In part two of our preseason position preview series, we take a look at the big fellas responsible for keeping the quarterback healthy and opening up lanes for Akrum Wadley to run through.
After winning the Joe Moore award last season, which is given to the most outstanding offensive line unit in the country, it’s fair to expect the O-line to be the most dependable position group this fall.
Seven different offensive lineman made starts for the Hawkeyes last season, and six of those players are returning. The only main contributor that graduated is offensive tackle Cole Croston, who started nine games last season at both tackle positions, and is getting a shot with the champion Patriots. Croston played through nagging injuries through most of the season that hindered his performance, which makes him probably the most dispensable player from the 2016 unit.
While the offensive line was dominant last season, only center James Daniels, who projects to be Iowa’s best lineman entering his junior season, started every single game at the same position. With so much returning experience, the big question for the Hawkeyes up front isn’t who will be playing, but where they’ll be playing.
Senior Sean Welsh won the starting left guard spot as a redshirt freshman in 2014, but he moved over to Right guard full time last season, and was also forced to make a start at right tackle late in the year. Welsh won’t be moving out to tackle full time this season, but it’s comforting to know that he can move outside in a pinch if injuries pop up. It remains to be seen if he stays put on the right side or if he slides back over to left guard.
Senior Boone Myers took over as the starting left tackle in 2015, but the coaching staff saw enough weaknesses in his pass protection ability that caused them to move him inside to left guard for the first five games of last season. However, it was encouraging to see him move back to left tackle in week six and finish the season there. Myers will be the starting left tackle this season, he’s the most proven and reliable tackle on the roster.
Things start to get a little bit tricky with returning starter Ike Boettger. The senior won the starting right tackle job back in 2015 opposite his classmate Myers, but he suffered a mid season injury and by the time he returned to health, he had lost his spot. He regained the confidence of the coaching staff last season and started every game as a result, but he was all over the place on the line. Boettger was playing right tackle to start the season, but moved over to left guard before week 6 so that Myers could kick out to tackle and Croston could move back over to right tackle after struggling mightily on the left side.
That alignment lasted just one game before Boettger had to move over to left tackle for two games to fill in for an injured Myers. By the time Myers came back, Croston’s shin injury became too much to handle so he was shut down for the rest of the regular season, pushing Boettger back to where he started out the year, right tackle. Boettger started the Outback bowl at left guard as Croston came back.
What does all of that moving around mean for Boettger in 2017?
If Myers and Croston stayed healthy last season, it’s very possible that Boettger would have made eight starts at guard instead of just two, so the coaching staff definitely believes he can be a good fit inside. But when looking at Boettger’s entire body of work, 15 of his 19 career starts have come at right tackle, and that’s where he will most likely start out in 2017.
That leaves one open starting spot at guard, most likely on the left side. The front runner in the clubhouse is redshirt junior Keegan Render.
Render actually started in more than half of the games for the Hawkeyes last season, filling in for an injured Sean Welsh against North Dakota State, and then taking over at left guard the last six games of the regular season while Myers and Croston were sidelined. The Hawkeyes had some of their best offensive performances with Render in the lineup, and with his size at 6’4 310 lbs, there’s plenty to be excited about with Render and his future at Iowa. Redshirt sophomore Levi Paulsen made a start at right guard against Illinois last season, and he along with his twin brother Landan could push Render in camp, but the smart money is on Render to be the fifth and final piece of this offensive line.
If Render struggles, or if the Hawkeyes suffer some injuries up front, there are two very young and intriguing tackle prospects that could see time. Redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson is 6’7 320lbs and he has a basketball background that can hopefully translate to the football field in terms of athleticism and footwork on the edge.
Triston Wirfs, a true freshman and four star recruit out of Mount Vernon, Iowa, is also a player to keep an eye on when the Hawkeyes open up camp.
With the combination of young talent, experience, and past success; there will be plenty of optimism surrounding the Hawkeyes offensive line this season. Having this strong of an O-line should be able to take a ton of pressure off of the inexperienced group of quarterbacks.