Iowa football starts in the trenches with the offensive and defensive lines. With a potential first round pick manning the left tackle spot, Iowa’s offensive line looks pretty strong.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was once an NFL offensive line coach so he knows what NFL coaches want and how to teach it. This translates into success for Iowa offensive linemen in their college and professional careers. Typically, if a player starts for Iowa on the offensive line, they will get a chance to play in the NFL. This held true when Iowa’s 2 graduating starters last season got tryouts in the NFL. This preview will look at Kirk Ferentz’s coaching specialty, the offensive line.
Left Tackle: Brandon Scherff (#68, Senior (RS), 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, Denison (IA) HS)
Normally people don’t pay attention to the offensive linemen when they watch football. They normally keep their eyes on the skill positions: quarterback, running backs, wide receivers, and sometimes the tight ends. Sometime though, watch Brandon Scherff, the left tackle, play.
He is an absolute monster on the football field, knocking his opponent to the turf or pushing him back 10 yards and out of the play. He may not have the technique of Iowa’s past first round picks of Bryan Bulaga or Riley Reiff but he has the tenacity and strength of Robert Gallery. Scherff should find himself being drafted in the first round, with some draft pundits putting him in the top 10. Ferentz said that if he entered this year he would’ve been taken in the top 20, just think of how good he will be with another year under Ferentz’s coaching.
The sky is the limit for the All-Big-Ten performer. He has the NFL scout’s attention he just needs to do what he has done for the past two seasons and perform. He is great in both the running and passing game and has no glaring weaknesses. Look for him to have another stellar season and hear his name called very early in the NFL draft.
Right Tackle: Andrew Donnal (#78, Senior (RS), 6-foot-7, 305 pounds, Anthony Wayne HS (Monclova, OH))
Donnal’s redshirt sophomore season he was the the designated first man off the bench. When Austin Blythe went down his freshman year Donnal started and played well. Then he got injured and was ruled out the season against Penn State.
Last year, he was once again the designated first man off the bench. He played in every game at right guard though he never started. There was speculations whether he would move over to right tackle after Van Sloten graduated. It made sense with his size and experience and Kirk Ferentz made the move.
Donnal is very similar to Iowa’s past right tackles. He is very tall and wide, he has good technical skill, and is very experienced. He also isn’t flashy, he doesn’t jump out of the game film like Scherff. He quietly does his job and does it well. He lacks athleticism like Iowa’s former right tackles so he doesn’t have as high as a NFL ceiling like Scherff, but he does have the mental toughness and skill to make a team and be a meaningful back-up.
That being said, he is making a position change. With his experience, he shouldn’t have too many growing pains but there may be some.
Expect a solid, unspectacular season. He may have a rough August but he will get better as the season goes on. He will be a very solid right tackle for quarterback Jake Rudock and will help open up holes for the running game.
Center: Austin Blythe (#63, Junior (RS), 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, Williamsburg (IA) HS)
Blythe came to Iowa as a 3 star prospect but right away made a splash in summer camp. Ferentz lauded his talent and said that if they weren’t already solid at the center position with James Ferentz, Blythe would’ve avoided redshirt and possibly started. But Iowa did have James Ferentz manning the spot so Blythe redshirted and started at guard his freshman redshirt season. He got injured and lost his starting spot his freshman year but the next year started at center and was very good.
He was so good in fact that going into this season he is on the Rimington Watch List for best center. He has been praised by the coaching staff as a technician with great leadership. The center is the one who calls a lot of the blocking assignments at Iowa so they need to be both talented and intelligent.
Blythe has the potential to be the best center in the country, that’s his ceiling for this year. He probably won’t be that good, but he will be a very good player. Some draft pundits have him a possible second round pick in the NFL Draft if he leaves his junior year. Centers don’t usually declare early but if he has a phenomenal year, he just might.
Right Guard: Jordan Walsh (#65, Junior (RS), 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, Glenbard West HS (Glendale Heights, IL))
Jordan Walsh was a little bit of a surprise last year as many thought Donnal would start at right tackle. Donnal was still recovering from his injury and missed some spring practices and as a result Walsh was first string. Walsh continued his ride on top of the depth chart throughout August and didn’t relinquish it all season. He was solid, but not spectacular. He was only a sophomore so expect great improvement from him.
Coming out of high school, Walsh was a very highly regarded recruit. His offer sheet included Wisconsin, Nebraska, USC, Michigan, among others. While being a highly regarded recruit doesn’t mean that he will pan out, there are a lot of examples where it did (Bryan Bulaga, Riley Reiff.) I’m not saying that he will be anywhere as good as those two, just that we don’t need to worry about him too much.
Walsh will probably make the biggest jump out of all the offensive linemen. Typically players at Iowa make their biggest jump between their sophomore and junior years. They have been through the system long enough and their bodies are physically ready. Watch for him to possibly turn into a great offensive guard for us this season.
Left Guard Sean Welsh (#79 Freshman (RS) 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, Springboro HS (Springboro, Ohio))
That’s right; there is a Walsh starting at right guard and a Welsh starting at left. That’s not going to be confusing at all. Where Jordan Walsh waited for his turn to start, Sean Welsh didn’t. After redshirting last season, Welsh is number one on the depth chart for now. I say for now because a very good player is sitting right behind him and ready to take it at the slightest hesitation.
I’m not trying to take anything away from Welsh who the coaches have said is a tremendous player. I’m just saying that of all the starting players on this offensive line, Welsh is the one that I’m most worried about. He has the least amount of experience of all the offensive linemen and is the smallest.
With all those things said, I do have high hopes for him. Kirk Ferentz likes having the top five offensive linemen play, regardless of position. That is why in the past, he has had Riley Reiff and Bryan Bulaga step onto the field when they were young freshmen. They started at guard because an established left tackle was there and they switched them over to tackle. I don’t think that Welsh will be able to do that as he lacks the height that left tackles need, but he could become a phenomenal guard.
Ryan Ward (#73, Sophomore (RS), 6-foot-5, 290 pounds, Providence Catholic HS (Homer Glen, IL))
Ryan Ward is now backing up the left guard position on the depth chart but more likely he is the back up for every position on the depth chart. Ferentz often has the best offensive linemen on the field, regardless of ability. If a man goes down, he puts the next best guy in there. They may shuffle it up a little, but the idea stays the same. Say that Scherff gets injured. Donnal would probably move over to left tackle and one of the guards would step over to right tackle and Ward would fill a guard spot.
For now though, he is a back-up which surprised many people. During his first year on campus, he was praised by the coaches. He was being compared to Reiff and Bulaga, as future left tackles who start at guard freshman year. But he didn’t start; instead he got some spot duty, but not much meaningful action. Then he was passed up by a redshirt freshman and now he is the backup. Don’t be surprised if that changes though. He has the talent and the size, he just needs to put it all together.