, who was a seventh-round pick in 2016 and played with the Rams in the Super Bowl.

But Iowa has been younger on the offensive line the last two years.

In 2016, tackles Ike Boettger and Boone Myers suffered season-ending leg injuries and freshmen Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson were thrust into starting roles. The juniors will be the starting tackles again in 2019.

We’ll see who stays, who goes after that. The 2020 draft could be a pretty big slump buster for Iowa O-linemen in the draft.

Iowa can’t say it’s young on the O-line this year. Wirfs and Jackson are juniors. The guards likely will be junior Cole Banwart and senior Levi Paulsen. Yes, the center probably will be freshman Tyler Linderbaum, but he’ll have a bunch of dudes around him who know what they’re doing.

With the trend of players leaving early rising (it was a record 135 this year, beating the record of 106 set last year), it’s probably good to know your depth charts and incoming freshmen.

The Hawkeyes needed something of a reload on the O-line and signed four OL prospects during this recruiting cycle — Justin Britt, Noah Fenske, Tyler Endres and Ezra Miller.

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Justin Britt

You’ve known all along that Iowa is offensive lineman geek central.

When the Hawkeyes clinched an undefeated Big Ten season for the first time in 80 years at the Metrodome in 2002, Iowa fans carried offensive linemen off the field. And at some point in December, Ferentz totally copped to being a center nerd.

During one of Justin Britt’s recruiting visits, he nerded out with Ferentz on technique and philosophy and all of the other good O-line nerd stuff.

“I’m impressed with his depth of knowledge and understanding of technique,” Ferentz said. “He was saying some things that I don’t think some of our third-year guys could spit at me. That was impressive, and he clearly has been well-coached and thinks about it a little bit, which anything you do you’ve got to think about and give it thought.”

So yeah, this could work. How players see the game is one differentiator that Iowa usually has to have working for it. Britt could be that.

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Wants to major in mechanical engineering.

Noteworthy offers: Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue

Depth chart in 2019?: No. In addition to being a true freshman OL, Britt missed his senior year at Warren Central (Indianapolis, Ind.) after suffering an ACL injury. With the injury happening before his senior year, Britt likely will be able to practice at some point in 2019 and at least get his feet on the ground.

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Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Jordan Walsh

Rivals and Iowa list Britt at 6-4. That would be taller than Walsh, who saw everything come together for him during his senior year in 2015, when he earned first-team all-Big Ten. That also might allow Britt to play every position along the offensive line.

What also might help — every little bit does help — is Britt’s early arrival. The 6-4, 290-pounder is one of Iowa’s six early enrollees.

If Linderbaum weren’t moving to center as a redshirt freshman, Britt would definitely be a fit there.

Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “Justin came over to camp a few years ago and he won over coach Ferentz in camp. Justin has an infectious personality. Always smiling, great kid, great leader. Easy to talk to and guys gravitate toward him. He did really well when he was here in camp. From there, it was a no-brainer.

“He was a guy we were going to swing away on until he told us no a million times. It was good to get him on board this summer.

“He’s just a great kid. I think initially we took him thinking he’d be our next center. That’s where we’ll start him. He’s an inside guy. Very athletic kid. Tough. It’ll be fun to get him here.”

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ESPN rankings: 25th-ranked guard, 56th-ranked in the region and eighth in the state of Indiana. Overall SPARQ score (a measure of lifts, sprints, vertical and weight throw): 52.56 (best for guards was 93.3; worst was 42.03).

My take: The high-level coaching is evident. Britt is not a football player who plays with unfocused fury. He’s got quick enough feet to bury you if you turn your back on the block. He also doesn’t seem to overextend himself very often. He stays solid on his feet. Britt’s active hands help him start and finish blocks. He throws them out there quickly and backs them up with punch.

Noah Fenske

Small-town Iowa. No offers from schools that have their own TV networks. No way this works, right?

OK, it always seems to work. Somehow. During the first signing day news conference, Ferentz commented on how camp is a good place to find offensive linemen from Iowa.

That was my question. Ferentz actually misheard it. That can happen in these idiotic settings with a coach answering questions in front of about 35 reporters in a huge room where you can’t hear anything.

His comments were nonetheless interesting. You already know there is a level of recruits who would eat metal to play for the Hawkeyes. They have to show it in camp.

What I asked was are Iowa prep O-linemen the best bet for the Hawkeyes as far as finding multiple-year starters/contributors? Yes, Iowa prep O-linemen are the biggest sample size of recruits for the Hawkeyes, but still, this is where the Hawkeyes find a lot of man hours. It’s clear what Iowa prep OLs mean to the program, and that’s why you can’t yada yada your way through a signee like Fenske.

When Fenske committed to Iowa, he was listed in the 280-pound range. I thought for sure inside OL guy. But then interviewing Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes, he said Fenske was 295 pounds. At 6-4, he probably could play some tackle, but a solid and almost completely unnoticeable 295 pounds as an incoming freshman is the headline here.

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Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Multisport dude with state track medals in throwing. Also, Fenske lists education as his major.

