Wednesday, April 13, 2022

How soon-to-be first-round NFL Draft pick Tyler Linderbaum became an Iowa football icon


Scott Dochterman 

April 11, 2022


SOLON, Iowa — If NFL executives wanted to watch Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum squirm during formal meetings at the scouting combine, they wouldn’t critique his worst plays. They’d praise him for his best snaps.

“You can never say anything good about the guy. Ever,” said Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras, one Linderbaum’s roommates and closest friends. “He’ll just tell you to be quiet or like, ‘Eff off.’”

Rarely do anything but superlatives enter conversations about Linderbaum, the undisputed top center candidate in this year’s NFL Draft. He was a unanimous first-team All-American, the Rimington Trophy winner and an Outland Trophy finalist. Sure, there are a few questions about his size (6-foot-2, 296 pounds) and it wouldn’t be draft season if arm length (Linderbaum’s measured 31 7/8 inches) didn’t enter a discussion. But his on-field play became the gold standard for Pro Football Focus, which ranked Linderbaum as the nation’s top center two consecutive years.

Linderbaum’s personal qualities are as apparent as his on-field prowess. When collegiate athletes were granted rights to monetize their name, image and likeness, Linderbaum sold personalized sweatshirts and donated every cent to the UI Children’s Hospital. He graduated with a degree in enterprise leadership in only seven full semesters at Iowa. He played his final quarter as a Hawkeye with a mid-foot sprain that kept him from on-field workouts at both the NFL combine and Iowa’s pro day.

Of all the traits that draw people to the 22-year-old Linderbaum, it’s his loyalty that wins them over. As a high school senior, Linderbaum wanted one final experience with his friends at Solon (Iowa) High School and played school-sponsored baseball with a season that stretched into mid-July. Those afternoon practices and night games coincided every day with his 6 a.m. workouts in the Iowa football weight room and 11 a.m. summer classes. Despite his lack of consistent sleep, Linderbaum missed only one baseball practice, no football workouts, and his baseball team qualified for the state tournament.

“It gave him that opportunity where he knew, ‘OK, this is what I’m accepting,” said Todd Linderbaum, Tyler’s father. “‘It’s allowing me to have one last fling with my high school buddies in baseball, but also to transition into something that it’s going to lead me into the future.’ I think he kind of had the best of both worlds.”

Linderbaum didn’t complain about his 18-hour days. He liked the daily structure and he had help from his family, including a grandmother who brought him food. His mother, Lisa Linderbaum, called it “a team effort.” It was a challenge but one he fully accepted.

‘He didn’t like to lose’

Growing up in Solon, where his family home is exactly 15 miles north of Kinnick Stadium, Linderbaum became competitive with his older brother, Logan, from the moment he could walk. Logan was 3 ½ years older, and they had their frequent skirmishes. The age difference was amplified in early competitions, but Linderbaum wouldn’t quit battling, whether it be in sports, Ping-Pong or a family board game.

“He didn’t like to lose,” Lisa Linderbaum said. “That’s what I always tell Todd. We should have made him lose as a little boy more often than he did. Just because if he didn’t win, he was pissy.”

Linderbaum had to prove himself and wasn’t given anything by his brother. He had to earn his at-bats or snaps in neighborhood games. When Linderbaum was in third grade and playing flag football, his father coached Logan’s sixth-grade tackle football team. Logan’s team was short on players one day, so Linderbaum was told to stand in as a cornerback but not compete in any drills.

“Before I knew it, he kept creeping up and creeping up and he’s almost at middle linebacker right over our tackles and guards,” Todd Linderbaum said. “Oh, buddy, with no pads on, of course. He wanted to get in there and play. He wasn’t about to sit out there and just be a statue and just be an extra number for dad and other coaches.”

As he grew, Linderbaum played every sport, but basketball was his favorite. Logan was a state-qualifying wrestler and eventually earned a scholarship to compete for Minnesota State-Mankato. Although Linderbaum’s size, strength and frame screamed wrestler like his older brother, he wouldn’t give up basketball until his sophomore year. When Linderbaum finally traded in shorts for a singlet, he had to learn the sport’s technical aspects, which proved far more difficult than using natural athletic ability.

