IOWA CITY, Iowa — When it comes to deciding who plays the coveted blind side position, comfort and fit are more essential than jamming the best lineman in the left tackle role.
With spring practice halfway complete, sophomores Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs still are rotating at both tackle spots and both would compete at a high level. But if Iowa played a game on Saturday, who would open at each position?
“Both guys are doing a great job at both spots,” Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek said. “I think Tristan is getting a little bit higher percentage at right tackle and A.J. is still getting a little bit higher percentage at left tackle. But to be honest with you, that’s one for the emphasis this week to make sure that we’re not one-sided or the other.”
Jackson (6-foot-7, 320 pounds) opened at left tackle in every regular-season game last year and was named a first-team freshman All-American. But when he was suspended for the Pinstripe Bowl, Wirfs (6-5, 320) shifted from right to left tackle. Wirfs was the first freshman in coach Kirk Ferentz’s 20 years to start a game at tackle, which he did eight times.
Entering spring practice, Wirfs was listed as the top left tackle while Jackson was placed at right tackle. But both players are trading reps to find the best person for each role.
“I’ll be honest with you, we went through a tough time in the bowl prep because that was a quick transition and we had some time for Tristan to go over there,” Polasek said. “But A.J.’s the one that really struggled on the right side. Quite frankly, it’s interesting. One guy’s right hand is better on the right side. The other guy’s left hand is better [on the left side]. So you get these different things going on. But really their feet in pass protection, both have been pretty good. I’m really happy with that. But it’s a constant grind to perfect. They’re both really comfortable from a schematic standpoint.”
Before spring practice began, Ferentz said he wanted Jackson and Wirfs to get reps at both sides so the staff could determine who fits best at what position. Both saw their first college action last season but are considered veterans now.
“You watch these guys on film, and there were a lot of things they did pretty well last year, but a lot of things they’re going to do better in the future just because they’ve got good attitudes,” Ferentz said. “They’ve got ample experience now. So hope to see really good growth out of both of those players.”
Right now the top backup at both tackle spots is freshman Mark Kallenberger (6-6, 282), who has put on more than 20 pounds since arriving at Iowa. Kallenberger has impressed the coaches enough to consider looking at him as a contender inside at guard.
Polasek praised Kallenberger for his consistency and growth as a player in developing a routine. Kallenberger’s enthusiasm forced Polasek to smile.
“When he came in today and I’m like, ‘What’s up with you?’ ” Polasek said. “He wanted a high-five because it was the first time he’s been on his target weight for more than a week. So we’ll have the option to potentially be able to push him up another pound or so.
“Mark has worked only at right and left tackle. So rep one of the twos, he goes out there to left tackle. Something we talk about weekly is personnel. Who can provide depth? Who can get into the top six or seven? Do we have our best five out there right now? Mark’s name comes up constantly. We’ll try to provide some opportunities for him that are different than those tackle spots.”