Leistikow's DVR Monday: Long live the Iowa fullback; evaluating Tristan Wirfs

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Talking about fullbacks? The right tackle?

Yep, that sounds like Iowa football.

Those ended up being some of the most topical and quietly encouraging story lines in Iowa's 45-16 win against Illinois on Saturday.

Nate Stanley extends a handoff to Akrum Wadley (25), with fullback Drake Kulick (45) and offensive right tackle Tristan Wirfs (not pictured) ahead. When Iowa fullbacks were in Saturday's game against Illinois, the Hawkeyes gained 261 yards.

Let's get right to the video.

Focus on fullbacks

You hear it on almost every broadcast, an announcer talking about Iowa's "old-school" use of the fullback. And some of you roll your eyes, wishing the Hawkeye offense would move forward into the 21st century.

But when done correctly — as it was Saturday against Illinois — the fullback works.

The Hawkeyes lined up someone at fullback on 46 percent of their snaps (33 of 72) and gained 59 percent of their total yardage (261 of 441) on those plays. That’s 7.9 yards per play with a fullback; 4.6 without.

Fullbacks are a forgotten position in the era of spread offenses, but not at Iowa. And they rarely get ink, anywhere, so let’s have fun and break it down even further.

Tendency: One of the complaints about using a fullback is that it’s a dead giveaway for a run call. And that’s sort of true. Iowa ran the ball on 79 percent of its plays (26 of 33) when it lined up a fullback, but the rushes were robust: 142 yards, or 5.5 per carry. That’ll do.

What’s most intriguing — at least on this day — is that when offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called a pass, the cork was popped on a big play. Iowa quarterbacks were 4-for-7 for 119 yards throwing behind a fullback, including Nate Stanley’s laser-beam 39-yard touchdown pass to Matt VandeBerg. Stanley also hit Noah Fant for gains of 41 and 32 yards, and fellow tight end T.J. Hockenson for 17.

Who did what: Drake Kulick was Iowa’s top-used fullback, with 18 snaps resulting in 109 yards. He also delivered a textbook seal block to clear a path for Amani Hooker’s 18-yard gain on a second-quarter fake punt.

Brady Ross’ 11 snaps generated 144 yards. He was in on those long pass plays, while also delivering crunching run blocks. On one Akrum Wadley 9-yarder, Ross made Illini defensive end Bobby Roundtree look like he was skating backwards.

Austin Kelly took three late snaps at fullback, and I gave Hockenson one. He’s lined up there a few times this season and looked good doing it.

Importance: I think back to the magical 2015 season when Iowa had two unheralded, productive senior fullbacks in Adam Cox and Macon Plewa. It feels like the 2017 Hawkeyes have a similar luxury in Kulick (a senior) and Ross (a sophomore).

Spotlight on Wirfs

Last week, DVR Monday evaluated the entire Iowa offensive line. This week, we focus on one player — perhaps a season-changing player.

Tristan Wirfs on Saturday became the first true freshman to start at offensive tackle in the 19-year Kirk Ferentz era. And it wasn’t out of emergency — it was a proactive choice.

Wirfs looked like he belonged, playing every key snap at right tackle Saturday. He even got a sniff at left tackle after the score was out of reach.

Of course, he made mistakes, as any youngster would in just his second college game.

Asked after the game about Wirfs, Ferentz accurately remembered two failures in pass protection — getting beat inside by defensive end James Crawford in the first quarter, then whiffing at left tackle, causing backup quarterback Tyler Wiegers to get hit just before he let go of a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ivory Kelly-Martin.

But for the day, Wirfs was good. He was borderline dominant in the run game at times and frequently toyed with Crawford, a fifth-year senior, in pass protection. On Iowa’s first pass play of the day, Wirfs allowed zero penetration by Crawford, and Stanley hit Hockenson for 17 yards. This was a common theme.

Wirfs also showed nice speed on a toss sweep right to Wadley.

“He knows the concept of the game. He knows everything. He’s a football player,” fellow tackle Alaric Jackson said. “He just needs to settle down a little bit. It’s a fast game.”

What was most noticeable about Wirfs’ insertion, though, was how much better Sean Welsh looked at right guard.

I initially wondered if Iowa would wait until after the bye week to fully activate Wirfs, a highly regarded Mount Vernon native (6-foot-5, 315 pounds). But it was smart to get him in now. This gives Iowa coaches and Wirfs, 18, 60-plus snaps of film to dissect. And now he has an extra week (Iowa is on a bye) to improve leading up to the Oct. 21, 11 a.m. game at Northwestern.

If that time also allows Boone Myers' high-ankle sprain to heal — he got Saturday off — then Iowa’s offensive line just might round into fine shape by November.