Linderbaum’s transition to wrestling added to one of the great high school competitions in eastern Iowa. Solon’s archrival is Mount Vernon, which is located eight miles to the north. At tournaments and duals throughout the region, Linderbaum regularly saw and battled Mount Vernon’s Tristan Wirfs. Although they were friendly, their temperaments were completely different. Wirfs was an easygoing giant with freakish size and strength. Linderbaum was smaller but made up for it with intensity and tenacity.

“It got harder every time,” Wirfs said. “I knew it was always going to be close. But I was always nervous because he’s like a bulldog. He’d come out all fighting and stuff. I’m like, ‘All right. I’ve got to slow things down. This is too fast.’”

Wirfs beat Linderbaum every time by fall through three regular seasons. Then, the schools were matched up in a regional dual with the winner qualifying for the team state tournament. Solon already had locked up the dual meet by the time Wirfs and Linderbaum met in the heavyweight match. Wirfs tried to throw Linderbaum as he did in every previous matchup. This time, Linderbaum caught Wirfs, powered him to his back and pinned him with six seconds left.

“The night of those matches, there was some juice to it, let’s not kid yourself,” Todd Linderbaum said. “Two combatants going at it, and two pretty competitive kids, obviously. Tristan got him every time but one. That was quite the night out there.

“I would say a friendly competitive rivalry of two young kids just giving it their all is what those were, but good intensity to say the least.”

Wirfs won the Class 2A individual heavyweight title a week later while Linderbaum helped Solon claim the Class 2A state team title. They later became teammates and friends at Iowa and started on the same offensive line during the 2019 season.

“He got me on the last one at the end of the dual,” Wirfs said. “That’s the one everybody remembers.”

Without fail, Linderbaum mentions that Wirfs won the other matchups.

“We’ve always competed against each other, whether it be football, baseball, track, obviously wrestling,” Linderbaum said. “I’ve wrestled him quite a bit. He’s beaten me quite a few times. I’m happy I got one match on him, but he’s a great competitor. He’s someone who’s made me better.”

‘The best I’ve seen’

Linderbaum signed at Iowa as a defensive tackle and played in two games while redshirting in 2018. During postseason bowl preparation, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz asked Linderbaum if he would consider moving to center. In a move that still fires up the program’s defensive coaches, Linderbaum agreed.

By the next spring, Linderbaum was firmly entrenched as the first freshman to start at center in 13 years. He and Petras carried footballs around campus and Linderbaum would snap to his quarterback.

“That’s a good example of trusting your coaches and being coachable,” Lisa Linderbaum said. “You allow yourself to do that.”

Despite his lack of experience, Linderbaum became the tone-setter on an offensive line that included Wirfs and four-year starting left tackle Alaric Jackson, both of whom were first-team All-Big Ten honorees. Linderbaum battled daily against defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, who was a first-team All-American in 2020, and the young center forced his defensive teammates to match his tempo in practice or suffer the consequences.

“Some days felt longer than others,” Iowa defensive tackle Noah Shannon said. “Every day I came to practice it felt like game day for me when I went against Lindy. He is just a great competitor, and he’s not dirty or anything like that; he’s just trying. It’s all effort with him, and I knew I was going to have to give 100 percent because he’s not coming with anything less.”

“The biggest thing is he’s always in good position with his hands and his leverage,” Iowa defensive tackle Logan Lee said. “He’s just a freak of nature. He’s just able to cover so much ground and he’s able to make something out of nothing, especially like at the start of the rep if you happen to be winning, he’ll typically find a way to finish the rep on top.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Linderbaum allowed only two sacks in 1,201 pass-blocking snaps over three seasons (0.17%). Linderbaum was ranked as the nation’s fifth-best center as a redshirt freshman in 2019 and No. 1 in 2020 and 2021. Last year, he graded as the best center since PFF began evaluating college players nearly 10 seasons ago.

