Iowa Football

NFL combine time: 5 Hawkeyes, 5 points of view

Iowa players will face different levels of scrutiny and very different questions

FILE - In this March 4, 2019, file photo, South Dakota State defensive back Jordan Brown jumps before running the 40-yar
FILE - In this March 4, 2019, file photo, South Dakota State defensive back Jordan Brown jumps before running the 40-yard dash during the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis. The NFL's new scouting drills are designed to do three things: Give scouts a better evaluation of draft prospects in the evolving game; make workouts more competitive; create more entertainment for fans. League officials announced late last week they would introduce 16 new drills at this week's annual event. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Tristan Wirfs knows how to make an impression, in life and football. Before he arrived here for the NFL combine, he jumped into the “Pledge It” program and has raised nearly $5,000 for his vertical leap.

This is when football is about vertical leaps and not blocking and tackling. The Pledge It site predicted a 33-inch vertical leap for Wirfs, which would put the dollar-per-inch at $150.80. (It’s all going to the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.)

The running, jumping and three-cone drilling all matters this week at Lucas Oil Stadium. And, yes, Wirfs' good heart with good intentions can’t hurt.

The Hawkeyes have five players here — Wirfs, defensive end A.J. Epenesa, quarterback Nate Stanley and defensive backs Geno Stone and Michael Ojemudia.

Wirfs, Epenesa and Stone are early entrees, which is now up to nine in the last three seasons. Each of the five Hawkeyes has their own agenda for the combine.

Let’s rank these guys in terms of who needs a big week and who might have some slack to work with in case the football Olympics that they’ve been prepping for since the Holiday Bowl somehow goes south.

1. Safety Geno Stone

The 5-10, 210-pounder spoke about how difficult this decision was for him during the Holiday Bowl week.

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He knows his measureables (speed, strength, explosiveness) will be under the gun. When cornerback Desmond King considered leaving after the 2015 season, his NFL feedback was, essentially, stay in school and work on your speed. He did and King’s next contract should set him up for life.

Stone said his feedback was similar. He’s betting on himself here. Is there a comparison with Iowa defensive back Amani Hooker? Hooker was the Big Ten defensive back of the year in 2018. He declared and ran a 4.48-second 40 at the combine.

King had the Thorpe Award and was a consensus All-American going into his senior year. Hooker had Big Ten defensive back of the year. Stone didn’t hit that lottery, but was second-team all-Big Ten last season.

Stone is probably faster than we think. You saw his work last fall on the edges of defense and in the alley. One question for him this week will be how much the defensive back factory that Phil Parker has created at Iowa works for him with NFL execs.

One thing we don’t know about Stone is where he could fit as a returner. He had 17 interceptions for New Castle, Pa., as a prep.

2. Cornerback Michael Ojemudia 

Ojemudia is 6-1, 200 pounds with long arms and a mechanical engineering degree. That should do a lot of the talking for him.

Again, working four years under Parker, Iowa’s secondary coach and defensive coordinator, should help Ojemudia conquer any whiteboard, “draw it up, son” that these guys face in meetings with teams.

Ojemudia got scuffed up a bit during his career. He had a few bad plays that got him pulled. It never stopped him and he played his best football as a senior, earning second-team all-Big Ten.

Ojemudia will have position flexibility. His height should allow him a shot as a safety if a team sees him as one.

The reason he’s No. 2 is a bad time is tough for defensive backs to overcome. Not saying Ojemudia will run a bad time, but speed often equals your worth in the NFL.

3. Quarterback Nate Stanley

Stanley will get grilled for the long ball accuracy, something that was a weakness in his three years as a starter. He’ll also get to show he can do it.

Near the end of 2019, Stanley put some passes in the clown’s mouth. His Holiday Bowl should shine for him here.

One interesting question for Stanley here will be how being an Iowa quarterback works for him. You know the Hawkeyes are a prostyle offense. You’ve also heard head coach Kirk Ferentz say time after time how difficult it is to play QB for the Hawkeyes. The quarterback is out there running the offense, because the Iowa staff believes he has the best view and feel.

That said, teams that want the next Kyler Murray or the Tua Tagovailoa will not be in the market for a Stanley, but he will have a market.

4. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa 

Sometimes in the draft lead up, players get compared time and time again with the lead dog at the position.

Ohio State’s Chase Young is not doing drills here. Yes, Young can call that shot. In comparison to Young, you’re starting to hear or read or whatever that Epenesa isn’t as athletic as you witnessed during his three years with the Hawkeyes.

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He’s probably not as fast and athletic as Young. Epenesa will have to do drills at the combine, and, yeah, that’s going to help Epenesa.

Style of defense might keep him off some teams’ lists, but Epenesa’s natural pass-rush skills and all of the run defense he has downloaded in the past year will make him a first rounder.

5. Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs

Like Epenesa, you’re hearing things about Wirfs that doesn’t compute to what you saw. That said, this is the level where everything matters.

For example, Wirfs will be grilled over his hands. All over the place against Michigan. Lethal, registered weapons against USC in the Holiday.

This is where weight room strength will work for the 6-5, 322-pounder. There also could be an opportunity for Wirfs to show off underrated athleticism.

The question that you won’t see on TV will be do teams see Wirfs as a tackle or guard? That’ll be the debate. Teams that see him as a guard might not move on him in the first round. There will be teams that saw the Holiday Bowl film and will project him as a tackle, too.

How many are on either side of guard or tackle? We won’t find that out at the combine, but this will be a week where the football world is talking quite a bit about Iowa football.

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

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