Noteworthy offers: South Dakota State, North Dakota, Iowa

Depth chart in 2019?: Probably not, but Fenske is 295 pounds. Still, playing time as a true freshman on the O-line is rare.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Ross Reynolds

At 6-4, Fenske is probably a bit taller. When Reynolds arrived at Iowa, he was 310 pounds. He played last season at 295. Reynolds started splitting time during his fourth year and started all last season. It took time, but this is what I’m talking about with prep OLs from Iowa. They’re from here. They’re willing to endure. And they usually end up contributing.

Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes — “Noah was at the same camp (as Justin Britt). He did a really good job as a D-tackle. Your typical, tough, hard-nosed Iowa kid. Our best football players are guys who want to be Hawkeyes. You can say that about Noah, Tyler Endres and Ezra Miller. That’s something that’s extremely important. Those guys had bonds and know each other extremely well. Noah is a great kid. He’s extremely tough. He will fit right in that offensive line room.”

Position? “He’ll probably start inside when he gets here, but we’ll see where his body takes him,” Barnes said.

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ESPN rankings: 71st-ranked guard nationally, 131st-ranked prospect in the region and No. 9 in the state of Iowa. No SPARQ numbers available for Fenske, who plays hoops at New Hampton and averaged 2.5 points and 2.0 rebounds per game.

My take: Played both sides of the line of scrimmage for New Hampton. Fenske was really effective at defensive end and showed a ton of athleticism in space against much smaller read-option QBs. Lots of pulls from the offensive tackle position, too. A lot of times when the big guys get moving to the outside, they sort of look like seals trying to hustle across ice on their bellies. Not Fenske. He didn’t spazz out, either. He stayed in control and hit his targets.

Tyler Endres

Tyler Endres committed to the Hawkeyes on the same June 2017 day that tight end Logan Lee did. For Iowa, June afternoons probably don’t get much better.

Lee is highly touted and we’ll get to him.

Endres is huge at 6-6, 300. The Norwalk prep had offers from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa State, so, Endres’ commitment is the Heartland Trophy, Floyd of Rosedale and Cy-Hawk in one fell swoop for the Hawkeyes.

This has to be music to a coach’s ears. This is Endres on the favorite part of his Iowa visit: “Watching practice,” he told HawkeyeReport.com. “I learned how they practice and what they do before practice. I learned how the coaches are during practice.”

Norwalk head coach Paul Patterson told HawkeyeReport.com: “I would say first and foremost being a student of the game. He is constantly asking for feedback. He wants to know what he is doing well. Anytime we’d do one-on-one things, no matter if he did well or didn’t, he would turn around and have a conversation about what he needs to do better. Second is leadership. Third is the growth he has made since his freshman year to now. I am not talking football, I am talking all aspect of life with academics, things outside of here, basketball, track, and in the weight room.”

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Tyler is a relative of late Hawkeye basketball player Chris Street.

Noteworthy offers: Wisconsin, Iowa State, Minnesota, Iowa

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Depth chart in 2019?: With two returning tackles, Iowa shouldn’t need Endres this season.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Andrew Donnal

Donnal was the tackle opposite Brandon Scherff most of his career at Iowa. Donnal came to the Hawkeyes a 6-7, 285-pound 4-star from Ohio. The size comparison is obvious. It took time for Donnal to grow into 320 pounds. By the way, he played with the Lions last season and has earned $2.2 million in four seasons in the NFL. It could take Endres the same time to adjust to what probably will eventually feel like a new body.

Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “Tyler and Ezra are both slotted to be tackles right now, but we’ll see where it goes.”

“Tyler is tearing it up in basketball this year. He’s had a couple of 30-point games. He’s quieter than Ezra, a more reserved personality, but when you get him out here with all of the guys, he gets going a little bit.”

“Those are two big bodies, big boys. That’s what you want offensive linemen to look like.”

ESPN rankings: 27th-ranked offensive tackle, 18th-ranked in the region and No. 1 in Iowa. ESPN also had Endres 250th in its national top 300. Overall SPARQ score (a measure of lifts, sprints, vertical and weight throw): 84.6 (best for tackles was 106.2; worst was 28.65).

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ESPN scouting take — STRENGTHS: Big frame and demonstrates excellent strength. Can control and steer defenders when he gets hands on. Displays good balance and knee bend in pass pro to stay in front of rushers when gets hands on ... AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Can improve hand placement. Shows some upside, but can continue to work on set and while he shows flashes can still refine punch in pass pro ... BOTTOM LINE: Endres is a big, strong tackle that can bend and stay on his feet and with continued technical development demonstrates ability to be a quality starter at Power-5 level.

My take: I’m pretty sure the Class 3A District 8 (what the heck happened to conferences?) athletics directors won’t mind not having to carry a shovel to dig players out of FieldTurf after Endres has buried them. Yes, it’s a highlight reel, but whoa, that’s a lot of knock downs. It’s kind of fun to watch. The defender gets into Endres and then you watch the feet. They start dancing, moving backward and then at some point the feet stop and the defender is on his back. Some of these clips are like cartoons. Endres dives into the line of scrimmage and the entire line of scrimmage starts going the way he’s pushing.