Iowa’s staff asked him to do more than most centers in its outside zone with reach blocks on three-technique defensive tackles. Linderbaum’s quickness and ability to reach second-level defenders off a combination block are rare. His hands, leverage, speed and tenacity helped him win snaps against larger and stronger defensive linemen.

(Tony Quinn / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


Kirk Ferentz regularly downplays player comparisons, and with good reason. He was the offensive line coach when the Baltimore Ravens drafted Jonathan Ogden in 1996. At Iowa, Ferentz coached Robert Gallery (2003) and Brandon Scherff (2014) to Outland Trophy seasons and honed Eric Steinbach (2002) and Wirfs (2019) into first-team All-Americans. Another former Iowa pupil, Marshal Yanda (2005-06), was a unanimous member of the NFL Team of the Decade for the 2010s. So when the old line coach evokes a historic name, even in passing, he does so for a reason.

“The thing that jumps out most to me about him is his consistency,” Ferentz said. “I go back to growing up as a young person. Mike Webster was a guy, boy, was he a good center. I remember going up to Latrobe (Pa.) and watching them practice. He made everything look easy. You know it’s not easy, blocking a guy like Joe Greene. After practice, Joe Greene and he went one-on-one. What do you think a ticket like that would cost if it was for public consumption?  Two of the all-time great NFL players.

“Just the things he did, the work, the consistency. Just looked like it was almost easy. It’s not. There’s nothing like that, especially in the NFL or what we’re doing. That’s how I would describe Tyler. So efficient, so focused and usually pretty sound fundamentally. He wins a lot of battles because of that.

“The other part I would just say about him, you meet him, I don’t know if low key is the right word, but he’s not an outward rambunctious guy. He’s ultra-competitive.”

Teammates, college rivals and evaluators alike appreciate what Linderbaum brings to every competition.

“He’s definitely just like you guys see,” said Wisconsin first-team All-American linebacker Leo Chenal. “He’s really fast, he’s super athletic, he’s definitely earned the top whatever lineman, definitely at his position. Because he’s fast, he’ll get to the second level really quick, so you got to be careful.”

“We’ve had very good luck with Iowa players over the years,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. “Marshal Yanda, to me, Hall of Famer someday. When we look at a guy like Tyler Linderbaum, we see a lot of the same qualities — tough, gritty, very, very athletic, very intelligent, smart, the type of guy who could really be the centerpiece of your offensive line. Teams picking in the top 15, I think have a chance to get themselves a really good offensive lineman.”

Fellow Iowa offensive lineman Kyler Schott wrestled Linderbaum in high school and played beside him the last few years.

“I’ve played with some pretty good O-linemen: Tristan Wirfs, Alaric Jackson, Sean Welsh, Ike Boettger,” Schott said, “and he’s the best I’ve seen out of all of them.”

Iowa’s most recent three multi-year starters at center — James Ferentz (Patriots), Austin Blythe (Seahawks), James Daniels (Steelers) — all are on NFL rosters. Every starting Iowa center but one in the last 20 years, including offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, has signed an NFL contract. Brian Ferentz, like Linderbaum, was a team captain his final season but he laughed at any comparison between himself and his young protégé.

“I’m so flattered right now. I’m serious,” Brian Ferentz said. “That’s insanity. That’d be the last time I’ve ever mentioned in the same breath as Tyler Linderbaum as a player. Let me just relish it for a second. But what separates him? You look, his physical ability. That’s probably No. 1 that separates him.”

Brian Ferentz then described Linderbaum’s mentality and mindset also as separators.

“He’s like a unicorn, and you’ll be chasing those forever,” he said. “I feel confident that I know football and I know offensive line play. The hard part for me is the absurdity of what you just said. It’s an insane comparison. He’s so good. I mean that like he is so good. He is on a different level than most players. Guys that I have a tremendous amount of respect for as players. Austin Blythe, I think is a great football player, and I love him. But if we’re playing pickup football and I’ve got one pick, I’m taking Linderbaum. Now, Blythe’s going to be mad at me, but that’s just the truth.”

