IOWA CITY — It’s senior running back Mark Weisman who brings up “The Iowa Way.” Work hard. Don’t quit. Team first. The standard, boilerplate language that accompanies a college football team’s mantra.
Senior tight end Ray Hamilton’s answer to a question about his role in the Hawkeyes’ offense hews closer to the way players strive for success on a Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
“One of the most exhilarating feelings you can have is when you’re moving a grown man who doesn’t want to be moved,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong — I love catching passes, too — but in order to play, you’ve got to be able to block first.”
That little patch of earth as wide as the hash marks and roughly 5 yards deep — the trenches — that’s where Iowa wants to define itself. The offensive and defensive lines. A bounce-back year in 2013 — which led to an 8-5 season — has the Hawkeyes thinking they’re back in a groove.
“We’re a team that believes in blocking and playing defense,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It helps to have guys who have done it a little bit. Some teams, it may not be as significant for, but for us, it’s important. We play better if we’re playing well on the lines. It’s a historical fact.”
Three full-time starters return on the offensive line, including All-America offensive tackle candidate Brandon Scherff from Denison, Iowa. All four starters return for the defensive line, including former All-Nebraska player Drew Ott from Giltner. Scherff and senior nose tackle Carl Davis are the kind of top-end anchors Iowa is used to relying on with its best lines.
“We’re trying to be the big boys of the Big Ten,” the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Scherff said.
Said the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Davis: “We expect to be the best defensive line in the country. I don’t care what anybody says, or who has who. We expect to be the best defensive line.”
That simply wasn’t the case in 2012, when Iowa finished 4-8. Injuries punched holes in the offensive line. The defensive line had to rely on young players — Ott was forced to burn his redshirt — and, even then, it was wholly punchless. Iowa registered just 13 sacks and 53 tackles for loss that year. Both figures were last in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes gave up 4.1 yards per carry — their highest number in years — and allowed quarterbacks to complete 63.5 percent of their passes.
“In 2012, we were just so young and inexperienced,” Ferentz said. “We had two seniors, and neither one of those guys really played much.”
Said Davis: “If you give a quarterback six, seven seconds back there, he’s going to complete a pass.”
Iowa improved on those numbers in 2013 — 24 sacks and 80 tackles for loss. But it was three roving linebackers — all of whom have used up their eligbility and could have strong NFL careers — who did most of the damage behind the line of scrimmage on blitzes. Davis, projected as one of the top defensive tackles entering the 2015 NFL draft, said that’s by design.
“We may not make all the plays, but we’re going to stick on our blocks and let our linebackers make plays, just like we did last year,” he said.
On offense, Iowa’s running game had struggled for years until 2013, when the total of 180 rushing yards per game was the highest since 2008. The Hawkeyes were back over 4 yards per carry, too. They return all four top running backs and Scherff. Ferentz said the offensive line depth remains a work in progress, and at least one starter will be relatively green.
Hamilton is happy to play his part. He’s one of several tight ends who hope to fill the shoes of C.J. Fiedorowicz, who also went to the NFL.
“If they tell you go out there for 25 plays and block your butt off,” Hamilton said, “you’d better raise a little hell for those 25 plays.”
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