The Iowa coach talks big picture at the halfway mark with his team 4-2. Chad Leistikow
Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs betrayed no nerves before his history-making start Saturday, coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“He didn’t seem overwhelmed at all,” Ferentz recalled Tuesday on the Big Ten Conference’s weekly teleconference. “You’d never have known it was his first time to play a major-college football game.”
Wirfs became the first true freshman to start a game at offensive tackle in Ferentz’s 19 seasons as head coach of the Hawkeyes. Ferentz admitted that there was some trepidation among coaches about putting the 18-year-old in such an important spot for Iowa’s home game against Illinois.
“More than one of us probably had an anxious night Friday night thinking about all the things that could go wrong,” Ferentz said. “He’s doing a good job on the practice field day after day, week in and week out. We’ve seen him grow and progress and just felt like he was ready for that.”
Wirfs, a Mount Vernon native, was ready. Iowa won 45-16 and accumulated 441 yards in the process. He made a couple of mistakes in pass protection but showed enough to hang on to the starting job when the Hawkeyes resume their season Oct. 21 at Northwestern.
Ferentz compared Wirfs to another highly touted Hawkeye rookie: defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
“They’ve got great personalities, very coachable — and they’re learning,” Ferentz said.
Epenesa hasn’t started yet but is seeing his role increase as the season progresses. He typically plays 30-40 snaps per game.
“We’re kind of building him up. He’s brought some energy out there. He’s got unusual maturity, physically,” Ferentz said of the 6-foot-5, 270-pound son of former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa.
A.J. also takes after his dad with his outgoing personality, Ferentz noted.
“He’s very comfortable around here. I think he could run for mayor,” Ferentz quipped of Epenesa, who grew up in Glen Carbon, Ill. “He seems to know everybody.”
Wirfs was pressed into service in part because of a lingering ankle injury to senior Boone Myers. Myers had been seeing time at guard in the season’s first five games, with Sean Welsh moving to tackle. Against Illinois, Ferentz gave Myers the day off, put Welsh back at his normal spot and gave the start to his 6-5, 315-pound freshman.
“It’s been an ongoing issue, and it’s been really tricky,” Ferentz said of managing Myers’ injury. “It would be a lot easier if it was just a broken bone, because broken bones are pretty predictable.
“It’s really frustrating for him, more than anybody. When players get injured, people just don’t realize how hard it is for them, and there’s nothing worse than being outside looking in.”
Ferentz said the coaches and medical staff will take it day by day during the bye week with Myers’ ankle, saying they’re “trying to move forward health-wise, not football-wise.”