Iowa Football

Iowa offensive line: Tristan Wirfs is not afraid to throw down

The Hawkeyes looking to thrive and not just survive on the O-line

Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs (74) tries to make  quarterback Nathan Stanley (4) laugh during photographs on the practice field at the Hansen Football Performance Center during the 2018 University of Iowa Football Media Day in Iowa City on Friday, August 10, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs (74) tries to make quarterback Nathan Stanley (4) laugh during photographs on the practice field at the Hansen Football Performance Center during the 2018 University of Iowa Football Media Day in Iowa City on Friday, August 10, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Tristan Wirfs has been the big kid his entire life.

Growing up in Mount Vernon, this would show up in rough housing. Especially when he was younger. Whatever the game was, all of the sudden, some kid was hurtling through the air and maybe into the next county.

“In middle school, I think it was the toughest,” said Wirfs, who last season became the first true freshman to start a game at offensive tackle in Kirk Ferentz’s 19-plus seasons as Iowa’s head coach. “The teachers would always tell me I didn’t know my own strength. I was just trying to have fun with my buddies. That’s just how it goes.”

You’re the big kid, you play sports. You play sports well enough, you get recruited to play college football, where all of the kids are big.

Still, at 6-5, 320, Wirfs remains one of the biggest.

When he went into his first camp last fall, he kind of knew that, yeah, he was still the big kid and that, yeah, the veterans were going to try to get his attention.

You know all of these camp videos coming out of Iowa City right now from fall camp? Last fall, there was one with some dialogue.

During one practice rep, then-senior linebacker Bo Bower tried to push straight through Wirfs’ chest. Wirfs stood his ground.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz noticed and said something about hitting back. This is football. It’s literally a game of big kids hitting each other.

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“I think I know what you’re talking about from last camp with Bo and I,” Wirfs said. “We got into it a little bit.”

With his hands for the ax, Bower tried to split Wirfs down the middle. Wirfs didn’t budge.

Wirfs is the big kid and he’s a really nice guy. But it was time for the freshman to hit back.

And for Wirfs, yes, that did come with trepidation. Every football camp has seniors here (hand above head) and freshman here (hand at maybe chest level).

Was this Wirfs’ “right of passage” moment? No, there probably were a ton of these. This is the only one the UI thought was OK for public consumption.

“I was really nervous in my first camp,” Wirfs said. “I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries. I didn’t want to talk too much, I didn’t want to do too much of anything.

“I think I broke out of that freshman mold a little bit. I was like, ‘I’m not going to let him do that to me, so might as well.’”

Might as well strike back.

“I know my teammates have my back,” Wirfs said. “I remember when there have been scraps at practice, everyone jumps in. If something goes down, I know they’ve got my back.”

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That’s a “sometimes.” You know Iowa. You know nothing gets done at practice when players are swinging gloved fists at helmets. They don’t dwell there, but, again, football is a collision sport. The “rites of passage” stuff probably means more for players on a case-by-case basis. Freshman quarterback Spencer Petras won’t have to block linebacker Amani Jones, but there are going to be 12 Amani Jones-like characters on Iowa’s schedule who will be tracking down Iowa’s QB.

It’s called “playing the game.” Wirfs played it last year and he won. “Winning” in this context is overcoming tentativeness and being the big kid that the Hawkeyes needed him to be. Especially last season. Wirfs was the last tackle standing when Iowa began the Big Ten season with seniors Ike Boettger and Boone Myers out for the year.

It’s how you win respect in a physical game.

“I have a lot of respect for Bo and Josey (Jewell, by the way, Bower and Jewell are Broncos right now) and all of them,” Wirfs said. “It was kind of cool getting into a little scrap with them. Being able to hit Josey Jewell, being able to hit Bo Bower. It’s cool.”

Wirfs seems to have powered through that nervousness thing. Literally.

Yes, Iowa’s offensive tackles are suspended for the opener against Northern Illinois. Wirfs had an OWI this summer. Fellow sophomore tackle Alaric Jackson has been suspended for the opener after an unspecified violation of team rules.

Iowa had two starters out (James Daniels and Sean Welsh) in 2016 when it played host to North Dakota State. It didn’t work, so, yeah, this does put the Hawkeyes in danger.

This isn’t breaking news and it’s been properly processed within the program.

