IOWA CITY — Let’s say Iowa hired Tim Polasek last winter not as an offensive line coach but as a computer programmer.
Let’s say senior offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger were the computers Polasek thought he’d be using. A couple of tried and trusty Apple MacBook Pro MF839LL/A or whatever computer programmers use.
Three games into the job, one of those computers suffered a torn Achilles (Boettger) and the other ruined its ankle like a week into camp and went into the shop just two weeks into the Big Ten schedule.
After the Michigan State game on Sept. 30, Polasek took new computers out of the box and built them as they were being used to code. Then-freshmen tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs were those computers. Right out of the box and right onto the field.
Polasek laughed a little while the question was being asked. Ultimately, it was a story of personal growth. Maybe for everyone.
Polasek talked about just “coaching” Iowa’s system, but not really “using it.” That’s probably the difference between year 1 and year 2 for the former North Dakota State offensive coordinator who officially coached offensive line for the first time last year.
“Can you take advantage of the system and make it work for you or are you just teaching through the notes and teaching through what you learned in one year from a couple of coaches?” Polasek said. “Now, we’re in there and we’re able to problem solve faster.
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“It was an unbelievable football season for me. As far as the learning curve and being around coach (Kirk) Ferentz and Brian (Ferentz, offensive coordinator) and the experience I had and was able to gain, I hope to be able to put that stamp on the offensive line here moving forward, not just next year but for years to come.”
Hey, Polasek survived. Jackson and Wirfs are poised to be Iowa’s starting tackles for 2018. No football team is ever disaster-proof, but losing both starting offensive tackles is a lightning strike.
“At least the way we practice, the kids know, ‘Hey, your time can come quicker than you think,’” Polasek said. “To be honest, I’m always preaching that, but to preach it and then have it be reality is two separate things.”
There is no way to calculate how much Iowa missed Boettger and Myers. Would they have been worth 25 more rushing yards a game? Would that have factored in, for example, the Penn State game, when the Hawkeyes lost on the final play? It totally would’ve.
Polasek said he mostly was OK with the performances of Jackson and Wirfs, who are now a redshirt sophomore and sophomore, respectively. They were thrown into an unprecedented situation. In Kirk Ferentz’s 19 seasons, a true freshman had never started at offensive tackle. Wirfs replaced Myers and started the final eight games, including a start at left tackle in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“I think, overall, the two young kids who played handled it,” Polasek said. “Looking back at the film, all of the film, there are different points in the season we could point at. Those kids did everything they could and there are mistakes, but overall, they played pretty well.”
Jackson was named a freshman all-American by the Football Writers Association of America.
Jackson and Wirfs lived and now they’re the whatever cool computer coders use. Who’s left tackle and who’s right is up in the air. Jackson is better at left tackle, Polasek said, because his strong hand limits him on the right side.
The new tackles were a thing, and Iowa’s rush offense struggled. The Hawkeyes rushed for 424 fewer yards in 2017 than they did in ’16 (2,234 compared to 1,810). The 1,810 yards was Iowa’s worst output since 2012. Iowa failed to rush for 100 yards in all five of its losses.
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Beyond the learning curve of the tackle situation, defenses threw a ton of different fronts at Iowa. Nothing crazy and, with Iowa’s reputation rooted in a heavy running game, Polasek said nothing really threw them there. What had a harder time dropping for Iowa were the adjustments. Defenses threw enough at the Hawkeyes to make them play a step slower and, thus, the Hawkeyes’ running game had a tough time achieving that “stronger in the fourth quarter” effect that wins games for heavy running teams.
“Everyone wants you to step out there and run the football down people’s throats from jump street,” Polasek said. “That normally happens somewhere in the third quarter or maybe the second quarter. It takes some time. That’s what we have to be a better job of this year. We need to identify what the defense is trying to do. Let’s make some communications, let’s play fast and get on our aim points. Let’s do some good things.”
Polasek still has flashbacks.
“There are too many moments that I look at where I should’ve been better or could’ve been better,” Polasek said. “I wish there were fewer of those moments. That’s the objective, right? Eliminate the bad and replace it with the good.”
That also would work as a T-shirt for Iowa offensive line 2018.
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