MOUNT VERNON — Things happened fast during the early part of the 2017 Iowa football season.
The Hawkeyes entered their second game, a trip to Iowa State with a brand-new quarterback named Nate Stanley. It’s never easy for Iowa in Ames. It just isn’t. The Hawkeyes did at least have two senior offensive tackles, Ike Boettger and Boone Myers, protecting a first-year QB making his first road start in front of about 61,000 fans who — yeah, it’s Cy-Hawk — pretty much wanted him to fail miserably.
Early in the second quarter, Boettger suffered a torn Achilles tendon. He knew right away, and in went redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson. This was not the way Boettger wanted the baton to be exchanged, but he stayed present.
He probably also knew Myers was on borrowed time. Myers suffered a high-ankle sprain in camp. That eventually led to a surgery and the clearing of some bone fragments.
True freshman tackle Tristan Wirfs remained in the bullpen that day. Going into the next week, Ferentz knew Wirfs would have to play at some point. It finally happened at Michigan State on Sept. 30.
That was the first time a true freshman started a game at tackle during Ferentz’s then 19 seasons.
“Going into camp my freshman year, we still had Ike and Boone,” Wirfs said. “People would ask me if I was going to redshirt. I didn’t know. If I did, I did. If I didn’t, I didn’t. I thought maybe I’d get into a game at the end if we were up or something. And then Ike got hurt and then Boone was hurt. I was like, ‘Welp.’”
So, it happened early for Wirfs and Jackson. But more importantly, for the 2017 team, it had to make due with a pair of freshman tackles.
It sure could’ve been freak-out time and it probably was in certain parts of the Hansen Performance Center.
Boettger was dealing with the aftermath of a torn Achilles, but he had a calm about the Hawkeyes offensive tackle and Wirfs.
“He was physically ready to play when he was in high school,” Boettger said. “His junior year of high school, he looked ready to play college football. He was physically ready. The mental portion just came right along.”
Myers’ struggle to stay game-ready in early 2017 got Wirfs’ attention. He was an 18-year-old major-college football starter. Myers was there to remind him it wasn’t going to be an easy endeavor.
“He’s tougher than nails,” Wirfs said. “He was trying to gut it out. It was tough seeing him try to power through what he was going through. He couldn’t even walk. He limped all the time before the surgery.
“Did you see the bone fragments in there? Just seeing him walk around the facility, how is he going out to practice every day?”
Two different injuries produced different moods within Boettger and Myers. Boettger heard the pop and knew four- to six-month recovery. Myers tried to battle through. Once the idea of surgery settled in, the downloading of information kicked into high gear.
Boettger said the daily conversations turned into what the young tackles would see on the weekend.
“Once he decided to do surgery, he and Ike took A.J. (Jackson) and I under their wings,” Wirfs said. “They could’ve been like, ‘This is my senior year, I’m disappointed or sad.’ I’m sure they still were, but they didn’t show it at all. They were like, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for Iowa football and help you guys as much as we can.’
“That meant the world to me, having Ike, he was my locker buddy, be in my ear everyday at practice. He’d ask, ‘What did you see on this play?’ It was really cool. I still talk to Ike all the time. They helped A.J. and me quite a bit.”
Was there an air of nervousness with two freshman offensive tackles?
“Not really,” Boettger said. “It helped that Tristan is such a freak.”
When did you know physically that Wirfs had what it takes?
“First time I ever saw him,” Boettger said. “That’s how long it took.
“The way that he moved and how much he weighed even as a freshman. Just basically all of that.”
The fine tuning for Wirfs and Jackson will continue for the rest of their football lives. That’s how the game works. The minute you think you’ve got it, your head is going through a drop ceiling.
When Kirk Ferentz and then-Iowa O-line coach Reese Morgan had Eric Steinbach at guard in the early 2000s, their mantra for him was keeping his elbows in. Suddenly, one day in practice, it happened. Ferentz and Morgan high-fived. Steinbach signed a $50 million contract with the Cleveland Browns in 2007 and did OK for himself.
For Wirfs, it’s hand placement.
“When I’m in my set, my hands are always down by my waist,” he said, sliding his hands to an imaginary spot just above his waist. “We want them up here (raises hands just under the chin). That was all I heard from him (Kirk Ferentz) this past season. Then one day, I think it was during bowl prep, he said, ‘They got a little bit better. They were an inch and a half higher than they were at the beginning of the season. We still have a long way to go, but they’re getting better.’
“I have that in my head all the time. With Carmen, our mental skills lady (Tebbe Priebe, a UI sports psychologist), she always asks me, too, because she’s out at practice. She’s always asked me about my hands, too. Now, I’m hearing it from Coach Ferentz, I’m talking about it when I meet with Carmen. I hate the word ‘hands’ now, you know? I’ve heard it so much. Those little things. You work on those. I’m still trying to get better.”
Notice the lack of distortion for a freshman. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of “putting the young guys in their place,” but more of a “let’s see if this guy can help.”
As someone who received that treatment, Wirfs seeks to return the favor.
“We’re not trying to hound on the young guys,” he said. “That’s not really productive. The older guys didn’t do that to me when I was young. I was still learning everything. They’ll just ask you, ‘Hey, how were your hands on that play?’
“The Paulsens (twin senior guards Landan and Levi) are really good about it. They’ll ask you a question, ‘Did you do this on this play?’ He makes you think about it. ‘Uh, I can’t really remember.’ Then, you go out the next play and it’s in your head. I learned that from them, how to be a good teacher. It’s just little things we tell the young guys.
“(O-line coach Tim) Coach Polasek does a lot of the hounding. He’s good at it. We’re just there trying to be the extra help.”