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INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa’s practices still appear to be bloodbaths.
Tyler Linderbaum, one of three players representing the Hawkeyes at Big Ten media days, has unique insight. An All-America center and Rimington Trophy finalist in 2020, Linderbaum started his Iowa career on the defensive line. He’s been on both sides.
“Iron sharpens iron, like they say,” Linderbaum said Friday. “Over the years that I’ve been here, every single day it’s a good battle with the guys. There might be fights. There might be skirmishes. But at the end of the day, you’re brothers, you’re teammates.”
Controlled violence has served Iowa well over the years. Hawkeye offensive and defensive linemen go to the NFL. They more than hold their own against every Big Ten team.
You can beat Iowa. But you don’t push Iowa around.
With that culture set on the lines, the Hawkeyes aim to get better in other areas. And they might have the skill players to win the West in 2021.
“We have a great mix to have an explosive unit,” Iowa receiver Tyrone Tracy said Friday. “With all of our tight ends, all of our running backs, plus the receivers, there’s a lot of people to get the ball to. And once we get the ball in our hands, we can really light up the field.”
That includes Tracy, who figures to be the team’s No. 1 receiver after Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith headed to the NFL. Running back Tyler Goodson returns after rushing for 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns over his first two seasons while he shared the job with departed senior Mekhi Sargent.
Sam LaPorta (27 catches for 271 yards) is the next great Iowa tight end. And the buzz about Iowa’s 2021 recruiting class, which includes Bellevue West grad Keagan Johnson, suggests the Hawkeyes have immediate help there, too.
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Iowa does appear to have two big questions. One is defensive line depth after the departure of several starters, including two NFL draftees. Coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t hesitate to address that, though.
The other question clearly looms as you listen to players talk — quarterback Spencer Petras.
He started every game in 2020, and Iowa clearly sees him as the starter for 2021. Players say “football is his life,” but he wasn’t at media days, and the way teammates describe him leads me to think he runs a little hot and might be wound a little tight. Tracy said Petras is the opposite of former Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley.
“Nate was quiet. Spencer, you will hear him,” Tracy said. “Let me just say that. You will hear him in the background. Talking in your ear, not necessarily being bossy, but just being a good leader.”
Said Linderbaum: “He’s definitely the life of the party. He definitely takes control. Strongly opinionated guy. That’s what you learn to love about him.”
Petras completed 57.1% of his passes last season and threw some terrible interceptions, including one against Nebraska, before throwing five touchdowns and no picks in season-ending wins over Illinois and Wisconsin. Ferentz said Petras “probably couldn’t have played much more poorly in the first half” of the Illinois game before rebounding in the second half.
“We all feel really good about him and have great confidence in Spencer,” Ferentz said.
Again ... we’ll see.
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But the rest of the pieces are there. Ferentz, a former offensive line coach, gives a three-minute dissertation on his O-line, so he feels pretty good about it. And as he’s become the Big Ten’s longest-tenured head coach, his humor and insight have improved.
For now he appears to have mostly navigated messy, damaging allegations of racial insensitivity last summer by ditching strength coach Chris Doyle, making other changes and being up front with recruits and their families. To every recruit he discusses his age — he turns 66 next week — because he figures other programs will use it against him.
“It’s gotta come up, right?” he quipped.
His team has two major challenges out of the gate in hosting Indiana and heading to Iowa State. Both figure to be ranked ahead of the Hawkeyes when the season starts. And given the Big 12 mess, the Cyclones may feel like they’re playing for a spot in Iowa’s league. Maybe they are.
If Iowa splits those two — a win over IU, a loss in Ames — it should be favored in nine of its last 10 games, and that might be enough to win the West. Iowa has little fear of Ohio State, which surely awaits the West champ in the Big Ten title game. They’ve played just twice in a decade. Iowa won 55-24 in 2017 and lost 34-24 in 2013.
“If you had scheduled Ohio State up until 1900, no problem,” Ferentz said. “Since 1900, they’ve been pretty good.”
Funny. Ferentz might be quipping all the way back to Indianapolis in December if his lines keep crashing into each other in practice.
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