IOWA CITY — Tristan Wirfs was always the biggest kid who hit the longest home runs, tossed the track implements the farthest and launched his wrestling partners into the 8-foot drop ceiling in Mount Vernon High School’s wrestling room.
He did his thing in local anonymity until the summer of his junior year, when at a Mount Vernon baseball game in Williamsburg, an Iowa State assistant coach called and offered the 6-5, 320-pounder a college football scholarship.
The scholarships didn’t fall out of the sky, but the right one called, the University of Iowa, and the football world had finally found the kid who hit home runs into the city swimming pool, went from a takedown dummy as a freshman wrestler to a state champion as a senior and who was raised in a single-mother household right on Highway 151 in town.
The arrow has been going up for Wirfs ever since.
This year as a junior, Wirfs was the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year, first-team all-Big Ten and was named an Outland Trophy semifinalist. He also was a first-team All-American on the Football Writers Association of America and Walter Camp teams.
And so now the arrow is flying to the NFL.
Wirfs, the first and only true freshman to start at tackle in Kirk Ferentz’s 21 years, made it official on Tuesday and announced on Instagram his intentions to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL Draft.
You’re only surprised if you weren’t paying attention.
In the immediate postgame after Iowa’s Holiday Bowl victory over USC, Wirfs said he’d talk things over with his mom. He did put his name in for an NFL draft evaluation. According to Pro Football Focus, Wirfs allowed two sacks, two QB hits and just three hurries this season while bouncing between right and left tackle earlier this season.
The big hurdle for Wirfs this year was a concentration on finishing blocks. This mainly was interpreted throughout the year as being unaggressive, but really it was holding a block for another beat or until the defender was buried.
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The competitiveness was always there. There was that one time at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas.
“I kind of just kept to myself,” said Wirfs, who wears size 17 cleats. “I remember on the bus ride to practice one day, they were going around saying how many offers they had. I said, ‘Two.’ And then ‘How are you here with two offers?’
“I was like, ‘I don’t know. Wait until we get to practice, I’ll show you.’”
During Wirfs’ wrestling years at Mount Vernon, the program recruited former Mount Vernon heavyweights to show Wirfs how to do it. One of the recruits was Matt Kroul, a Hawkeye defensive lineman and Mount Vernon state wrestling champ.
“It triggered one day,” Kroul said. “He shot a double and lifted me up and my feet hit the top of the ceiling. I said, ‘OK, you need to do that every time you’re wrestling and every minute that you’re out here. There’s no reason why that can’t happen every time.’”
So, what’s Iowa going to do?
Offensive line coach Tim Polasek hasn’t hid his head in the sand on this. The draft hype for Wirfs and fellow Hawkeye A.J. Epenesa started last offseason. Polasek said in August that you’d have to be awfully naive to ignore it. Now, mock drafts have Wirfs going as high as No. 10 to the Cleveland Browns (by the way, Michigan linebacker Devin Bush went No. 10 last year and received an $11.7 million sign bonus).
Polasek has got to be ecstatic that left tackle Alaric Jackson is returning for his senior year, so the Hawkeyes get one of their two potential four-year starters back at tackle in 2020. Junior Mark Kallenberger and sophomore Jack Plumb are the likely candidates to replace Wirfs on the right side, with maybe redshirt freshman Ezra Miller making a push.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do to patch that up (as far as immediate recruiting goes),” Polasek said. “We hope to be in better position with that question come December and then in the spring. We’ll see what the whole thing brings. There are a lot of ways for us to be better at that spot and we’ll keep hitting the challenge head on.”
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