The 2012 Hawkeye offensive line will undergo something of a rebuilding process.
It will have to replace first-round draft pick Riley Reiff, fifth-round pick Adam Gettis and would-have-been drafted Markus Zusevics, who tore his pectoral muscle at the NFL Scouting Combine.
The good news is the offensive line is as deep as I can remember it ever being, featuring 10 players all with a legitimate chance to grab a starting spot.
The offensive line also has a new position coach in Brian Ferentz, a former Hawkeye center, former New England Patriots tight end coach and son of Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz.
The only starter that can be written in ink is senior James Ferentz, who will reprise his role as the starting center.
The players competing for playing time are senior Matt Tobin; juniors Nolan MacMillan, Brett Van Sloten, Drew Clark and Conor Boffeli; sophomores Brandon Scherff, Andrew Donnal and Eric Simmons; and redshirt freshmen Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh.
Other players on the roster include walk-on sophomore Tommy Gaul and true freshmen Mitch Keppy, Reid Sealby and Ryan Ward. However, don't look for any of them to receive playing time in 2012.
By the Numbers
As mentioned, James Ferentz is the veteran of the group. He has 26 starts in his career, and will vie for all-conference honors this season.
Matt Tobin is the second-most experienced player, having earned 10 starts at left guard last season. However, this spring he alternated between guard and tackle. He may lack the athleticism to be a top-flight tackle, but at 6'6", 290 pounds, he has the size.
Nolan MacMillan started six games at guard in 2010. He fought injuries at the end of the season and lost last season to a sports hernia. He was the backup right tackle in the spring game. Along with Brandon Scherff, MacMillan is arguably the most inherently talented lineman on the roster, and will be difficult to keep off the field in August, assuming he gets healthy.
Scherff grabbed three starts at guard in 2011, and played as something of a rotating guard throughout the year. He slid into the coveted left tackle spot during the spring game, though at 6'5", he projects as more of a guard in the pros.
Surprisingly, Van Sloten, and not Scherff, subbed for an injured Markus Zusevics during the 2011 Insight Bowl. As one of four juniors on Iowa's leadership council, Van Sloten has obviously got the respect of his teammates and the trust of his coaches.
Blythe came out of nowhere and finished spring as the starting right guard ahead of multiple players with more time in the program.
Simmons is a JUCO transfer, who is in line to take over as the starting center next season, but could push for playing time at guard in 2012.
Bofelli will also have a say in who takes over for James Ferentz and will also have a shot at a starting guard spot this season.
Clark hasn't had much playing time, but as an upperclassman, he's had as much experience on the practice fields as anybody.
Finally, Walsh was the Rivals' No. 10-ranked guard in the 2011 recruiting class. Incidentally, Blythe was No. 7.
Issues Heading Into 2012
No matter how you spell it, Iowa will have to replace three NFL draft-caliber offensive linemen. Though Iowa is not-so-arguably the most successful program in the country at developing O-linemen, that is a lot of talent and experience that needs to be replaced.
In effect, there might not only be some bumps along the road, but Kirk Ferentz is notorious for playing with his starting front five right into the beginning of the Big Ten season.
This could elongate the gelling process—a necessity for a zone-blocking team.
Also, questions still concern Nolan MacMillan's health. He will be one of the best Hawkeye linemen and one of the best in the Big Ten, if he can return to form. Nonetheless, that is still a big "if."
Positives Heading Into 2012
This is one of, if not the deepest offensive line group I can recall the Hawkeyes having.
Typically, Iowa is in trouble once it gets past its sixth or seventh man at the most. I hope that doesn't come to pass with this season's Hawks, but if it does, the offense will not be in as poor a shape as one would expect.
While experience is an issue, there is a great deal of talent on the line that, if it comes together quickly, could shape up into one of the best offensive lines in the conference.
Former offensive line coach Reese Morgan did a fine job in his nine years on the job. Among other things, he coached every one of Iowa's three first-round linemen. Nevertheless, I am excited for what Brian Ferentz brings to the table.
Despite cries of nepotism, the younger Ferentz has earned his spot. He was a successful tight ends coach under one of the greatest football minds of modern times, and with former-Patriot OC Bill O'Brien's move to Penn State, might have been in line for play-calling duties.
In short, his youth and enthusiasm will serve the offensive line group, and ultimately the Hawkeyes, well.
Lastly, a young offensive line's best friend is an experienced quarterback, which the 2012 Iowa team will have.
Not applicable, as other than Gaul and the true freshmen, every player looks to have a viable shot at playing time.
Outlook for 2012
One could argue that the 2011 offensive line underachieved. After all, it had four returning starters, three of who were seniors and were eventually drafted.
Despite this, the Hawks averaged only 137.69 rushing yards per game—last in the Big Ten—and 3.95 yards per carry—ninth. They also allowed 29 sacks, which was fifth-worst in the conference.
Obviously, the line wasn't the only position group or issue involved in these numbers, but it did play a primary part.
It is possible I'm being overly optimistic, but next season, the combination of a new offensive coordinator, new position coach, a favorable schedule—the Hawks won't play three of the top six defensive lines in the Big Ten—a wealth of (inexperienced) talent, a returning quarterback, a history of player development and a bit of luck will give the Hawkeyes fairly good returns on the line.
It may not be the best in the conference, but it will be amongst the top five.
My best guess on the starting five is (from left-to-right): Brandon Scherff, Matt Tobin, James Ferentz, Nolan MacMillan, Brett Van Sloten. However, I could see Scherff and MacMillan switching if MacMillan can get up to speed, as MacMillan is physically a more ideal tackle.