IOWA CITY -- One of the more interesting nuggets to come from Kirk Ferentz this week is the possibility that six to nine true freshmen could see action in Saturday's game.
That isn't a giant number. Last season, nine true freshmen played in their first season on campus, including middle linebacker James Morris, running back Marcus Coker and kicker Mike Meyer. In 2009, a team that finished 11-2 with an Orange Bowl victory, just three true frosh played. In 2000, 2003 and 2008, seven true freshmen saw action.
So, six to nine doesn't jump off the page.
"We're going to try and give ourselves the best chance to win right now and go from there," Ferentz said. "That's really kind of the attitude that we are taking."
OK, buzzers in hand, everyone. Time to play "Guess the fresh(men)." If nothing else, this game will keep you focused during special teams plays, when you'll see a handful, or more, of first-year players.
Yes, this one is obvious.
The Hawkeyes have sophomore Marcus Coker, junior Jason White and redshirt freshman De'Andre Johnson. After that, running back coach Lester Erb has true freshmen -- Mika'il McCall, Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock.
This is a free space in the game. You know freshmen will play here.
"I think probably the most obvious would be the running back position, probably where we’re the thinnest right now," Ferentz said. "We’ve been pleased with all three of the guys. They’ve done a nice job over the last three weeks, learning well. I think they’ve competed well in the situations we’ve put them in.
"I think all three of them are capable of going out there. All three of them are capable of going the wrong way. That percentage is getting smaller with each day, but it’s still there. That’s part of playing young guys. But I think that’s probably the most prominent position right now."
So, let's go with two of the three.
At 6-foot, 220 pounds, McCall is the most game-ready. He had first- and second-team carries during the open scrimmage earlier this month. He'd probably be in the conversation had any of Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher or Jewel Hampton made it to their junior seasons.
Canzeri has special teams value and could nudge his way into kick return. In the scrimmage, he showed perhaps the quickest feet of any of the backs (Coker didn't participate). He also showed a "run to green" vision that you just can't coach. Bullock probably redshirts to stagger the class, but we are talking about Iowa running back.
That's two true freshmen.
This is where it gets a little foggy, but Lester Erb, running backs and co-special teams coach shed some light during Iowa's media day.
"I think when you're looking at body types for special teams, the first place you're going to look is at the linebacker position," Erb said. "They're the bigger guys who can run. Obviously, they're defensive guys who are tough and know how to tackle."
Erb went on to say that, no, Iowa didn't recruit a bevy of freshmen linebackers just for special teams. Coaches have bigger plans for frosh linebackers Quinton Alston, Marcus Collins and Melvin Spears. But . . . Special teams was inconsistent last season. Linebacker depth isn't great, so there is depth opportunity along with special teams that will be there.
" I think we have three or four guys on defense right now we’re looking at who could enter into that core group," Ferentz said. "We don’t see them necessarily in the two deep or starting, certainly. At the end of the week, if we feel like they can really help us make a difference, we’ll put them out there and let them get started."
Alston, Collins and Spears would make it five true frosh.
On the bubble
This is the wildcard portion of the game. Running backs and special teams were givens. Who else is in play?
Tight end Ray Hamilton, a 6-5, 235-pounder, has had an active camp. He was terrific in the open scrimmage and might be built for the Big Ten right now. The question with him is does Iowa need him right now. He'll go into the season No. 4 on the depth chart, but he also could play a role on special teams just as tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz did as a true frosh last year. Plus, with two other true freshmen tight ends, this would stagger things.
Cornerback Torrey Campbell was a No. 2 during the open scrimmage and, even though he's not on the depth chart, his status probably has been elevated since sophomore B.J. Lowery suffered an upper-body injury and is out four weeks. Safety Nico Law has a Big Ten-ready body at 6-1, 199. He might not be depth-chart material, but he would fit on special teams.
Along the lines of Big Ten-bodies, wide receiver Jacob Hillyer is 6-4, 195. He might not be in the top four wide receivers, but he could help on special teams.
Ultimately, it's up to the player if they redshirt or play. Those discussions might have been had by this time, but they might still be having them. In the grand scheme of a season, you don't think about it, but for the 18- or 19-year old, it's probably keeping them awake in their dorm room.
"We don't want to be reckless or just waste a players' eligibility," Ferentz said. "That's probably the one request that I throw out there when we have our discussions and we are going to move a guy forward. It's not one of those deals where you are going to run down on a kickoff for two weeks and then sit for 10.
"When we're in, we're in. If we're going to get in the water, we're going to swim."