Nate Stanley appreciation

Fans have been tough on the Iowa sophomore quarterback, at times, for his overthrows. But it seems like every time I revisit a Hawkeye game, I gain more appreciation for all the things Stanley is doing – and less concern about what he’s not.

Evidence of growth and potential was on display Saturday.

First touchdown: On third-and-goal from the Illinois 5, Stanley took a shotgun snap and after seeing nothing to his left, his eyes progressed to Nick Easley running across the middle. Stanley fired a dart. Not too early, not too late – on time, on the money for a touchdown. If he misses that throw, it’s three points instead of seven. (On the radio broadcast, analyst Ed Podolak marveled, "That is Stanley growing up.")

Second touchdown: Another third-and-goal, another TD. Stanley needed to get rid of the ball quickly as Wadley broke open on a flare pass from the 2-yard line. And he did – the throw perfectly placed into Wadley’s chest for six points just 8 seconds before halftime.

Third touchdown: The 39-yard zip to VandeBerg, which put Iowa ahead 31-13 in the fourth quarter, was Stanley’s best of the day. A perfect read, and an on-target throw so that VandeBerg didn’t have to break stride on his way to the end zone.

What happened?

The Illini uncorked four whopping gainers of 30-plus yards against Iowa after it had allowed just four such plays in the first five weeks. Let’s assign credit and blame:

40-yard pass: On third-and-1 from its own 49, Illinois simply made a fantastic play call, and quarterback Jeff George Jr. executed a textbook play-action fake. The Illinois packed all 11 offensive players in the box, and Iowa had one player deep in safety Miles Taylor. Cornerback Joshua Jackson, lined up outside left, bit on the fake handoff, and tight end Louis Dorsey juked past him. Taylor also fell for the fake, and Dorsey was alone in the secondary for a long completion. 

30-yard run: Ben Niemann said there were early instances in which the defensive line didn’t hear the calls from middle linebacker Josey Jewell. I imagine he was talking about Reggie Corbin’s long run that was officially 30 yards after a downfield holding penalty brought it back from the original 46. Jewell called something just before the second-and-3 snap, and right defensive tackle Matt Nelson shifted right. Left defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore didn’t budge. And when Lattimore attacked the gap to his left, Corbin had a monster hole as linemen were free to block Niemann and Jewell out of the play. It’s easy to see when offensive signals get mixed up; it’s harder to detect when it happens to the defense. And if one guy misses it, you get a big-gainer.

Notably, Taylor was pulled immediately after that play in favor of Amani Hooker after taking a poor angle on Corbin. Hooker would intercept a pass in the end zone to thwart the drive. So … a timely correction by defensive coordinator Phil Parker there.

58-yard run: On the second play after Jewell returned from a right-shoulder injury, Mike Epstein popped a big one on a read-option. He blasted through the line of scrimmage untouched, and Jewell was slowed long enough by George’s fake that he was a step behind the running back. Bo Bower and Brandon Snyder probably wish they had the play back. But sometimes you need to tip your hat to the opponent for perfect execution.

31-yard pass: Offensive pass interference? Or flat-footed coverage? Manny Rugamba, in on Iowa’s dime package on third-and-6, seemed unsure of where he was going then got bowled over by Dorsey — who after knocking Rugamba to the ground was wide open for a big-gainer over the middle.

Those four plays totaled 159 yards (39.8 average). Illinois’ other 71 netted 287 (4.0 average). It’s no wonder Parker emphasizes the importance of avoiding big plays.

The young guys

One of the best parts of a lopsided victory is getting young players some game action. Reserves who have often worked just has hard as the starters finally get a chance to shine.

I’ve heard really good things about true freshman safety Geno Stone, and he backed up the talk Saturday when plugged for some fourth-quarter action. The New Castle, Pa., native perfectly read a George out pass to talented Illinois receiver Mike Dudek, undercutting the throw for his first career interception.

With Brandon Snyder and Amani Hooker looking like Iowa’s best safety tandem down the stretch, Stone continues to show promise. He’s been outstanding on Iowa’s kick-coverage team, too. It looks like he’s the real deal and a matter of time before he is a heavy contributor.

Other young players who stood out to me on the rewatch in a small sample size:

Chauncey Golston (6-5, 255) showed a nice burst off the left edge in pass rush. The redshirt freshman is the No. 5 defensive end, for now.

Kristian Welch (6-3, 232) got some experience at middle linebacker — Jewell can’t be a Hawkeye forever — and made a nice one-on-one tackle to save a potential big play, stopping Dorsey for a 4-yard reception.

And while he didn’t record any stats, it looks like true freshman Max Cooper might be Iowa’s fifth receiver. He was deployed in the second quarter. Cooper has shown speed and a propensity for one-handed catches in limited practice viewings. It’s notable that he’s apparently jumped ahead of more experienced options like Devonte Young, Adrian Falconer and grad transfer Matt Quarells.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.