Iowa Football

Tristan Wirfs, Michael Ojemudia make good first impressions in NFL games

Former Iowa linebackers and tight ends have strong Week 1 performances, too

Denver Broncos cornerback Michael Ojemudia (23) wraps up Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) during an NFL ga
Denver Broncos cornerback Michael Ojemudia (23) wraps up Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) during an NFL game in Denver Monday night. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

While waiting for the Big Ten’s big announcement Tuesday or no announcement at all, my mind drifted to Iowa players of the recent past.

It wasn’t much of a drift. The NFL’s first week of games had just ended, and ex-Hawkeyes tend to not go away quietly. If you didn’t stay up to watch the Tennessee-Denver NFL game Monday night, you missed a Hawkeye fest for the Broncos.

Second-year tight end Noah Fant had five catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. Third-year middle linebacker Josey Jewell had eight tackles and played 79 of 81 plays in which Denver was on defense. Rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia started and was in on 64 plays. He played pretty well, and had a diving interception taken from him because of a dubious roughing-the-passer penalty.

Ojemudia flew in the face of what we often think around here, which is that Iowa players are often drafted later too low. Desmond King, George Kittle, Marshal Yanda, Micah Hyde and Austin Blythe come to mind.

But Ojemudia was a surprise in that he was drafted in the third round, and some Broncos fans thought it was a reach. It didn’t look like a reach Monday.

It was incredible at the time and remains so, but Iowa having two tight ends go in the first round of the same NFL draft was a Halley’s Comet kind of thing. You could one day see Fant and T.J. Hockenson of Detroit bumping into each other at Pro Bowls, and saying hello there to their old friend Kittle.

Hockenson had five receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown Sunday against Chicago.

On the other end, the question of where former Hawkeye defensive end A.J. Epenesa was Sunday wasn’t some complicated mystery.

Epenesa, the Buffalo Bills’ second-round pick this year, was on the inactive list Sunday. The Bills played 2019 seventh-rounder Darryl Johnson instead.

“First game, no preseason, we felt Daryl Johnson might be a better option at this point,” Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Monday. “A.J.’s time will come.”

Inside linebacker Christian Kirksey is a seventh-year pro from Iowa. Kirksey has always struck me as a true pro, good to have on and off the field. He became a team captain during his six seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

He missed 23 games over the last two years due to injury with the Cleveland Browns, and life couldn’t have been easy. The Browns were 24-71-1 over his time there.

Kirksey signed with the Green Bay Packers in the offseason. Nice move, Packers. Kirksey had a team-leading 12 tackles in their win at Minnesota Sunday.

“The fun thing was just how quickly he got up to speed and started leading that defense,” Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst said about Kirksey, and that was a week before the season started. “He’s a very athletic player. He’s obviously proven a lot in this league. He’s healthy and I think he adds a little bit of dynamic ability that maybe we’ve been missing for a little while.”

Tristan Wirfs is living in the fast lane. The rookie offensive tackle from Mount Vernon and Iowa was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first-round pick in the spring. Then the Bucs signed Tom Brady to play quarterback. That’s how a whole lot of people notice if you are or aren’t getting the job done protecting your QB.

The Bucs lost at New Orleans Sunday and Brady didn’t play his best game. Wirfs, though, allowed just two pressures on 41 pass-blocking snaps while blocking one of the best defensive ends in the game, five-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan. Wirfs had one false-start penalty.

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“I thought he played really well for a rookie against an All-Pro,” Bucs Coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “You knew he was going to get beat once, maybe. The (false start) penalty — I didn’t like that, but he battled hard and his run blocking was really good.”

Wirfs will eventually bump into Fant and Hockenson at Pro Bowls, too.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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