CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Colton Lueck didn’t know how his experience was going to go once he arrived on the University of Northern Iowa campus.
Now a senior, the Dyersville Beckman graduate has become a key cog on the Panthers’ offensive line — not just on the field, but in the weight room, on the practice field and in the meeting room.
It’s a standard shared by a couple other former Dubuque County prep standouts now on the UNI offensive line: Western Dubuque grad Billy Blaser, a junior; and recent Dubuque Hempstead grad Jesse Hilby.
Lueck came to the Panthers as a 245-pound freshman. He spent the majority of last year listed as the second-string center on the depth chart and enters fall camp battling for the starting job.
Now, he’s a robust 6-foot-4 and 308 pounds.
“Starting out I was undersized. I wasn’t the biggest guy and I didn’t have the strength that it took to play here,” Lueck said Wednesday at the team’s annual media day inside the UNI-Dome. “But obviously the strength and conditioning program here helped a lot. Different mentors and the coaches here, other players that I had formerly as captains or other seniors prior to this year, they’ve helped me a lot. That is definitely a huge part of what got me to where I am today.”
Blaser is coming off a pair of major injuries after suffering a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his shoulder and a torn labrum in his hip. He underwent shoulder surgery in March after having hip surgery in February.
Panthers coach Mark Farley said Blaser should be medically cleared to return to contact around Sept. 1. Blaser plays in the three interior line positions, but saw action at fullback in goal-line and short-yardage situations a season ago.
He’s using his recovery time to not only get better, but make the entire position group and team better.
“I definitely try my hardest not to short cut anything,” said Blaser, who is listed at 6-1 and 281 pounds. “I try to really not just get through the workout, but really own the workout and try to get better. Especially coming back from the injuries, I have to get my strength back and I realize that.
“If I see somebody slacking off in practice, I’m going to smack them and wake them up real fast. It’s Division I football. Someone’s coming for you every single play. Like with me and my shoulder, one play I was fine and the next play it was over. That could happen to a starter and somebody else could come in and that guy might not be ready and we need everyone to be ready. You never know who’s going to go down in a game.”
Farley talked about the types of players he likes most — hard-nosed, intelligent and strong leaders — and Lueck and Blaser fit that mold.
“He has worked his way into one of the leaders on our football team. He is the guy that probably has the best voice of our football team, because it isn’t that he’s the starter, it’s that he’s a Panther and he knows what this program is,” Farley said. “Colton Lueck is making himself into a very valuable person on this football team because of his investment into the University of Northern Iowa football.
“Billy Blaser is the same way, he’s just younger doing it. He’s got that same character as far as, it’s more important to be part of the team and being productive on the team than just being on the team. He wants to be a productive member of it and he’s challenged himself and that’s how he works.”
The Panthers return four offensive linemen who started at least three games a season ago. Lueck started two games and saw action in two others. His biggest asset is his versatility: he can play all five spots on the line.
“He’s Mr. Reliable,” said offensive line coach Ryan Clanton. “We’re going to play the best five, in any order. And that’s where his advantage is at, that he can play any of the five. So if he’s one of the best five he will play. If he starts, he’s obviously going to start every game. If he doesn’t start, he’s still going to play. It’s one of those things where he’s going to start or he’s going to play. It’s one of the two. He’s doing a really good job for us and he’s one of our best overall leaders on the team.”
That leadership role is something Lueck relishes.
“I want to be a guy that is there for the young guys,” he said. “As a guy who was pretty unsure of myself when I first came here, I want to make sure that I’m here to support the young kids and then also be into that leadership role as well. As a senior now, I’d like to really help the guys out that way.”
One of those young guys is Hilby, who projects as a center. The true freshman is listed at 6-2 and 273 pounds, and according to Clanton has all the potential to be the Panthers’ starting center of the future.
Hilby has been working on shotgun snaps and Clanton said he is consistent with a tight spiral right into the quarterback’s hands.
“When you look at him, you see center. When he sits in his stance you see center. When he’s snapping, you’re like yeah, he’s a center,” Clanton said. “You know guys that can swing around. Like when you look at Colton you think OK, this guy can play a lot of different things. He’s got a frame on him, he’s smart, he can play with his left foot and his right foot back. When you see Jesse out there and you see him going, you’re like yeah, this guy can play center. Some guys are just natural at it.”