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When things go badly on one side of football with virtually the same coaches and players for almost two and a half years, at some point everyone involved will be given their share of the blame.

Former offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz took most of the outside criticism for Iowa's historical problems moving the football. Second on the blame list was probably the quarterback position — first Spencer Petras, then Deacon Hill. And if there was a bronze medal in this questionable competition, it would probably be worn by offensive line coach George Barnett.

Of those names, only Barnett is still on the Hawkeyes' roster in 2024. Ferentz, the son of longtime Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, is now an analyst at Maryland. Petras is the starting quarterback at Utah State. Hill is one of six quarterbacks on Utah Tech's 2024 roster.

To his credit, Barnett gave a candid assessment of his offensive line's problems and development during an appearance with the Des Moines Register on this week's Hawk Central radio show, which aired Wednesday night on KXnO in Des Moines.

When Barnett was hired to replace Tim Polasek before the 2021 season, he was warned that rebuilding the Hawkeyes' offensive line would be a long and difficult process. Due to recruiting mistakes, injuries and turnover, his options in 2021 were virtually empty, aside from All-American center Tyler Linderbaum. He started a redshirt freshman in Mason Richman at left tackle. He had no good solution for the right tackle position as Nick DeJong and Jack Plumb tried to cover up the unexpected retirement of starter Mark Kallenberger. Career-ending injuries to Cody Ince further weakened the line. Connor Colby, an early enrollee, played on the No. 1 offensive line in spring 2021 – even though he should have been a high school student at Cedar Rapids Kennedy.

“Looking back at 2021, there was literally no competition behind the starters,” Barnett said. “And some of the starters shouldn't have started.”

Simply put, he said, we were “the weak link” in 2021 and 2022.

Looking back, Iowa had some capable players on offense in 2021: Charlie Jones, Tyrone Tracy Jr., Sam LaPorta, Tyler Goodson. Petras was probably better than he showed. But Barnett's group held the offense back.

So why haven’t we seen a breakthrough with a more experienced line in 2023?

Barnett didn't say it outright, but the loss at quarterback, especially after Cade McNamara's season-ending ACL tear, as well as season-ending injuries to tight ends Luke Lachey and Erick All, left Iowa without any passing threat. And because defenses knew Hill couldn't beat them with his arm, Iowa's offensive line was outnumbered and rarely found success. The 2023 Hawkeyes' offense averaged 234.6 yards per game, 28 fewer than the second-worst offense in the FBS and the worst in Iowa since 1978.

Still, through it all, Barnett saw progress in the plan he (and HR director Tyler Barnes) created shortly after being hired in 2021 after seven years in Miami, Ohio.

“The only thing I want for 2023 is to be a little healthier,” Barnett said. “We lost a center and a guard, our left tackle played on one leg for three weeks and refused to come out. There was definitely more chemistry, more continuity, more toughness. We practiced better. For the first time since I've been here, we started to bring some competition into the room.”

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Iowa center Logan Jones summarizes offensive line's spring progress

The third-year starter is recovering from shoulder surgery and also provides insight into Cade McNamara.

The main injuries Barnett referenced involved center Logan Jones, who underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason and battled an ankle sprain in November and December. After starting 10 games in 2022 as a right guard, Stephens was able to play only five times as a backup in 2023. And Richman limped through injuries midseason that were never publicly disclosed.

Barnett believes his tenure in Iowa City has been like a book so far. Years 1 and 2 were marked by adversity and pain. Year 3 was a sign of progress. Now comes Year 4, the chance to break through.

He finally has the depth he wants. Healing in the offseason has helped Richman, Jones, Stephens and right tackle Gennings Dunker, who will start in 2023. Younger players have been quietly developing behind the veterans. But this is a results-based business, and the Hawkeyes absolutely need to see results from Barnett's guys in 2024. He knows that.

“Now you might have a two-man team that's ready to play,” Barnett said. “I haven't seen that since I got here, and that's what we've tried to build.”

So what does it look like at the front?

Barnett moved from left to right during his 27-minute radio appearance.

Left Tackle

Following the recent departure of Kadyn Proctor (back to Alabama), Richman is once again the Hawkeyes' No. 1 left tackle. He will be a fourth-year starter, is 6'6″ and weighs 300 pounds.

“What he went through last year says everything about this kid,” Barnett said. “It's crazy. And nobody knew. Look at Purdue, Wisconsin. The kid plays on one leg and blocks really well.”

Barnett prefers that DeJong (6-6, 307), who is back for the sixth year, can be Iowa's best backup tackle on both sides, which would allow younger players to fill the guard positions.

Left Guard

The most open position of the five after 2023 starter Rusty Feth exhausts his eligibility. Stephens (6-6, 322) and Tyler Elsbury (6-5, 316), who filled in competently for Jones at center last year, are the leading candidates to start.

Barnett said Stephens has “worked through some things and really, really grown up. Really proud of the spring he's had. He's very talented, very smart, very physical. I think it's all slowly coming together for Beau.”

DeJong could also step inside and play guard if needed. Barnett also likes what he saw from redshirt freshman Leighton Jones (6-2, 286) this spring.

center

Logan Jones (6-3, 293) is only in his third year as a center after moving from the defensive line, but is the Hawkeyes' best plan here. He has the speed, lower-body strength and toughness that head coach Kirk Ferentz wants in a center.

“He's settled in now. He's comfortable. His leadership skills are better,” Barnett said. “I think he's going to be a force for us at center for sure.”

Elsbury will play center and guard. Redshirt freshman Kade Pieper (6-3, 275) has emerged as a potential center of the future and again fits Kirk Ferentz's preferred scheme.

Legal protection

Barnett saw an uptick in Colby's (6-6, 310) play in the second half of last season. After taking a hit as a tackle in 2022, Colby has established himself as a guard and (like Richman) is on pace to be one of the rare four-year starters on the offensive line at Iowa.

“He's started playing more physical and aggressive and has gotten his confidence back to the level it needs to be,” Barnett said. “He has a chance to be a really good player.”

North Dakota native Cade Borud (6-foot-2, 315 pounds) started at center last year, but Barnett will keep him at guard to provide more competition at the position, suggesting Jones and Elsbury are locked in at the center position for 2024.

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Iowa O-Lineman Gennings Dunker has slimmed down this offseason

Gennings Dunker of the Iowa football team discusses various topics during his media appearance in April.

Proper Tackle

Dunker's weight loss – he dropped from 310-340 pounds last season to a slimmer 6'5″ and 290 pounds – should theoretically give him more mobility in his extremities, along with the experience he has gained in a year.

“Looks good, moves well,” Barnett said. “I think he has a future as a tackle. I really do. He's a really smart kid.”

And in the junior division, former four-star prospect Trevor Lauck (6'5″, 315 lbs) has a chance to move up the depth chart (which should be released in about two weeks) as a tackle.

Barnett's offensive line will look completely different in 2025. That's why this 2024 season is so important. For Barnett to silence some of his critics and for Iowa's offensive line to reassert itself as a unit, a successful senior year for Richman, Colby, DeJong, Elsbury and Logan Jones seems necessary.

“They're fighters. They've been through some tough situations and come out the other end,” Barnett said. “I'm just really excited. I'm really proud of this group. This senior group is one I'll defend to the death. These guys are unbelievable.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has worked for The Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Sports Network for 29 years. Chad is the 2023 INA Iowa Sports Columnist of the Year and NSMA Co-Sportswriter of the Year in Iowa. Join Chad's texting group (free for subscribers) at HawkCentral.com/HawkeyesTexts. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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