IOWA CITY, Iowa – A few weeks ago, Kirk Ferentz was asked about the play of his offensive tackles. A smile stretched across the face of Iowa’s head coach.
That’s not to say Ferentz was completely satisfied. He was just pleased not to have fielded the question in some time
Much was made in the off-season about how Boone Myers and Ike Boettger would replace NFL Draft Picks Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal. You could tell the outside doubt ate at Ferentz as time wore on.
The worry of the fans and media was justified. Left tackle Scherff won the Outland Trophy last season and was the fifth overall selection by the Washington Redskins in April’s draft. The St. Louis Rams tabbed Donnal, an honorable mention all-Big Ten pick in 2014, in the fourth round. Myers (6-5, 300) and Boettger (6-6, 300) had played a few snaps, mostly in mop-up duty.
Ferentz’s lack of concern should have tipped off outsiders that the situation at offensive tackle might not be as dire as they feared. He’s established himself as a pretty good teacher of the position.
While his son, Brian Ferentz, is the offensive line coach, Kirk Ferentz helps him tutor the tackles.
"They’re making progress," Kirk said of his guys a few weeks ago. "It’s been really nice not to have a lot of discussion about them. That’s been great in comparison to August and July.
"The exciting thing about those guys is they’ve got great attitudes. They’re off to a good start. They’re hardly there yet. It’s kind of like our team, hardly there yet. But their potential is there."
Myers exited the North Texas game on Sept. 26, adding intrigue to the equation. Cole Croston stepped in midway through the contest as an injury replacement and then started in Saturday’s 10-6 upset at then-No. 19 Wisconsin. Iowa’s improbable start reached 5-0 and a No. 22 nationally ranking.
There didn’t appear to be any drop-off with Croston (6-5, 305) replacing Myers, both former walk-ons. Iowa rushed for 144 yards against a stingy Badger defense allowing just 82.8 coming into the action. Of the four sacks given up, none of them came from a defensive end.
Scherff started 36 games in his Iowa career and Donnal opened all 13 games in ’14. Boettger stepped in for a half last year when Scherff was injured and that represented the only key field time seen by he, Myers and Croston.
Boettger and Myers, both third-year sophomores, played tight end in high school with Boettger also lining up as a quarterback. Croston, the son of former Hawkeye standout Dave Croston, has added 70 pounds since his days at Sergeant Bluff (Iowa)-Luton High school.
Myers (who is questionable for this week’s game against Illinois) was outspoken in the preseason when repeatedly asked about replacing Scherff. He said that he and the other tackles looked forward to showing people that they could play.
"We tried to ignore the talk, honestly," Croston said. "We didn’t feel like we were replacing those guys as much as just trying to get in there and do our job the best we could to our ability. So far, so good."
The Hawkeyes rank first in the conference in fourth-down conversions and are third on third down. Their scoring offense is third (32.2 PPG). In addition to the statistics backing up its strong play, the offensive line has passed the eyeball test.
Center Austin Blythe and Left Guard Jordan Walsh, both seniors, have anchored the front. Both have played their best football to date. But the unit would not have held up well to this point had the tackles not chipped in.
"We’re proving to ourselves within the offensive line that we’re the best we can be and maybe the best in the country. We just want to be all that we can be and block guys," Croston said.
Blythe and Walsh noticed motivation in the young tackles this off-season.
"Anytime you have doubters, you want to prove them wrong," Blythe said. "That’s just the competitiveness of anybody on this team. They’ve done a good job. They’ve come to work every day and they’ve improved."
Said Walsh: "I remember when they came in as a bunch of lengthy tight ends and now they’ve turned into 300-pound monsters. They’re doing a really good job."
Boettger senses growth not only physically and technically but in terms of comfort.
"My confidence is getting a little higher every game but going into the game I still get just as nervous as the first game. But when I get into the game, my anxiousness, I guess, goes down a little bit," the Cedar Falls (Iowa) High product said.
Iowa’s tackles could get a reprieve against Illinois after facing a Badger team with 16 sacks. The Illini ranks last in the league with five sacks. Even if they don’t get a break, they seem better prepared to handle what comes their way and they’re off the worry radar on which they sat during the off-season.
"I think as an offense we’re getting more confidence every game but we all know that if you get over confident that something is going to come and bite you. We’re just trying to stay level-headed," Boettger said.