IOWA CITY – Less visible but every bit as significant as the competition taking place for starting jobs at linebacker or the shifting roles in the secondary, Iowa has openings on the offensive line and at tight end to fill this spring.
After an injury-filled 2012 season, the starting front five on the Hawkeye offensive line remained intact from the start to finish of Iowa’s 8-5 season last fall.
Right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli completed their eligibility in the Outback Bowl, but Iowa will build its offensive front around the experience provided by four returning players.
Brandon Scherff, who shared team most valuable player honors last season and bypassed an early exit for the NFL, anchors the left side of the line from the tackle spot and joins two juniors, center Austin Blythe and right guard Jordan Walsh, as returning starters.
Senior Andrew Donnal, who started three games in 2012 and saw extensive action in a reserve role last season, begins spring drills topping the depth chart at right tackle.
Coach Kirk Ferentz said the experience provided by that group provides Iowa’s offensive front with a starting point in 2014.
Sean Welsh, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound redshirt freshman from Springboro, Ohio, opened spring practices last week at the top of the depth chart at left guard, but Ferentz said competition there remains somewhat fluid.
“Sean picked things up quickly and did a lot of good things. He’s in contention there, but he’s behind the other four guys. Those guys have played, so that job (at left guard) is really wide open, not that the other ones aren’t,’’ Ferentz said.
“Sean certainly is a guy who impressed us, but a lot of guys will be in there competing. Eric Simmons will be in there, other guys, and we’ll change some guys around and see what they can do.’’
Iowa’s initial depth on the offensive line includes sophomores Ryan Ward and Cole Croston, redshirt freshman Boone Myers and senior Tommy Gaul in addition to Simmons, a junior who transferred a year ago from Iowa Western Community College.
The situation is a little different at tight end, where the Hawkeyes have no shortage of depth as they look to replace C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Senior Ray Hamilton, who started the one game that Fiedorowicz did not last season, begins spring practices the top of a two-deep roster which lists junior Jake Duzey as the backup.
George Kittle and Henry Krieger Coble return experience at the position and Ferentz is intrigued by what he has seen from 6-5, 235-pound redshirt freshman Jon Wisnieski of West Des Moines Dowling, saying that he “fits right in’’ with the returning group.
“It’s going to be fun to see what they can do,’’ Ferentz said. “We won’t have C.J. and he was an outstanding player, but we’ll have enough guys in that group. Somebody has to make those catches in the red zone and some of those things that C.J. did well, too.’’