Ezra Miller

Did Tyler Endres seem like a really big dude to be playing Class 3A football in Iowa? Maybe, but we’ll turn this up to 11 with Ezra Miller.

Miller anchored the offensive and defensive lines for the Ridge View Raptors. It’s a Class A program, the smallest 11-player class in Iowa.

Miller is 6-7, 310 pounds. In Class A football. In Iowa. Now, this probably happens a lot and we just don’t hear about it. Bottom line is, when you walk out there, you have to be able to deal with whatever comes at you. Even if it is Class A in Iowa.

6-7, 310 pounds caused problems, as you might imagine.

Miller was flagged a few times for roughness, for basically driving an opponent too far down the field. Like 20 to 30 yards, Ridge View coach Dale Tokheim told HawkeyeReport.com.

What was it like when he was first called for that?

“Honestly, I was like, ‘What?’” he said. “Why is that a penalty? I was just blocking to the whistle. I didn’t understand how far away from the play I was. It still irks me to hear people talk about that.”

Miller has enrolled at Iowa. Class A is in the rearview mirror.

If Miller doesn’t finish blocks now, he’ll get yelled at by O-line coach Tim Polasek.

“Oh yeah, they love that I finish blocks, they love it,” Miller said.

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(Is this something the people who care about prep football in Iowa need to deal with, the major imbalances that show up on occasion? Or will this take care of itself, with the entire state consolidating into maybe 25 regional teams that kids can join? More like football clubs, where the level of competition is more uniform and 6-8, 300-pound guys can face off against each other. I know this is a dystopian view of the future of prep football in Iowa, and I hope it doesn’t go this way. One thing about football, the leaders of the game are obsessed with evening out competition. I think that’s an impossible task, but that’s not going to stop the tinkering.)

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: You can raise an eyebrow about prep postseason all-star games (man, there are a lot of them now), but Miller was invited to three — Pro Football Hall of Fame Bowl, Polynesian Bowl and Offense/Defense Bowl. He also was O-line MVP at Nike’s The Opening in San Francisco.

Noteworthy offers: Iowa State and Iowa

Depth chart in 2019?: Yes. I emphasized the fact that Miller is 6-7, 310. That’s big enough to do this. Also, Miller said Iowa wants him to be ready for reps at guard. Iowa has used a rotation at a guard spot to break in young O-linemen. That could include Miller this year.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Pete McMahon

I’ll bet you were going to say Robert Gallery. There’s a hall of fame wing for biggest linemen of the Ferentz era. Gallery is in there. Brandon Scherff is, too. At 6-8, 330, Pete McMahon might be the grand daddy. He started two seasons for the Hawkeyes (in 2003, he played guard; in 2004, it was right tackle). McMahon banged around the NFL for three seasons.

McMahon was an earth-moving space-eater. Miller is starting with a better pedigree, as far as recruiting goes. McMahon was a walk-on.

Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “Ezra was the first commit and it feels like he’s been committed for three years or so (he did commit to the Hawkeyes 20 months before he signed in December). He’s been down here 30 plus times. He probably would’ve committed a few months earlier if we would’ve let him.”

“He’s the epitome. He knew he wanted to be a Hawkeye. He understands what Iowa is about. He understands what the Iowa O-line tradition is and he’s extremely proud of that. He was a great leader and ambassador for our class, comes from a great family. Ezra is the type of guy who’ll ask, ‘Coach, who do I need to work on next?’ He was that type of guy.”

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On Miller’s trip to San Francisco to compete in The Opening, “He wanted to go compete. He told us he wanted to go out there and prove something and he did. That’s just the type of personality Ezra has.”

ESPN rankings: 28th-ranked offensive tackle, 19th-ranked in the region and No. 2 in Iowa. ESPN ranked Miller No. 262 in its top 300. Overall SPARQ score (a measure of lifts, sprints, vertical and weight throw): 66.6 (best for OTs was 106.2; worst was 28.65).

ESPN scouting take — STRENGTHS: Tall with frame to develop. Displays strength to control and steer defenders. Flashes good range ... AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Flashes ability to come off with pad level and roll hips, but needs to be more consistent in doing that. Can continue to fill out and develop frame ... BOTTOM LINE: Miller is a prospect with some good raw tools and upside as a OL prospect.

My take: Watching Miller’s Hudl tape, on a few snaps you’ll see defenders getting up, looking to their sideline or the referees and put their palms up, the international sign for looking for a flag. The dude wasn’t out there to make friends. On one play, Miller finished a D-lineman and then knocked another one down while he stood at the pile. Yes, yes, this was a mismatch for Iowa Class A football, but watch the way Miller moves in space. Notice how defenders couldn’t disengage. Notice what Miller does with his hands. There will be a leap in competition, but Miller has basically worn the Tigerhawk for 20 months. He knows this and has had time to prepare. If he hangs in camp, he’s playing in 2019.

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

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