Loyalty above all

For the power and swagger he displays on the football field, Linderbaum shows affection easily off it. During his college career, Linderbaum traveled to different Eastern Iowa communities to give football instruction or walked into Solon’s wrestling room to help with workouts. He routinely met with patients at the UI Children’s Hospital. None of those volunteer functions came with a tweet of publicity.

“He wants to give back and he has the opportunity to give back, but he also doesn’t want any (publicity),” Todd Linderbaum said.

“I was teasing Tyler’s dad,” Kirk Ferentz said, “I said he probably rescued somebody out of like a burning house or something like that on the way over to the children’s hospital. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

The one moment that drew attention to Linderbaum came with the NIL repeal. For nearly two weeks last fall, “Baum Squad” sweatshirts became hot products online, and they raised $30,000. For a college athlete, it was a considerable amount of money. Many of his teammates kept their NIL income or pledged a portion of it to charity. Linderbaum donated all of it to the UI Children’s Hospital.

“My whole mindset of it, whether it be $1,000 or $20,000 or $30,000, I said I was going to give 100 percent of the profit,” Linderbaum said. “I’m not too worried about how much money I have right now. With all the NIL stuff, it’s kind of cool I can do stuff like this. I think having 100 bucks is a lot, so I’ll be fine. I don’t have to pay for school with my scholarship, so I’m living life fine. I think donating $30,000 to the children’s hospital is more important than that.”

The donation did not surprise his parents. Of course, his mother noticed his appearance at the check presentation.

“Clearly he showed up in a torn jacket,” she said with a laugh. “He’s just very grateful for the littlest things. Even as a child, he never asked for anything, ever. He’s fine with his brother’s hand-me-downs. Always has been. For us it’s like, ‘You need a new pair of shoes.’ ‘No, these are fine. I have these.’ I’m like, ‘You need a new pair of shoes. There are holes in (them).’ I mean, he makes do with what he has.”

While simplicity wraps his exterior, loyalty never strays too far from Linderbaum’s makeup. He grew up an Iowa fan and when the scholarship offer came his way, he jumped on it and never looked back.

Linderbaum had no interest in even entertaining the question about whether he’d play in the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky. Late in the fourth quarter when he suffered a foot sprain so painful that he couldn’t walk without a serious hobble, Linderbaum returned to the field after missing just three plays.

Although the injury kept him out of workouts for NFL scouts, Linderbaum remained steadfast he made the right decision.

“I wouldn’t change it,” he said. “I’d play in that game if I could again. Hopefully go out on a win.”

Linderbaum stayed in Iowa City to train this winter because, “I’m not going to leave the place that helped me get where I’m at.”

With a bachelor’s degree in hand and first-team All-American honors, Linderbaum had nothing left to prove when he returned home from the Hawkeyes’ bowl game. Yet it took him nearly two weeks to finalize his decision to leave for the NFL. He announced his plan only three days before the deadline.

“He was still torn,” Todd Linderbaum said. “I think it’s maybe twofold. One, you go back to the summer of his senior year with baseball. He didn’t want to leave his buddies behind. I’ve gotta finish this out here. I think the same analogy, maybe it could be used with football. He didn’t want to leave his buddies behind.”

“It’s hard for him to make decisions, what’s best for me versus what’s best for the team,” Lisa Linderbaum said. “This decision ultimately was what was best for him, unfortunately, and fortunately.”

With few exceptions, the Linderbaum family met at an Iowa City-area Hy-Vee and enjoyed breakfast together every Sunday morning. Often, the family would ask him to do his laundry just to see him for a few extra minutes or take him out to dinner. That all changes on draft night when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell unveils Linderbaum’s football destination. Whether it’s loyalty or love or just preference to avoid the spotlight, Linderbaum will watch the draft with family in Solon.

“You take just those little tiny moments that you do get with him and you enjoy it,” said Todd Linderbaum, who started to become emotional. “Whatever happens, we’re just tickled that there’s an interest in our son to play at the highest level of football. Wherever that direction takes him, oh man, we’ll be there on Sunday watching him and supporting him.”

(Top photo: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) 

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