Spring Outlook: Raising Level at Tackle, Settling Inside of O-Line
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Tim Polasek isn’t easily satisfied. It’s how Iowa’s intense offensive line coach is wired.
In speaking about his unit and individual players Tuesday here at the football performance center, Polasek finished his compliments with “but we’re not there yet” or “we’ve got a ways to go.” He desired more urgency and quicker development.
It’s his way of motivating a group that needs cohesion. That comes through individual improvement while building chemistry as a whole.
“It’s never good enough. The second those guys have the thought process that they have it licked or that they’ve arrived, they get beat. Those guys don’t want to do that,” Polasek said
Much of that caution is directed at veteran tackles Tristan Wirfs (6-5, 320) and Alaric Jackson (6-6, 320), who between them have started 44 games. Despite their progress towards potentially leaving school a year early for the NFL after the 2019 season, work must be done in reaching that point.
“They’re competing at a high level. They’re very intentional about moving forward and they’re really competitive guys,” Polasek said.
They’re being challenged this spring, placed in uncomfortable situations. Tuesday, the coaches flipped their positions unannounced, putting Wirfs at left tackle and Jackson on the right.
Last month, Wirfs grabbed national headlines with his weight room exploits. By hang-cleaning 450 pounds four times, he set an Iowa record previously held by Outland Trophy winner and Washington Redskins’ first-round pick, Brandon Scherff.
Polasek and head coach Kirk Ferentz have been tamping down the hype. The latter said two weeks ago that he’d like to see Wirfs move defenders like he moves weights.
Wirfs was asked about Ferentz’s comment on Tuesday. He fully agreed with the coach and admitted he needed to be better, particularly in run blocking.
“I think he’s doing a better job, conceptually, handling things. And we all know, when a guy has an understanding of how to do something, why he’s doing it, what’s he doing, then you can get to the point where you can play fast. We’re getting closer to his full potential,” Polasek said.
The book ends are pushed at practice daily. Defensive ends Chauncey Golston and A.J. Epenesa rank among the best in the Big Ten, if not the country.
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While the tackles are fine-tuning and polishing their games, the interior of the offensive line needs settling. The Hawkeyes are replacing starting center Keegan Render and left guard Ross Reynolds.
Cole Banwart (6-4, 300) brings stability whether he ends up back at his starting right guard spot or at center. While he hasn’t played in the middle during a game, he has plenty of practice reps there.
Banwart’s comfort at center and the coaches’ confidence in him playing there has allowed them to provide redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum (6-3, 285) most of the reps at the spot this spring. He moved from defensive tackle during December bowl prep.
So far, so good.
“I think he’s a tempo changer,” Polasek said. “Now, he’s got a long way to go, but we’ve been impressed. None of this has been a surprise. I think he’s on the right track.”
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If Linderbaum hits a wall in development, Banwart could slide in front of the quarterback. If not, he likely be back as the No. 1 right guard.
Banwart has battled injuries throughout the last two years. When healthy, he’s been solid.
“You love Cole’s intuitiveness. You love his understanding of what we’re doing. Very rarely does he make a mental error,” Polasek said.
“Cole’s got some technique things that he’s got to get squared away in order to be a high-level, productive player, snap to snap. He has a tendency to want to lean on guys and grab them.”
Twins Levi and Landan Paulsen (both 6-5, 305) are pushing for starting roles heading into their final season. Levi is working at right guard and tackle, and Landan at left guard. They bring leadership and a knowledge of the system.
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Redshirt sophomore Mark Kallenberger (6-5, 288) could be a wild card in this puzzle. He’s working behind Jackson at left tackle but also receiving reps at left guard.
“Mark, some days he’s pushing it through. Other days, we take a couple steps back. I’m hopeful for Mark. I’m wishing the best for him. He kind of has to make that happen,” Polasek said.
“It’s like the Wally Pipp-type story. Go in there and do it.”
Iowa isn’t afraid of putting someone like Kallenberger, who’s built like a traditional tackle, inside.
“The guys that are the grittiest, that give us the best chance, regardless of size or assumptions, we don’t care. We’re going to play the best five guys regardless of body type,” Polasek said.
Redshirt freshman Jack Plumb (6-7, 266) leads a group of young players trying to catch up. He holds an experience edge having worked in the offense during the fall when others ran with the scout team.
Fellow redshirt freshmen Cody Ince (6-4, 280) and Jeff Jenkins (6-3, 265) are receiving their first extended look this spring. The same goes for incoming freshman Ezra Miller (6-6, 315), who enrolled during January.
“All those guys are doing a good job. It’s not good enough. I like the fact that they’re competitive guys, but they need to be better, faster,” Polasek said.