IOWA CITY — The “Tyler Linderbaum to center” thing almost felt preordained.
Sure, he was a defensive tackle from day one last year during his freshman season. The Solon native even saw 18 snaps in four games. He was one of the 11 defensive linemen on the travel squad. With the graduation of defensive tackles Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks, it really looked like Linderbaum was on his way to a serious chunk of playing time at defensive tackle.
Then, before the Hawkeyes took off to Tampa, Fla., for the Outback Bowl, Linderbaum was shuffled to center. He did play the position some at Solon, but this was more head coach Kirk Ferentz seeing the potential at a position he considers supremely important.
Ferentz has had two sons play center for him at Iowa. It’s a position that year after year grabs his attention. He clearly is a center aficionado.
“‘Red Dog Center,’ I remember reading that book as a kid,” Ferentz said, referencing a book about nuclear disarmament and football. “Mike Webster in Pittsburgh ... Being a line coach by trade, you need a center to play. Ironically, years ago, high school coaches would put the big, clunky guy there. To me, it’s just the opposite.”
Why Linderbaum? Ferentz said he could “sense it.”
“Now that we’ve seen him do it, I think we made the right decision,” Ferentz said.
Sometimes, we like to think these big football decisions come with a “breaking news” bulletin or trumpets. At Iowa, it’s more like a tap on the shoulder and simply moving your stuff to a different meeting room.
Linderbaum was called into Ferentz’s office the day after the Nebraska season finale. The next day, Linderbaum was out taking snaps at center, with Ferentz standing watch.
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“I guess that was the first ‘official,’ I guess, time I tried it, when he called me in,” said the 6-3, 286-pounder. It bummed him out at first. Linderbaum spent the season getting to know a high-achieving group of defensive linemen. He also made strides at the position.
But then, you know, the head coach called him into the office. That’s a call you have to take.
“I have to look at it, ‘This is what coach Ferentz wanted me to do,’” Linderbaum said. “He’s been around for 20 years. I’m going to take this role and attack it, that was my mentality.”
The “attacking” started on the first day. Offensive line coach Tim Polasek gave Linderbaum homework on the first day.
“I gave him some things to do on his own and he banged them out,” Polasek said. “The last guy I had who responded to a self project like that was Carson Wentz.”
Polasek was offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles QB at North Dakota State.
“I’m not comparing him to Carson Wentz, but character-wise, ‘It’s holy smokes, he just knocked down this assignment,’” Polasek said. “This guy wants information. This is going to be fine.”
There were clues that Linderbaum could handle this, of course. Last summer, as an incoming freshman, Linderbaum played baseball for Solon, participated in the Hawkeyes’ summer workouts and began taking classes at the UI.
“I’ve enjoyed all of the teachable moments,” Polasek said. “I just love this guy’s competitiveness. I can see in a few years down the road how this might be tough for me to talk about. That’s how I see this relationship going.”
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By the way, homework for a center is more complex than you might think. The center is in charge of identifying what front the defense is in and pointing out the middle linebacker. Of course, the defense doesn’t make this easy.
“D-linemen don’t have to think that much, they just have to react,” Linderbaum said. “On offensive line, a little more thinking goes into it, especially at center. The thing that’s really helped me is being around the guys who have done this for a while.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was the Hawkeyes’ center in 2003 and 2005. He is one of those guys who’s been around for a while.
He was asked about Linderbaum’s transition this week.
“I would just say this, the fact that we’re not sitting here talking about him is a really positive thing,” said Brian Ferentz, who was Iowa’s O-line coach for five years before becoming offensive coordinator. “The experience I’ve had with coaching first-year centers, the fact that it’s not a storyline, I think is a positive.”
That’s a “so far, so good.”
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