James Ferentz doesn’t expect any extra rewards for keeping opposing defenders off of Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg’s back.
After all, as Ferentz said, it is his job not to allow his quarterback to take hits in the pocket.
So far this season Ferentz, Iowa’s third-year starting center, and his teammates along the Hawkeyes offensive front have pulled their weight. Penn State will try to fracture a unit that has been steady for an inconsistent Iowa squad.
After giving up six sacks in Iowa’s season opening 18-17 win over Northern Illinois, the Hawkeyes offensive line has surrendered just one sack in 162 dropbacks since. It’s been an encouraging development for the Hawkeyes, which had to replace three starters in the trenches from last season.
“It’s a pretty young football team overall and a pretty young group there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of his offensive line. “Like anything, you go through transition and transformation hopefully.”
So far, veteran starters James Ferentz and left guard Matt Tobin, both seniors, have been complemented by newcomers Brandon Scherff, Andrew Donnal and Brett Van Slotten at the left tackle, right guard and right tackle spots, respectively.
Donnal, a redshirt freshman, and Van Slotten, a junior, check in at 275 and 292 pounds, respectively, while Scherff anchors the left side of the line, protecting the right-handed Vandenberg’s blindside with his 310-pound frame.
But it’s Ferentz, the coach’s son, who leads the group, evident by his seniority and his status as one of Iowa’s student appointees on the team’s Leadership Council. That group, which comprises a handful of players, acts as a channel for players to express issues with the coaching staff or take care of general logistics like having equipment replaced and getting assimilated to campus life.
“I think he helps give our guys some confidence because he has played,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s been fun to watch him grow and develop.”
That growth and development could only come at Iowa. James Ferentz, although he was a standout football player and wrestler at City High School in Iowa City, wasn’t recruited heavily.
Ferentz, who’s listed on the Iowa roster at 6-foot-2, 284 pounds, said his size was a big limiting factor in drawing interest from major Division I programs. Despite his father being the head coach at Iowa, the elder Ferentz didn’t even recruit his own son.
Instead, Iowa defensive line coach Reese Morgan reached out and brought the younger Ferentz in.
When it came time for the Hawkeyes to name a starting center three seasons ago, Morgan, who was then coaching the Hawkeyes’ offensive line, saw fit to give Ferentz a shot.
Thirty-two starts later, Ferentz is the gritty veteran of the group. Ferentz’s older brother Brian, who played at Iowa until he graduated after the 2005 season and now coaches the Iowa offensive line, has relied on his younger brother to mentor the Hawkeyes younger starters.
Brian Ferentz returned to Iowa after working for Penn State coach Bill O’Brien in New England last season where Ferentz coached the Patriots’ tight ends.
“He’s a hell of a lot better than his brother, first of all,” Kirk Ferentz said of James. “In all seriousness, he’s a guy that’s worked hard. … He’s an experienced player, this is his third year starting, so he’s got a pretty good feel for what has to be done. That’s important at that position just like it is at quarterback.”
James Ferentz has been able to overcome his relative lack of size by relying on sound fundamentals. A high school wrestling career in which he earned four varsity letters helped him with his transition into college football.
He likened wrestling to being alone on an island, sometimes with a superior athlete. As Iowa’s center, Ferentz finds himself alone, matched up against much bigger, quicker defensive linemen weekly.
“I think wrestling just teaches you how to have a little bit more confidence in knowing that you can get it done even in gritty moments,” Ferentz said. “It’s just you out there on the mat and you kind of have to find a way to get things done even when you might be outmuscled or facing some of the better athletes.”
He’ll try to get it done when the Hawkeyes welcome the Nittany Lions into Kinnick Stadium tonight. Penn State will be looking to add to its season sack total which now stands at 15.
Ferentz and his teammates are wary of the Penn State defensive front, especially linebackers Gerald Hodges, Mike Mauti and Mike Hull, who all “fly to the football” Ferentz said.
“Their offensive line handles lateral movement really well,” Hull said. “They’re big and they get to the second level and they stay on blocks. We’re going to have to penetrate upfield and hopefully get off blocks.”