Opportunity Knocks for Inexperienced Hawkeye Offensive Tackles in Week 1

August 30, 2018

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Maybe you hadn’t heard Iowa will be without its starting offensive tackles when it opens the season Saturday against Northern Illinois. We hope you enjoyed your time in the cave.

The main talking point leading into this matchup of Big Ten vs. MAC has been how the Hawkeyes will handle dynamic NIU defensive end Sutton Smith, who earned all-American honors last year when he led the nation in tackles for loss (29.5) to go with 14 sacks. And the Huskies brought back plenty of help for him from a unit that ranked 32nd nationally in scoring defense.

It would have presented a stiff challenge for starters Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. It’s become more concerning with the inexperienced trio of Mark Kallenberger (redshirt freshman), former walk-on Dalton Ferguson and Levi Paulsen, who are expected to rotate through at tackle on Saturday.

While there’s been some worry floating around outside the Iowa locker room, there doesn’t seem to be much in it.

“As far as expectations, I think they’ll go out there and just play their game,” Iowa center Keegan Render said. “The expectation for Iowa linemen is to go out there and just compete hard and finish every play.”

Outside of Render, members of Iowa’s projected starting offensive line for Saturday has one collective start. No. 1 left guard Ross Reynolds got that in last year’s season-opener. He did rotate into games throughout the ’17 campaign. Third-year sophomore Cole Banwart was expected to start at right guard Saturday.

The focus isn’t on the interior of the line, though. It’s directly on the tackles protecting starting quarterback Nate Stanley, who has a pair of freshmen backing him up.

“Anytime you go in shorthanded at any position, it’s a concern,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “To have two guys out at one position is not ideal. The good news is right now we have three guys that I think have practiced well.”

Render started his first game against North Dakota State in ’16 and has opened the last 21 games for the Hawkeyes. He remembers the jitters his first time out there and he’ll be doing his best to calm everyone down on Saturday. He says the key is having short-term memory.

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“There are going to be ups and downs, but you just have to keep going. That’s the biggest thing that you realize when you play. There might be a play you don’t do well on. They may have a better call or something. But you just have to come back and do it the next play. For them the biggest thing is confidence and knowing that they have the technique and ability to go out there and compete,” he said.

Kallenberger came to Iowa from Bettendorf with high expectations as one of the state’s top players. He showed well last fall and improved as the season went on. Had the new rule that allows true freshmen to play in four games while retaining a redshirt been in place during ’17, Ferentz said Kallenberger may have seen game action.

“Needless to say, Mark impressed us in high school. We really liked him as a prospect. And then once you get a prospect on campus, you learn a lot more,” the coach said.

“Mark really impressed us last year. He competed well. He worked with our twos quite a bit in the fall. He’s had his ups and downs since then, like every guy on the team, but he really has rallied the last two weeks, practicing well, and he’s got a good future here. So hopefully he’ll play well Saturday and carry that all season long.”

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Said Render: “I see a guy that takes what he learns on the field and applies it to the meetings and then from there applies it to the next practice. Mark has done a good job of correcting things. Some things aren’t always going to be perfect but he learns. You never really see repeat mistakes.”

Kallenberger is expected to open up at left tackle. Ferguson is slated to start on the right side. Paulsen will rotate in.

Ferguson walked on from Solon. He impressed the coaches early but went through two major knee surgeries. He never gave up.

He and Render enrolled at Iowa together and became good friends. Ferguson has earned the respect of his teammates.

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“I couldn’t be more proud of him and I trust him out there just like the rest of the guys. It’s rewarding for the rest of us to see Dalton get to this point and have an opportunity,” Render said.

One thing working in favor of the inexperienced tackles is that they’ve been facing talented defensive ends in practice. Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson, A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston consistently challenge blockers. The difference now is it counts.

“The bottom line is (Iowa’s offensive tackles) haven’t played a lot, and their guys are veteran, the guys from Northern Illinois are. It’ll be interesting to watch, but I think they’ll be prepared,” Ferentz said.

Even Render will be working at a position where he’s seen limited action. He’s only started one game at center.

“I’m interested in how that will be, but I’m more interested in how the whole O-line is going to be out there,” he said. “We’ll see how everything plays out on Saturday but I’m confident in our group up front. I think we’ll come off the ball and attack them.”

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