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Leistikow: Is Iowa football's offensive line as 'soft' as ESPN report suggested?


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IOWA CITY – For the second time in three Tuesday news conferences, Kirk Ferentz used the same historical analogy when referring to his 2022 offensive line. That’s a sure sign that Iowa’s 24th-year head football coach has been thinking (or stewing) about this topic a lot recently.

Ahead of Iowa’s game at Ohio State and again Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s contest at Purdue, Ferentz referred to the 1984 season when he was a fourth-year offensive line coach with the Hawkeyes. The prior year, 1983, they were experienced up front and produced a 9-2 regular season (including a memorable win vs. Ohio State) but graduated seven senior offensive linemen from their first two units. He remembers that despite having an experienced quarterback in Chuck Long in 1984, the offense was up and down behind a young offensive line; luckily, an elite running back in Ronnie Harmon could bail them out at times.

“We just worked through it,” Ferentz said. “A year later, we were in the Rose Bowl.”

There might not be a more celebrated season for Iowa football than 1985, when Hayden Fry’s Hawkeyes were No. 1 in the nation for five weeks and claimed the program's only outright Big Ten Conference title of the past 60 years. Now Ferentz, with his references to what that 1984 line became a year later, isn’t adamantly forecasting that the 2023 Hawkeyes are going to roar to the top of the national rankings. But that was his way of explaining that the struggles of his offensive line should be temporary while understanding this has been an incredibly disappointing year for the Hawkeyes’ worst-in-the-Big Ten offense.

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For Ferentz, the offensive line has always been personal. It’s where he drifts during practices. It’s the area where his football expertise is most acknowledged and respected. That’s why it can’t sit well with Ferentz to hear about a recent report from ESPN’s Pete Thamel.

"Talking to coaches this week who have played the Hawkeyes, the biggest surprise to me was that they said Iowa’s offensive line was both soft and underwhelming with talent,” Thamel said on Saturday’s "College GameDay" broadcast. “And that’s obviously counter to what we’ve come to expect from Iowa’s offensive identity.”

Before answering whether he thought his line is soft, Ferentz asked of that report: “Unnamed sources?”

Correct.

“I'd say we've been inexperienced and inconsistent," Ferentz said. "That's what I would say."

The only lineman brought to Iowa’s media availability Tuesday was fifth-year senior Jack Plumb, who got his first start of the season in Saturday’s 33-13 win vs. Northwestern. Plumb said he hadn’t heard the ESPN report until a reporter brought it to his attention Tuesday. But he was willing to respond to it.

“I don’t think we’re soft,” Plumb said. “In practice, we’re hitting each other, thumping pads every day. Sooner or later, we’ll prove it to the rest of the world.”

Now, of course, it would be like pouring gasoline on a fire if any Hawkeye coach or player publicly agreed with the ESPN report. But Ferentz’s explanation Tuesday wasn’t necessarily disagreeing that his young offensive line – four sophomores and a freshman started two Saturdays ago at No. 2 Ohio State – needs more time to age.

To that point, Ferentz referenced the injury issues in his recruiting Class of 2021. Of the five offensive linemen in that group, only one (Connor Colby) was healthy as a true freshman. David Davidkov, Gennings Dunker, Michael Myslinski and Beau Stephens all missed significant time. And then throw in the fact that this year’s starting center, redshirt sophomore Logan Jones, was an injured defensive tackle in 2021 … Ferentz does have a point when he said, “You have to play football, practice out there, be out there – especially in the lines.”

Ferentz can justifiably be criticized for an outdated offense, for choosing to double down on his son as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, for an inability to properly acquire help through the transfer portal when Iowa clearly needed help. But the offensive line is one area that he knows a thing or two about getting right, and he seemed confident Tuesday that the roster personnel and coaching are up to his standards.

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"These guys are all young guys with great futures. They've got good work ethics, all that," Ferentz said. "They need work. I think we've got the right guys. We'd like to get them to age a little faster."

As outsiders wondered what was going wrong with Iowa's offense, second-year offensive line coach George Barnett became a potential culprit; that maybe he was a bad hire to replace Tim Polasek (who left to become Wyoming’s offensive coordinator after the 2020 season). But Ferentz unequivocally believes in Barnett. He called Barnett an “excellent teacher" and noted that Barnett was demonstrating “the patience of a saint” with the injury and youth issues this roster has experienced. Potential veterans Justin Britt (season-ending knee injury) and Cody Ince (retired after spring ball) haven’t been able to play. Signees from 2018 to 2020 like Jeff Jenkins (retired), Ezra Miller (transferred to Nebraska), Noah Fenske (transferred to Colorado), Tyler Endres (not in Iowa's two-deep) and Josh Volk (not in two-deep) didn't work out as planned. And Ferentz revealed Tuesday that redshirt junior Nick DeJong has been playing through injuries as a rotational guard.

“They're getting excellent coaching. That's one thing I do know a little something about,” Ferentz said. “George is an outstanding coach. They're good, young guys. Those guys are working hard, trying their tails off. Sometimes, you have to learn the hard way, too. That's called education.”

Also, the narrative that Iowa’s strength and conditioning program isn’t producing strong enough and mean enough guys since Chris Doyle’s departure in the wake of racial-discrimination accusations in the summer of 2020 is unfounded. Under Raimond Braithwaite’s direction, Iowa’s offensive linemen are setting weight-room records. As left tackle Mason Richman said on the team’s media day, these guys look like a Big Ten offensive line – the guards and tackles being either 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 and between 315 and 320 pounds with athleticism. And if team toughness was lacking, Iowa's defense wouldn't rank No. 1 nationally in yards per play allowed (3.91).

Barnett said in August that he was impressed with his line’s physicality and the way they "strike" opponents and said, "They’re going to make mistakes. But, man, they’re doing it at full speed.”

A few hours after the “soft” report aired on ESPN, the Hawkeyes unveiled an offensive-line shakeup vs. Northwestern, with Colby at left guard for the first time in his career and Plumb at right tackle. Ferentz was encouraged that this line would “gain ground” in November.

Plumb also correctly noted that Iowa played the three best teams in the Big Ten – all with top-six national defenses − in its first three games of October, when the Hawkeyes' offensive issues were accentuated.

“It’s been tough, but Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois − they’re all top-ranked defenses,” Plumb said. “So, we can’t beat our heads in too much going against them. But it’s really helped us grow. It’s starting to move forward for us.”

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At 4-4 overall, the Hawkeyes could use another two wins to reach a bowl game to guarantee another two to four weeks of December practices for this offensive line. Richman and Colby (both sophomores) on the left side could become a thing; coaches love the fast growth they’re seeing from Jones at center; Ferentz on Tuesday described Stephens as having “uncommon strength” at right guard. And coming in January? Five-star offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor of Southeast Polk.

If the Iowa offensive line is being described as soft now, the message from the offensive-line guru who cut his coach teeth under legendary line expert Joe Moore doesn't think it will be that way for long.

“When all the (outside) shots are getting fired, I'm just sitting back knowing what I know,” Ferentz said. “All we can ask for our guys to do is the best they can do. I think they've done a pretty good job of that.

“Hopefully we'll be less soft in the future and maybe more experienced and a little bit more able to control tempo. Because when you can do that, you're really in business. That's what every coach hopes for.”

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Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.