IOWA CITY, Iowa - The prospects for Iowa's upcoming season changed significantly before the last one ended. Brandon Scherff announced in December that he would return for his senior year despite projecting as a first-round NFL Draft pick.
One player does not make or break a team, especially in football. But the outlook for the Hawkeyes in 2014 would be much different had Scherff bypassed his final year of eligibility.
With Scherff anchoring the offensive line from his left tackle spot, Iowa is expected to boast one of the best band of blockers in the Big Ten, if not the nation. History tells us that the Hawkeyes have a chance to be successful when the boys in the trenches lead the way.
Austin Blythe returns to his starting center position. The junior from Williamsburg is listed on the Rimington Award watch list and joins teammates Scherff and Carl Davis among Lombardi Trophy contenders.
Andrew Donnal has seen time along the line during his first three seasons and broke spring practice as the starting right tackle. Jordan Walsh served in a rotation at right guard last fall and was expected to hold down that spot by himself in '14.
The biggest question mark on Iowa's front resides at left guard. Redshirt freshman Sean Welsh enters training camp No. 1 on the depth chart.
Scherff, from Denison, changed the complexion of Iowa's line by turning down millions of dollars for another chance to lead the Hawkeyes to glory. It's a group expected to be leaned on heavily this season.
Let's take a closer look at Iowa's offensive line position heading into '14:
Contenders: Brandon Scherff (6-5, 320), redshirt senior; Andrew Donnal (6-7, 305), redshirt senior; Austin Blythe (6-3, 290), redshirt junior; Jordan Walsh (6-4, 290), redshirt junior; Boone Meyers (6-5, 285), redshirt freshman; Steve Ferentz (6-2, 267), redshirt sophomore; Tommy Gaul (6-3, 280), redshirt senior; Eric Simmons (6-2, 295), redshirt junior; Cole Croston (6-5, 270), redshirt sophomore; Colin Goebel (6-5, 280), redshirt freshman; Ryan Ward (6-5, 290), redshirt sophomore; Mitch Keppy (6-5, 298), redshirt sophomore; Ike Boettger (6-6, 267), redshirt freshman; Reid Sealby (6-4, 290), redshirt sophomore; Sean Welsh (6-3, 285), redshirt freshman; Ross Reynolds (6-4, 275), true freshman; Keegan Render (6-4, 315), true freshman; Lucas LeGrand (6-5, 260), true freshman.
The Favorites: Scherff and Blythe are locks barring injuries. Donnal and Walsh would need to take a serious step back or others a huge step forward to be displaced. Welsh showed enough in the spring to enter camp as the leader in the clubhouse.
Breakdown: The Iowa staff never has relied heavily upon star rankings and hype. It evaluates players based on what they do when they arrive on campus.
This Iowa line just happens to have a strong pedigree. Donnal was a Army All-American coming out of Ohio, Walsh was a four-star prospect, Scherff and Blythe were top in-state prospects and likely would have been rated even higher had they been from another state with more exposure.
That foursome has worked hard to develop natural talent. Everyone in the group has been in the program for at least three years.
Scherff is a beast. He plays with an edge, has excellent pad level and is physically imposing. For him, it's just about sharpening his skills for the NFL and anchoring the Iowa line.
Donnal really came on last season after injuries slowed him for much of his career. He's an excellent athlete and he should be able to foil teams looking to load up on his side to avoid Scherff.
Blythe got off to a good start as a redshirt freshman before an injury stunted his growth. He steadily improved last season. He understands leverage as a former standout high school wrestler and extracts the most out of his frame.
Walsh struggled with inconsistency as a first-year starter in '13 but the light seemed to go towards the end of the campaign. He appears poised to take the next step this fall.
Welsh is a wildcard if he wins job. Position Coach Brian Ferentz identified and recruited him out of high school and has liked what he's seen to date.
The good news is that Iowa can absorb growing pains if Welsh experiences them. Perhaps it develops into a rotation at left guard similar to what we saw at right guard a year ago.
Boone Myers, Eric Simmons and Ryan Ward are three players who could push Welsh. Tommy Gaul, a walk-on from West Des Moines Dowling Catholic, has spent a lot of time on the depth chart.
It's also hard to say who in the group of redshirt sophomores and freshmen might take steps forward this season. Converted tight end Ike Boettger is player to watch as he brings excellent athleticism to the line. Legacy Cole Croston has turned the coaches heads in the past.
One of the main keys for the line, as it is most seasons at Iowa, is developing continuity in August and the non-conference season. It's vital in the zone blocking scheme.
There are some preseason hot spots on the 2014 Hawkeyes. The offensive line has some question marks. But unless things fall apart with injuries and a lack of growth, this should be one of the strongest units on the team, if not the strongest.
RWI (Rob Worry Index): Absent (other choices are Extreme, Significant, Moderate and Faint).