“I really felt like Tristan and Alaric were on the track of becoming leaders,” O-line coach Tim Polasek said. “Obviously, they took a little change out of their pockets. We still value their voice, it’s just going to take some time to ... Those two kids are so aware. It’s going to take some time for those guys to ... They’ve got to earn it back.”

The other part of that story for Wirfs and Jackson is, yes, they went into the starting lineup a year earlier than everyone expected. The losses of Boettger and Myers, two senior three-year starters, pushed both ahead.

They survived and, at times, thrived. Jackson was named freshman all-Big Ten by the Football Writers Association of America.

Of course, the goal this season is a lot more thriving than surviving.

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Huddle up: Iowa offensive line

TACKLES — Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson are suspended for the opener. So, who you got? Junior Levi Paulsen and sophomore Mark Kallenberger are the No. 2s on the depth chart. One positive out of this? Iowa will have a pretty good idea who it can trust to be the third OT. After last season, you know how important the third and maybe the fourth OTs are.

Tristan Wirfs — Wirfs started eight games at tackle last season as a true freshman. The thing to keep in mind with Wirfs is he’s knocking on the door of Brandon Scherff lifts. Scherff was one of the strongest to walk through the Iowa weight room. He’s also going on his second contract with Washington. Wirfs has Scherff’s body and is working on the strength.

Alaric Jackson — This is the second consecutive game the sophomore has been suspended for. Bottom line: Jackson has an NFL body at 6-7, 320. He moves really well. He’s got it. This could all go south and he could transfer. Could. Please, we’re just playing this out. Try not to freak out. If that happens, Jackson will still make the NFL. If he finishes at Iowa, he’ll play long enough in the NFL for two contracts and he’ll wear shirts that are more expensive than your wardrobe. His choice.

Dalton Ferguson — The fifth-year senior walk-on (6-4, 308) from Solon suffered a torn ACL in spring of 2017 and returned about midway through last season. O-line coach Tim Polasek has consistently said Ferguson is playing his best football.

Mark Kallenberger — The 6-6, 282-pounder from Bettendorf is working on his body. He’s going to play this season. He might start and finish the opener. Kallenberger is running the race to maturity, a notion Polasek talked about last spring. He’s still a relatively young 19.

GUARDS — It’s a mixed bag of old and new. Senior Ross Reynolds has played. Cole Banwart hasn’t. After week 1, Levi Paulsen probably goes back to guard to keep everyone honest and maybe win a job. Landan Paulsen is a depth player right now, but has been in the system long enough to win at the personnel talks.

Ross Reynolds — Reynolds (6-4, 295) started rotating with Keegan Render last season. That was really smart. Instead of having a guy who’s never played expected to assume a role, you know Reynolds can push and shove in the Big Ten. Rave reviews from middle linebacker Amani Jones get my attention.

Cole Banwart — As it stood about halfway through camp, the 6-4, 296 pounder was in the top five. Polasek said that. He then added the race isn’t over. Banwart hit on all cylinders in the spring and fortified his top-five status. Being a first-year starter comes with a learning curve. Banwart knows how to drive a semi-trailer truck (his family runs a trucking company out of Ottosen, he really does know how, but doesn’t have his CDL).

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Landan Paulsen — The 6-5, 305-pounder has maturity working for him. Can he climb into the top five? Doesn’t matter. Offensive linemen get hurt. Iowa will need him.

Levi Paulsen — The 6-5, 305-pounder probably had the inside track to a guard spot, but he suffered an injury in spring and missed most of that. Can he catch Banwart? It’s between those two for one of the guard spots. Right now, looks like Banwart.

CENTER — Senior Keegan Render (6-4, 307) and coaches saw the possibility of center going Render’s way early last season. Yes, it was because James Daniels was pulling up stakes for the NFL. That early decision might really pay off. Render has been on this rail for a while.

Keegan Render — Render is a smart player and that has helped him jump into this and not flinch. He’s going to have to deal with the power daddy nose guards. Being plugged in so early, he’ll have had a chance to adjust to snapping the ball and knowing the proper steps and hand placement to win those battles.

Levi Duwa — Still undersized at 6-3, 270, but that’s OK. He’s in development. Iowa doesn’t need him yet. Banwart has experience at center. With some bodies at guard, that’s probably how Iowa would handle an injury to Render. Levi Paulsen flows into guard and Banwart is the center. Maybe. We’ll see.

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

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