Mike Jones Back in Comfort Zone

Mike Jones was projected to make an impact at tackle for Iowa. But after several tries at the position, he found himself back at guard in last Sarurday's 31-7 victory against Illinois. Critics might view the move as a demotion. Jones, his coaches and teammates see the change as a step forward. Read what they had to say in this full-length premium feature by HN.com Senior Writer Rob Howe.

Eric Steinbach developed into one of the best offensive guards ever to put on an Iowa uniform. Still, when it came time for the 2003 NFL Draft, the Chicago native worked out for numerous teams attempting to prove that he could play tackle.

Most of the so-called experts felt like Steinbach accomplished that task and projected him as a first-round pick. In the end, the people that count, the NFL player personal folks, saw the former tight end as a guard. He fell to the first pick of the second round, where the Cincinnati Bengals have used him at guard and as one of the key components in their resurgence project.

The draft result disappointed Steinbach, but he couldn't win out over the league belief that first-round picks should almost always be used to take tackles, particularly left tackles, when taking offensive linemen.

This view took hold in the 1990s, when just 10 guards were selected in the opening round. Since '00, two guards went in Round 1 and none in the last two drafts. From '82-'89, 19 guards were first-rounders.

Tackles are thought to be more athletic. The belief is that it's more difficult to find good ones because agility and quickness is much rarer in the size of the men that play offensive line.

"I don't buy that," Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I think it's all talk. It's sexier maybe to be the left tackle, because that is what Jonathon Ogden is, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones; that is a sexy position. That is as close as it comes for a lineman for a glory position. I don't think it's that big of a deal."

The football fraternity considers Ferentz one of the nation's leading authorities on offensive line play. While Reese Morgan coaches Iowa's offensive linemen, the head man lends his expertise to the unit, a segment of the team he's been around consistently since becoming the Hawkeyes' O-Line coach in '81.

Ferentz and many of the recruiting experts targeted Mike Jones as a future tackle in college. The 6-foot-5, 299-pound man-child who prepped in Illinois possessed unique athleticism and grace for someone of his size. It earned him first-team all-American honors from USA Today and other notable publications.

Jones played as a true freshman for Iowa in 2003 starting with Game No. 6 at Ohio State. He received most of the reps at left guard, where he settled in at before moving before what was expected to be a move to tackle.

In '04, Jones opened the season at right tackle before being switched back to guard after two games. He would stay there as Pete McMahon played the remainder of the campaign at right tackle.

The Iowa coaches opened this season with Jones playing left tackle, the glory position, the position he was tabbed to play. In Week 3, they switched the junior to right tackle. Two games later, he moved back to left guard, where he's expected to stay for the rest of the season.

Should Jones be questioned for not succeeding at tackle? Does this mean he's falling short utilizing his natural gifts?

If you're asking NFL scouts, they likely would answer "yes" as evidenced by the drafting trends. If you're ask Iowa coaches and offensive linemen, they'll tell you "no."

"I think it is what you get used to," Ferentz said. "Since Mike got here, he has been a guard. He is still in the bullpen as a back up tackle. Some guys move around and it does not affect them and some it does; you can't tell until you play."

Iowa Center Brian Ferentz, Kirk's son, gushed about Jones' future when he took the field as a true freshman. The younger Ferentz said he still believed in his teammate, and cautioned people for assuming Jones has been demoted.

"Some guys are just better guards than tackles," Brian said. "I think the easiest thing to point out is that someone failed here, but I don't think guard is an easier to play than tackle. Under some circumstances, it's more difficult.

"Each position has its own challenges. Some guys are just natural tackles and some are just natural guards. Like me, I'm not a very good guard. (laughs) Naturally, I'm better at center. I don't want to say I'm a good center, but I play better at center."

The move seemed to work for Iowa last week, when it gained 476 yards, including a season-high 301 on the ground in a 31-7 whitewash of Illinois. The Hawkeyes were held to -9 yards rushing a week earlier at Ohio State. There obviously was a change in the opponent's talent level, but the line clearly looked more cohesive.

"I feel good at guard," said the soft-spoken Jones. "During the week, coach wanted to look into putting me at guard. I practiced real well. He liked how it looked. He said that we've played a lot of football games with me at guard, and we've won a lot of them. I've played very consistently there.

"Right now, that's a move which I think we're going to stay with. If he wants to change it, whatever he wants to do, I'm happy."

The Hawkeyes had started four of their first five games with different alignments on the offensive front. Jones said his moving for the third time this season didn't make him feel like he had anything to apologize about.

"On the offensive line, you're pass blocking or run blocking whether you're at tackle or guard," he said. "I can see it for the draft in the NFL, but in college, we're all offensive linemen. They just want to put us in the best position to make blocks and make holes for our running backs. If I can do that better at guard, that's where I'll be. I'm just happy to be out there with the great people I work with."

Junior College transfer Marshall Yanda (6-4, 315) also has played positions all over the line this season. Last week, he gave up his left guard spot to Jones, who he replaced at right tackle.

"There's really not that much difference," Yanda said. "There's a bit of difference blocking, but you're still blocking a guy in front of you. You're still pass protecting or blocking for the running back. I mean, it's still just football.

"The pass sets are a little bit longer for the tackle. You're out on an island a little bit, but you still have the same blocking schemes and stuff like that."

Jones isn't worrying about moving back to tackle at any point this season or in the future for the Hawkeyes.

"I want to end up starting as an offensive lineman the rest of my career at Iowa," he said. "I just want to be successful wherever I'm at. Wherever coach feels I'll be most successful at, that's where I'll be."

Figuring out the reason for his comfort at guard as opposed to tackle has eluded Jones.

"I'm not really sure," he said. "Guard, for any offensive lineman, would be a little easier to play naturally. Maybe that's the case. I'm playing a little bit better at guard right now."

The bottom line for Jones was seeing the success he and his line mates enjoyed on Saturday. He felt elements existed there that had been missing this season.

"We ran for over 300 yards, and looking at the tape, there were more yards out there to get." he said. "We did a good job as a unit, and we're definitely working together better. We communicated better. We got challenged to play with more energy, more emotion, and we did that also."

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