IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz’s conservative approach to football doesn’t always apply to first-year players.
The Iowa coach pulled redshirts on 10 players last fall. Since 2008, at least seven first-year players have seen game action in five different seasons. While he prefers to keep first-year players off the line of scrimmage, Ferentz still saddles them up, such as offensive lineman James Daniels in 2015, Drew Ott in 2012, and defensive lineman Christian Ballard and tackle Bryan Bulaga in 2007. This year, expect at least one rookie and possibly two along the line of scrimmage to see game action —with perhaps eight or more at other positions.
Here’s a look at five — well, six — freshmen who expect to play and make an impact for the Hawkeyes this fall:
DE A.J. Epenesa
As if this is any surprise. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa is Iowa’s first 5-star talent in 12 years and boasts an NFL frame on an 18-year-old body. He stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 270 pounds and displays both power and quickness off the ball. In the scrimmage portion of Iowa’s kids’ day practice, Epenesa led the defense with 3 sacks. He’s also strong enough to hold the edge and compete against top-tier talent.
“I said earlier that he might get 20 snaps — and I still believe he might get that — but it might be 25-30,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “I think he has the ability to go out there and play. I think there are some packages he can help us in, and I think he can play on first and second down. He’s a big guy who can handle himself out there and run to the ball, so we are pleased about that.”
The Hawkeyes have a veteran group along the offensive line with three seniors entering their third year as starters. But Tristan Wirfs will start somewhere up front in 2018. He’s too good. Like Epenesa, Wirfs is physically ready to play right away. He stands 6-5, weighs 315 pounds and won’t be overpowered. In years past, Ferentz has played freshmen if they have a chance of starting the next year. Although Wirfs might not open games this season except in an emergency situation, a few games’ worth of action might benefit the program in the future.
“He’s done a nice job in camp,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “Physically, we felt pretty good that he was going to be close. Mentally he’s demonstrated that. We’re getting down to the wire here on making some hard decisions. But we’re giving him every opportunity right now to push forward and try to earn that playing time.”
CB Matt Hankins
Phil Parker doubles as the team’s secondary coach, and he’s one of the best at developing talent. In seven of the last eight years, Iowa has turned out at least one first-team All-Big Ten defensive back. The Hawkeyes often play first-year cornerbacks, and many times recently it has worked. Last year, it was Manny Rugamba. In 2013, it was Desmond King. In 2009, it was Micah Hyde. Matt Hankins (6-1, 175), who Kirk Ferentz said would be the team’s third cornerback in the season opener against Wyoming, could be the next in that impressive line.
“[Hankins] has demonstrated the physical wherewithal and getting what we are doing systematically,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Right now he is in the lead, but that could change by next week. He has done a good job.”
Free safety Geno Stone (6-0, 195) worked exclusively with the second unit during Iowa’s kids’ day practice and showed the range and instincts that made him perhaps Iowa’s best under-the-radar recruit this year. He intercepted 10 passes and scored 34 touchdowns as a high school senior in New Castle, Pa. It’s likely he’ll play special teams and possibly see early defensive reps with the Hawkeyes.
“He’s doing a good job and is potentially in the mix,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I’m not saying it’s the same as [Amani] Hooker last year, but we played him on special teams and he was a backup safety. How much can he learn that way? I don’t know, but he is in the mix for special teams for sure.”
Iowa’s wide receiver corps features one player with any career catches, and that’s senior Matt VandeBerg. What the Hawkeyes need is a player who can stretch the field vertically, and that’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette. In the open practice session, Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175) showed a fluidity in his route running and an ability to get deep.
Brandon Smith has the appearance of a complete receiver coupled with a Big Ten body at 6-3 and 205 pounds. He’s not as quick or fast as Smith-Marsette but runs good routes and catches everything with his incredibly large hands.
“It’s fair to say that we will have young guys playing at that position and they are going through the ups and downs, which usually happens with first-year guys,” Kirk Ferentz said.
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