IOWA CITY — Saturday’s deal with the offensive line is self-inflicted. The punishments and embarrassments have been processed.
It’s time for the hard part.
The actual game and the actual blocking and actual pass protection for a quarterback who has the potential to leave a significant mark on the 2018 Big Ten West and, who knows, maybe the Big Ten overall.
Offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs (OWI) and Alaric Jackson (team rules violation) will be in the penalty box when the Hawkeyes (0-0) kick off their season Saturday against Northern Illinois at Kinnick Stadium (2:40 p.m., Big Ten Network).
They’ll be rocking back and forth and sweating bullets hoping their replacements — senior Dalton Ferguson, junior Levi Paulsen and redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger — can keep one of the nation’s best pass rushes and pass rushers from scoring a goal on quarterback Nate Stanley.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz isn’t fine with this. He’d rather have Wirfs and Jackson, two big bodies with NFL potential, but bad decisions have forced Iowa’s hand. That’s where Ferentz speaks plainly.
“It’s just like injuries, they’re unfortunate,” Ferentz said. “That’s the way it goes, it happens, and now it’s an opportunity for somebody else to step in and really show that they can play and do a great job and help us win.”
Ferguson is in his gold watch year. He’s a fifth-year senior. He was a walk-on until he was awarded a scholarship at the end of camp last week. He’s suffered a torn ACL in his career, just when he was climbing the hill to playing time. Simply being a five-year walk-on tells you a lot about the 6-4, 308-pound Solon native.
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“I’m just proud of him,” center Keegan Render said. “He’s gone through knee injuries. He’s got up on the depth chart and has gotten hurt. That speaks to what he does. He comes into meetings, he’s focused and he wants to get better. Him getting the start, getting the opportunity, it’s payoff for what he’s gone through.”
Saturday will be his first start.
Kallenberger (6-6, 282) came from Bettendorf where he earned Rivals 3-star status and picked up offers from Nebraska, Iowa State, Missouri and Kansas State. Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell compared his body type to former Iowa All-American Eric Steinbach. Kallenberger needed his to raise his weight from 250-260 to 282. And obviously the weight room confidence.
Ferentz said if the new redshirt rule was in place (first-year players can now play four games without losing their redshirt status), Kallenberger might’ve played after working with the second team a lot last fall.
“He’s had his ups and downs since then, like every guy on the team, but he really has rallied the last two weeks, practicing well, and he’s got a good future here,” Ferentz said. “So hopefully, he’ll play well Saturday and carry that all season long.”
Junior Levi Paulsen filled in for Jackson when he was suspended for the Pinstripe Bowl last December. Paulsen suffered an injury in spring and that probably opened the door to this rotation. (That and there probably will be a little sorting Saturday on who can actually do this.)
Paulsen also reminded us that they’re not exactly coming in cold. They do, you know, practice.
“That’s what’s cool about our depth on the offensive and defensive line,” the 6-5, 305-pounder from Moville said. “Some days, the ones will go against the twos and the twos will go against the ones, so we’re always seeing a different picture.
“We’re always seeing small guys who are going to bring speed, we’re seeing bigger guys who are going to give you a little bit of power and we’re seeing long guys who are going to give you stabs, bulls and maybe switch up speed and a little bit of power. Think that really helps us grow as a team and become a really tight-knit unit.”
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But yes, this might be the game where Iowa throws a little extra attention to the edge. We’re talking about Stanley’s health and well-being here.
“I feel pretty comfortable with where they’re at right now,” Stanley said. “They’ve been working extremely hard and will continue to work extremely hard, so yeah, I feel pretty comfortable with them right now.”
So, obviously Iowa will be highly conscious of protection calls against Sutton Smith (tied for the nation’s lead in sacks last season). And, who knows, maybe they’ll throw tight ends and/or fullbacks at NIU’s edge rushers.
“Obviously, we have plays in there where we’re going to give a little more help, but there are plays where the tackles are alone, they know that,” Render said. “There are a couple built-in plays where we might get a little chip or something like that.”
Yes, there will be some help, but Iowa generally leaves its tackles on the edge and expects them to hold up.
Wirfs and Jackson will be in the penalty box this weekend. They’ll be sweating bullets. And then next week, they’re two minutes are up and it’s likely they’ll be the starters for week 2 against the Cyclones.
“You don’t want this to happen,” Render said. “At the same time, there is good that can come out of it. We’ve been pushing through that, taking steps forward.
“Obviously, those guys have to pay for it, but we need to realize we’re still going to need those guys so you don’t just exile them.”
There is more than one week of football. Promise.
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