Lineman pipeline for NFL


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Tessa Hursh

Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff blocks Pitt defensive lineman Darryl Render during the game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Iowa defeated Pitt, 24-20. (The Daily Iowan/Tessa Hursh)

Jordan Hansen, [email protected]


Since Kirk Ferentz took over the Iowa football team in 1999, 14 offensive linemen have been drafted by NFL teams, and another 13 have signed as free agents.
Of those, 12 ended their careers having played at least two years. Ten made NFL training camp rosters this season.
It’s certainly no secret Iowa has had success developing linemen who meet the standard

to play the game at its highest level. In fact, the Hawks have had more offensive linemen drafted since 1999 than just five other schools — Wisconsin, Alabama, Florida State, Miami (Florida), and Notre Dame.

But the question remains: what makes Iowa linemen such a valued commodity?

“It starts with the people,” strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle said. “Kirk Ferentz is the best offensive-line coach in the country and learned from the best in Joe Moore.”

The late Moore, who is considered among the best offensive-line coaches ever, coached impressive lines at both Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Ferentz crossed paths with Moore when he was a graduate assistant on the Panther staff in 1980.

Soon after, Ferentz began his first stint at Iowa as the offensive-line coach from 1981-89. After three years as the head coach at Maine, Ferentz went back to coaching offensive lines, though this time in the NFL. From 1993-95, he was with the Cleveland Browns and then with the Baltimore Ravens from 1996-98.

When he returned to Iowa a year later as the head coach, he brought with him plenty of experience coaching linemen, something he still has his hands on to this day.

“His fingerprints are all over everything,” Doyle said. “People carried the torch from time to time — Joe Philbin carried that torch onto Reese Morgan and then to Brian Ferentz, but through all of that entire time, the commonality is that Kirk has been present.”

Continuity has been a strong theme of the program, and Philbin, Morgan, and Brian Ferentz have been Iowa’s only offensive-line coaches in Kirk Ferentz’s 17 years. Philbin, now the Miami Dolphins head coach, spent 1999-2002 as the offensive line coach, before moving on to the professional leagues. Morgan, who was already on the staff as the tight-end coach, then took over for Philbin.

Morgan coached the offensive line until the 2011 season, when he switched to the defensive side of the ball.

After Morgan switched, Ferentz brought in son Brian to coach the offensive line.
Of course, the NFL experience Brian Ferentz brings to the table hasn’t hurt, either. After a short playing career, Brian spent 2008-11 working for the New England Patriots, rising from an offensive coaching assistant to tight-end coach.

“Learning from those guys is huge,” senior Iowa center Austin Blythe said. “They prepare us to be pros. They expect us to be professional here at Iowa from an early age, and it forces guys to mature. Especially on the offensive line.”

A major part of Iowa’s coaching philosophy deals with forcing maturity onto players. The idea is bad, lazy habits are broken in college so pro teams don’t have to waste time on getting rid of them.

Simply put, it makes them more valuable.

It’s even more relevant on the offensive line, in which miscommunication can cause a play to quickly crash and burn. Mistakes happen, but younger linemen are expected to grow up fast and often see the field sooner than other positions because of this rapid growth.

The maturation process of some younger players is something Kirk Ferentz saw firsthand in the NFL.

“I think that’s one thing that NFL people might say, is that they feel comfortable that they’re going to get a guy that is dedicated,” he said. “They know what it is to come in early, and maybe stay late, and just take care of the little detail things that, based on my experience, in the NFL not all young guys understand.”

Brian Ferentz echoed his father’s thoughts and took things a step further.

“Based on being in NFL draft rooms and around personal, when you draft an Iowa player, the consensus is that you’re getting a second-year pro,” the younger Ferentz said. “He knows how to do things. He’s no longer a child.”

Being able to step onto the field and contribute to a team from the second players are drafted makes the lives of NFL executives easier. The idea of a second-year pro may not be entirely unique to Kirk Ferentz, but the solid reputation Iowa players have only helps them make rosters at the next level.

What sets the Iowa players apart — at least in the coaches’ minds — is the idea they’re more prepared for the work ahead work than the average player being drafted into the NFL.

At the heart of the program lies a simple truth. Iowa does not sign very many four- and five-star recruits, so it relies more on developing athletes from the ground-up, which, predictably, takes more time.

When asked about the type of players Iowa looks to recruit, Doyle had a simple answer.
“They’re tough, they’re smart, and they’re physical. They’re guys who are willing to work. They’re typically humble people,” Doyle said. “They realize that it’s a process, and it doesn’t happen overnight.”

An impressive strength and conditioning also has quite a bit to do with the development of these athletes. Doyle is often considered one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country, and his long tenure with the program (he was hired in 1999) has only helped build a strong reputation.

Luckily for Ferentz’s program, the NFL values development almost as much as it does raw talent. Professional teams seem to believe taking an Iowa player is a fairly safe bet, and in a multibillion dollar business, the safe bet is often the right bet.

Linemen, especially, can have issues adapting to the NFL’s faster speeds. Couple that with needing to fix an issue in a player’s technique, and all the sudden a talented-but-raw rookie can find himself out of the league.

“Kirk coaches fundamentals. There are a lot of people who talk about it, and there are people who do it,” Doyle said. “A lot of coaches out there don’t believe in blocking. They think they need to trick the opponent.”

Iowa’s blocking schemes don’t hide much and misdirection comes secondary in the Hawkeye offense. Employing a hard-nosed, downhill offense may be traditionalist way of playing the game, but it translates well into the NFL, where many offenses run on the same mechanics.

This style of football makes a Hawkeye lineman fairly easy to scout and doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Professional teams know what they’re getting, one way or another.

“The way we play, it’s easy for NFL guys to look at our guys and project them,” Kirk Ferentz said. “They can see them and make that easy transfer; that helps them a little bit, too.”

This season, Iowa’s best chances to add more linemen to the professional ranks will be seniors Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh.

Blythe leads a young lineman core this season with 35 starts, while Walsh has started 24 games during his career. The two have flown mostly under the radar, and while not gathering much in the way of accolades; their names still pop up on draft boards.
CBSsports.com has Blythe ranked as the eighth-best center and Walsh as the 19th-best guard.

More telling, each is projected to be a late-round draft pick or a free-agent signing. While it’s impossible to predict what the upcoming season will bring for either player, simply having been at Iowa for five years will at least earn them a look from an NFL.

The pipeline likely won’t end this season, either. Despite some of the criticism they have recently received, offensive tackles Ike Boettger and Boone Myers are on 2018 draft boards. Boettger is CBSsports’s 12th-ranked offensive tackle in the 2018 class, and Myers is 27th.

While Boettger and Myers are unproven, if history repeats itself, Iowa could add several more linemen to the NFL ranks. If nothing else, it shows scouting services and pro teams very much believe in Ferentz’s ability as a coach.

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