Iowa Football

Hawkeyes push away from the dock, and everyone still is aboard

Pretty big wave to negotiate with 4 suspensions in week 1, but team's response gives Kirk Ferentz confidence

IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes pushed away from the dock last week for their annual three-month fishing trip, aka the football season.

Four pairs of sunglasses fell into the lake. It’s OK, though, head coach Kirk Ferentz said on Friday during the team’s media day. They’ll double back around and fish out the sunglasses in week 2.

Obviously, the lost sunglasses are the four suspensions the Hawkeyes will have to overcome in their season opener against Northern Illinois on Sept. 1 at Kinnick Stadium.

Offensive tackle Alaric Jackson and defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore were suspended for violations of team policies this week. Earlier this summer, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs (OWI) and defensive tackle Brady Reiff (public intoxication) were suspended following alcohol arrests.

They had to come out on media day and answer questions about their suspensions. With maybe 50 media outlets hovering, they probably had to answer that question multiple times.

“It’s embarrassing, I feel like I let a lot of people down,” said Wirfs, a sophomore who last season became the first true freshman to start at offensive tackle under head coach Kirk Ferentz, who is entering season No. 20. “You don’t want to forget about it, but you want to move past it. My mom said there’s greener grass ahead.”

That could not have been fun. No, this is not the way a serious football team starts a season.

Ferentz realizes that. So, the next logical question is gauging the maturity level of a football team with just 13 seniors and that was hit with four suspensions and another late departure (safety Brandon Snyder left the team July 31) almost at the same time the boat was leaving the dock.

This is why the boat will turn around and pick up the stranded Hawkeyes.

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“When guys come forward and are unified with a message, that’s really an encouraging thing,” Ferentz said. “A lot of times it can really galvanize football teams. ...

“The good news out of all this in my mind is just the way the team has responded, and I couldn’t be more proud and happy with the way the guys have handled this whole thing, and I think there’s a real strong commitment to move forward and do it in the right way.”

The idea that the players sit silently when all of this stuff is going down, that’s not exactly correct. The leadership committee does have input and sometimes more than that. Ferentz is the boss, but this group does have a say.

And it wanted all accounts settled before practice started last Friday. Ferentz said he remembered two previous incidents that happened late in the summer — “Summer seems to be a real interesting time” — and somehow tightened whatever bond that glues a team together.

“There are certain standards we have, and either you abide by them or you don’t, and if you don’t, then there’s a price to pay, and then we move on, also,” Ferentz said. “I’m big on that. I think it’s critical. I don’t think you can have a doghouse and be a coach or a parent, unless it just becomes a chronic issue, and if it is, then you have to address it.

“If I was worried about that, none of the players in question would be on the team right now if that were the case. It’s not my favorite part of the job, but it’s part of the job. It’s like being a parent. Kids don’t always need another friend. That’s the bottom line. Sometimes you have to say no, and it’s not OK. Let’s do it again. We do it on the field all the time. Famous last words: Do it again. Or one more rep.”

There was more to Iowa’s media day than contrition.

Ferentz doesn’t allow true freshman to speak to the media, so Friday was the first time for 50 or whatever media outlets to actually speak with Wirfs and sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa as Hawkeyes.

People are obviously curious. Wirfs is from Mount Vernon and almost a hometowner. Epenesa was a 5-star recruit who followed his father’s footsteps to Iowa City. He also had 4.5 sacks as a true freshman defensive end.

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They put thought in what they had to say. They made unflinching eye contact. They smiled and laughed and seemed like speaking to 50 whatever media outlets for the first time was just another family dinner time.

Epenesa is a lifelong Hawkeye fan. His dad, Eppy Epenesa, was a D-lineman for the Hawkeyes in 1997.

His first Hawkeye jersey was? Eppy’s jersey never made it into stores. That’s how it goes for walk-on D-linemen.

“I think it might’ve been No. 6, Tim Dwight,” A.J. Epenesa said. “He was one of my dad’s good buddies back then and I had a No. 6. There was no name on the back, but looking back, I know No. 6 was Tim.”

Epenesa is 6-5, 277. Wirfs is 6-5, 320. They’ve always been the biggest kids.

What is that like?

“I’ve liked it,” Wirfs said. “It was the toughest in middle school. Teachers would always say I don’t know my own strength. I was just trying to have fun with my buddies. That’s just how it goes.”

The boat has left the dock. There are always going to be waves, but the boat is not on fire.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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