AMES, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz’s news conference after the game Saturday was both celebratory and analytical until he was asked about right tackle Ike Boettger’s status.
Then the Iowa coach’s mood grew somber and quiet. There was an obvious melancholy to Ferentz’s voice.
“I don’t think so,” Ferentz said about Boettger’s possible return next week against North Texas (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). “I’m not optimistic.”
Boettger left the game at Iowa State — a 44-41 overtime win for the Hawkeyes — with a lower leg injury. At first it appeared Boettger injured his ankle. But Ferentz’s prognosis was much worse.
“I think it sounds like an Achilles,” Ferentz said. “Yeah, he’s done for the season if that’s the case.”
Boettger, a fifth-year senior from Cedar Falls, Iowa, had 20 career starts for the Hawkeyes at multiple positions but opened 17 at right tackle. He arrived on campus in 2013 as a tight end after playing quarterback in high school. Boettger played sparingly in 2014 as a blocking tight end but grew into an offensive lineman at 6-foot-6 and 307 pounds.
Iowa’s offensive linemen held out hope Boettger’s injury wasn’t as severe as thought.
“I know he’s going to do everything he can do to get back with us,” Iowa guard Sean Welsh said.
“It sucks because Ike’s one of my best friends and to see him go down like that is really sad,” Iowa center James Daniels said. “Stuff happens, people get hurt. Injuries are a part of the game; I got hurt last week. Two years, actually last year, I was hurt, too.”
Whether Boettger’s injury is season-ending or short term, Iowa’s offensive line will shuffle yet again. The injury woes so far this season mirror the issues experienced by the front wall in 2016. The Hawkeyes started seven offensive line combinations and experienced growing pains. By the end of the season, Iowa earned the Joe Moore Award, which is given to the nation’s top offensive lines.
Iowa’s coaching staff expected injuries along the offensive line and prepared for it during training camp. Every lineman was required to learn another position in case of injury. Starting guards Sean Welsh and Keegan Render took reps at center. Boone Myers was hobbled with a high-ankle sprain, but he can play either guard or tackle spot. The same with Boettger before his injury. Alaric Jackson worked at both tackle positions.
“I know I sound like a broken record, but certainly with that position, we are going to need more than five before the year is said and done,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said in late August.
That’s been the case thus far. Daniels missed the opener against Wyoming, which forced Render to center and Ross Reynolds to left guard. Myers wasn’t ready to play a full game so Jackson started at left tackle. At Iowa State, Daniels returned to starting lineup, Render moved back to left guard and Jackson stayed at left tackle. Once Boettger went down in the third quarter, Iowa shuffled its line combination almost every series.
Myers played both guard and tackle. Reynolds rotated with Render. First Jackson moved to right tackle, then he moved back while Welsh kicked outside and Myers played right guard. The changes affected Iowa’s continuity throughout the second half.
“It doesn’t help,” Kirk Ferentz said. “And we’re starting to do more of it than we’d like. The good news is it looked like Boone was cranking pretty good right there and based on what I saw in the locker room, I think he’s ready to go. I think we’re gaining ground there. You never want to lose any player but hopefully, maybe, we’ve got something different [with Boettger], but I’m not optimistic. It’s not good.”
Now, Iowa will prepare for its sixth straight game with a different offensive line combination, dating back to November. Jackson could stay at left tackle, or Myers returns there and Jackson flips to right tackle. Or Myers could replace Boettger at right tackle. Or Myers could play guard and Welsh move to right tackle. Freshman Tristan Wirfs could see playing time as well.
“I think the coaches have done a really good job of moving us around and getting us out of our comfort zone and playing one position,” Welsh said. “I think they’ll prepare us for whatever happens.”