IOWA CITY, Iowa – So far, Iowa has played seven true freshmen. That number was expected to increase, according to coach Kirk Ferentz.
Offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs and Max Cooper, a receiver, will be utilized at some point this season, he said. They would join Geno Stone, Matt Hankins, Ivory Kelly-Martin, Brandon Smith, Noah Clayberg, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and A.J. Epenesa. It could come as early as this Saturday when the Hawkeyes play host to North Texas (2:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2).
Wirfs (6-5, 315) missed a week during training camp with an injury. That set him back in terms of development. With starting right tackle Ike Boettger going down with a season-ending injury Saturday during a 44-41 overtime win at Iowa State, Wirfs moved up in the rotation.
“We’ve been leaning in that direction anyway, so right now we just have to plan like he will play at some point because we’re really running out of depth. It’s not like we’ve got a lot of that. So we’ve been practicing with him on the second team, pushing him forward as if he were going to play,” Ferentz said.
Wirfs came to Iowa from Mount Vernon (IA) High, where he was a U.S. Army All-American. He’s advanced his game recently after getting back in the groove following the injury.
“There are some things he does very well, and at times he does things extremely well,” Ferentz said. “But the consistency factor is the biggest part. He was almost doing too well until he got hurt. It was about a week, but a week might as well have been a month. It just seemed like that because it really set him back. Now we’ve seen him climb the ladder here a little bit the last two weeks.”
The Hawkeyes already have played two true freshmen receivers in Smith and Smith-Marsette, who caught the game-winning touchdown against the Cyclones. Cooper traveled to Ames but did not see the field.
Ferentz said Cooper would play this season and could figure into the mix at punt returner.
“He’s done a nice job back there as a young kid,” the coach said.
Iowa also brought true freshman punter Ryan Gersonde to Iowa State. He did not play.
The Hawkeyes employed 10 first-year players in 2016.
BUMMER FOR BOETTGER: Ferentz confirmed Tuesday what he speculated to be the case on Saturday. Boettger would miss the rest of the season after injuring his Achilles during the third quarter.
Boettger, who started the first two games at right tackle after opening 12 games there a year ago, is a senior. Ferentz doesn’t think the Cedar Falls native is eligible for a medical hardship season, according to the rules.
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“By the book, no. But, we live in a crazy world. There is a quarterback I’m aware of that got an extra year because of a coaching change which I’ve never heard of that. I don’t know what the precedent for that would be. But we’ve got a new line coach, maybe we can get him a year because of that. We’ll see. Certainly different styles and personalities with those two guys, so I don’t know. Got to look in that policy book they’ve got,” the coach said.
Boone Myers, who has been dealing with injuries of his own, felt horrible for his friend and classmate.
“It’s tough. He came in with me. We’ve been through the ringer together, Ike, Sean (Welsh) and I. It’s hard. You don’t wish that on anyone. It just rips your heart out,” Myers said.
RETURN CHANGES: While Cooper could find himself returning punts, it appears to be Josh Jackson’s job for now.
He handled those duties Saturday in Ames. Matt VandeBerg returned punts in the 24-3, season-opening win against Wisconsin. The coaches then decided it might smarter to use Jackson with VandeBerg being a receiver coming off a season-ending injury that also cost him spring ball.
“I think the running he’s doing, it’s a different kind of run,” Ferentz said of Jackson, a cornerback. “Nobody’s hitting him when he’s running. Typically he’s hitting them.”
Similarly, Kelly-Martin is now the No. 1 kick returner, replacing starting running back Akrum Wadley. The idea is to save some wear and tear on the team’s top skill player.
“Kelly-Martin’s doing a nice job back there. He looks very comfortable. I think that’s one of the highlights though, I don’t even know what the yardage was, but he looked like he belonged out there. That’s how he’s looked in practice. We want to get his feet wet and get him going here too,” the coach said.
Wadley carried the ball a career-high 28 times on Saturday. He also caught four passes and returned three kicks.
“The first week wasn’t that bad. Saturday is probably a little heavier (workload for Wadley) than we like. But we’ll try to balance that out a little bit, and there is no reason we can’t. We’ve got other guys that are doing a really good job,” Ferentz said.
QUICK-HITTERS: Ferentz said Myers is recovering nicely from a high-ankle sprain suffered during camp.
“Boone’s gaining ground right now. You’ll see him play more and more with each week. Based on what I’ve seen the last two weeks, I think we’re starting to get where we want to get,” he said.
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-Wadley said Ferentz gave him film of Hawkeye great Ronnie Harmon. The coach saw some parallels between the two running backs.
“The comparison there would be Akrum does some stuff with the ball in his hands that none of us can coach. We’d love to, but you can’t coach or give that to a guy. Ronnie was the same way. I think they’re similar in the fact that Ronnie’s one of the tougher, more competitive guys I’ve ever been around anywhere at anyplace I’ve ever coached. I mean, he was a tough-minded guy,” he said.
-While there has been some shuffling on the offensive line, it appears freshman Alaric Jackson is locked into left tackle.
“That’s where he’ll be for us at least for this season. That’s what I see at least right now,” Ferentz said.
-Before adding graduate transfer James Butler, it appeared Toren Young would get some work as Wadley’s back-up. With Butler in town, Young has not carried the ball this season.
“I said something the other day I wanted him to make sure that we knew he’s really been practicing really well. It just hasn’t worked out to get him in there. But we will at some point. This is a good situation right now. If James Butler weren’t on the team right now he’d be getting a lot more work, but we’ll get there at some point. We’ve got a lot more football in front of us and he’s going to help us,” Ferentz said.
-Some onlookers (including me) were wondering Saturday why we didn’t see more of Epenesa. The young defensive end has applied pressure on the quarterback frequently when in the game.
“He’s done some really good things out there. The more he plays, the more he’ll play. If that makes sense. As long as he’s gaining ground, which he is right now. To throw him in there for 60 plays would have been – I think I could have told you what the answer would be there at the end, made that prediction. But as he keeps playing, he’ll get more confident and more comfortable. He learns every day,” Ferentz said.
EXTRA POINTS: As of Tuesday afternoon, 5,700 tickets remained for Saturday and 5,500 were left for the Sept. 23 primetime game against No. 5 Penn State, according to Iowa Sports Information…this week’s captains will be Josey Jewell, Matt VandeBerg, Akrum Wadley, and Kevin Ward…North Texas has a different coaching staff than when it came to Kinnick Stadium two years ago. It was former Hawkeye player and coach then. He was replaced by Seth Littrell before last season…The Mean Green runs an air-raid offense that usually features four receivers with one running back. They’re averaging 79 plays per game this season.