Iowa Football

Lights, camera and grittiness: Pieces coming together for Iowa's offensive line

Offensive line coach Tim Polasek sets sights on finding the best five

Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs warms up with offensive line coach Tim Polasek during spring practice last week. (Marc Morehouse/The Gazette)
Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs warms up with offensive line coach Tim Polasek during spring practice last week. (Marc Morehouse/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Back in the day, Happy Joe’s had a sundae that was so enormous that when you ordered it, the wait staff sounded a siren to let everyone know someone was going to attempt something maybe kind of cool.

Or, you know, stunt eating.

That principle is alive on “max out” day in the Iowa weight room. Except for, you know, the sundae part.

About a month ago, the Hawkeyes ended their winter workouts with maxes. Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle got the camera out. Doyle is as old-school as it gets, so when the camera is out, everyone knows something big is about to happen.

Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs powered through four reps of 450 pounds in the hang clean. The 6-5, 320-pounder set a record, topping former Iowa O-lineman and current Washington Redskin Brandon Scherff, who set the weight room video precedent with three reps of 443 pounds in the hang clean in 2014.

Teammates gathered around Wirfs on March 12 and he hit the reps. After he cleared the last one and dropped the weight, teammates mobbed the Mount Vernon native.

“Just the atmosphere in there,” Wirfs said Tuesday. “I couldn’t have done that if I walked in there just any other day without my teammates in there hyping me up.

“ ... Whenever there’s a camera in there, you get a little bit more in the tank. There’s just something about it.”

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Wirfs passed the hang clean record every day on his way to the weight room. It’s listed on a wall in the hallway with all of the other weight-room records.

“That was something I really wanted, that record,” Wirfs said. “And now I got it.”

In the run-up talks with Doyle, Wirfs thought maybe he’d have 445 pounds on the bar.

“He said, ‘I know what you’re going to have on the bar, I just want to hear what you thought,’” Wirfs said. “The week before I hit 420 twice and it felt pretty light. He took a video of that and told me to watch it 100 times. And that’s what I did for a whole week, just watching that video he sent me.”

So, Iowa offensive line 2019 is off to a good start.

Of course, it’s not just feats of strength with Wirfs. Fellow tackle Alaric Jackson did his weight-room thing. Because Kirk Ferentz nerds out on centers like Winnie the Pooh goes bananas for honey, the offensive line received a boost in bowl prep when freshman Tyler Linderbaum was moved from defensive tackle to center.

Iowa has competition for the two guard spots with seniors Levi and Landan Paulsen, junior Cole Banwart and, maybe, sophomore Mark Kallenberger, a tackle body who might be pushing for a starting spot somewhere.

Offensive line coach Tim Polasek is in a good spot in his third season, but if he felt the reporters become complacent during Tuesday’s news conference, he would’ve had them doing burpees.

His themes remain. “It’s never good enough.” “It’s a race to maturity.”

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In his first season, Polasek lost a pair of senior tackles for the season by week 3. The replacements were Wirfs and Jackson. This will be their third year as starters.

Part of a coach's job is to let the players play and figure out their improvement. Iowa’s edge blockers and defenders are kind of blessed that way. Wirfs and Jackson practice against defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston.

No one is worried about bruised egos. These might be the Hawkeyes' four best football players going into 2019. You’re going to win some and lose some.

“A.J. and Tristan are competing at a high level,” Polasek said. “I think they’re very intentional about moving forward and they’re really competitive guys.”

During Tuesday’s practice, the offensive tackles flipped so they could get a different look against a different player.

“Where can you take your skill set? Where can you take your mentality?” Polasek said. “Can you handle a little bit of adversity and still be a dominant guy? I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Linderbaum isn’t officially the starter, but coaches speak like he is. Frankly, they have since the move from D-tackle to center first came up last December.

“We’ve given Linderbaum the vast majority (of snaps), and we’re just ‘Let’s find out if he can do it’ attitude.

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“Tyler Linderbaum is a really good kid. What I mean by that is he’s not going to leave that group hanging.”

On the inside, it’s mix and match right now. Kallenberger, who started one game at tackle last season, plays guard on Tuesdays and Thursdays this spring because Landan Paulsen has class.

You can put Wirfs and Jackson in Sharpie. Linderbaum is progressing toward pen. Polasek said he feels like Banwart is starter level. And then you’re probably going to have one of the Paulsens.

The guiding principle remains “best five” for Iowa’s offensive line. It’s a long way until depth charts really matter, but the pieces are starting to move and starting to hang clean 450 pounds four times.

“We’re going to play the five best guys who can block and understand what the heck is going on out there and who go in and fight and really compete,” Polasek said. “Because at the end of the day, what it kind of comes down to, it always circles back to how gritty you are. You’ve got to go hard.”

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

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