Leistikow: 10 players the Hawkeyes can least afford to lose in 2018

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

If the police accounts are accurate, Tristan Wirfs made a series of foolish and irresponsible decisions over the weekend.

They say the 19-year-old starting offensive tackle for the Iowa football team not only chose to drink alcohol under the legal age, he chose to drink a lot of it and then put his 6-foot-5, 320-pound intoxicated body behind the wheel of a scooter and drive.

If so, maybe the best thing to happen to Wirfs early Sunday morning was that Iowa City police pulled him over on Riverside Drive. They could've prevented Wirfs (who was found to have a .129 percent blood-alcohol level, 1½ times the legal limit to drive for a person of age, while sporting two rowdy passengers) from doing something seriously harmful to himself or others.

Anthony Nelson, who led the Hawkeyes in sacks a season ago, enters his junior season with 14.5 sacks and 74 tackles for his career. He ranks No. 3 on Chad Leistikow's list of players the Hawkeyes can least afford to lose in 2018.

In football, Wirfs’ decisions will have a lingering cost.

Long-term, this is now permanently stapled to Wirfs’ professional résumé. He has all the tools to be a high NFL Draft pick someday. Big, strong, athletic offensive tackles are coveted at football’s highest level. And Wirfs is all that. 

Every NFL team who interviews him, whenever that time comes, will ask about the morning of July 29, 2018. And if a team is choosing between Wirfs and another tackle with similar skills, the lineman without an OWI wins a tiebreaker.

Short-term, Wirfs will face punishment from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. At minimum, Wirfs will likely be suspended from Iowa’s Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois and be required to take steps to restore his name to good standing. 

Wirfs’ rocky start to the season is a reminder that, for all the predictions and chatter created in college football’s offseason, personnel comings and goings can have the biggest impact on a team’s record.

I’ve been mulling this for a while, but given Wirfs' situation, this seems like a timely spot to outline these: Who are the top 10 Hawkeyes that the football program can least afford to lose for extended time in 2018?

No. 1 should be pretty obvious (keep reading to be sure). Counting backward, here’s how I rank them ahead of Friday’s opening of fall camp.

10. LB Amani Jones

There’s some projection here … and perhaps desperation. Iowa’s new middle linebacker hasn’t played a meaningful college snap at that position. Yet there’s extreme importance on getting stability here, as Jones takes over for consensus all-American Josey Jewell. An affable leader, Jones has received a lot of compliments from his coaches this offseason. Given that Iowa lost its top four linebackers off last year’s team plus senior Aaron Mends (ACL), there’s no more wiggle room for injury. Jones needs to be a durable force in the middle of Iowa’s defense.

9. TE T.J. Hockenson

Isn’t tight end Iowa’s best and deepest position? Why, yes it is. But I don’t think anyone is yet appreciating how valuable the redshirt sophomore is to everything Brian Ferentz wants to do with his second-year offense. Hockenson’s hands are probably the best on the team, and the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder is the ultimate smokescreen for whatever play Ferentz wants to call. He’s an every-down player who can power block or make a 20-yard grab in traffic.

8. DE A.J. Epenesa

The true sophomore (6-5, 277) might not even be a starter, but by Week 3 or 4 at the latest, opponents will be forced to scheme against this ultra-talented defensive end. Sure, there’s some projection here, but Iowa only gets a five-star recruit once every 10 years. Epenesa’s ability to collapse the pocket and harass opposing quarterbacks (even in backup duty as a freshman, he led the Hawkeyes in QB hurries and had 4½ sacks) cannot be replaced.

MORE: Inside the pre-college life of Iowa's mega-recruit 

7. WR Nick Easley

A passing game that needs to click needs a steady, reliable target. In 2015, that guy was Matt VandeBerg to the tune of 65 receptions from C.J. Beathard. This year, Easley (5-11, 205) can be that guy for Nate Stanley. Need 6 tough yards on third-and-5? Easley has proven he can (as Brian Ferentz has put it) go into “dark places” and make difficult catches. The Hawkeyes’ ability to elevate the roles of talented sophomores Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette hinges on Easley’s steady hands.

Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs faces potential discipline following his June 28 alcohol-related arrest.

T-5. LT Alaric Jackson and RT Tristan Wirfs

Losing one or the other is a problem, which is why these 320-pound tackles collectively deserve the fifth and sixth positions on this list. While both are just sophomores, Iowa’s depth at tackle is totally unproven. The 6-7 Jackson’s backup on the left side? Freshman Mark Kallenberger, a talented 6-6 product of Bettendorf but listed only at 282 pounds. Wirfs’ backup on the right? Walk-on Dalton Ferguson (6-4, 308), who has battled injuries. There’s no fifth-year senior veteran like Sean Welsh to float as an emergency right tackle at this point. If healthy, 305-pound junior guard Levi Paulsen could be the right tackle stopgap (assuming in Wirfs’ place) for Northern Illinois.

4. SS Amani Hooker

Iowa’s safety position has decent depth, yes. But Hooker demonstrated last year (particularly against Penn State and Ohio State), he’s the versatile difference maker who can pack a wallop with his tackles, cover a slot receiver and make big plays. Hooker was sorely missed while injured in November losses to Wisconsin and Purdue. The junior (6-0, 210) is a high-end talent who can help cover up Iowa’s inexperience at linebacker and cornerback.

3. DE Anthony Nelson

When talking about irreplaceable players, the conversation has to shift to Iowa's best players. And the 6-7, 271-pound junior enters 2018, in my mind, as the Hawkeyes’ best defensive player. Flip on the Nebraska game from last season, and you’ll see Nelson’s underrated ability to not only pressure the passer but contain the edge run. Iowa does a fine job rotating its defensive ends, but that rotation would be markedly less effective without Nelson.

2. TE Noah Fant

There’s a reason Fant is getting NFL Draft and preseason all-American love. The 6-5, 241-pound junior is a nightmare of a mismatch for opposing defenses. His mere presence on the field will attract a lot of eyeballs — and perhaps allow the rest of Iowa’s offense to play 10-on-9. It’ll be tough for Fant to match his 16.3 yards per catch and 11 touchdowns last fall (both tops among FBS tight ends), but when he’s on the field, his teammates will reap the rewards.

1. QB Nate Stanley

A no-brainer No. 1 on so many levels. But the value of the Hawkeyes’ super-sized junior QB (6-4, 242) can be stated this simply: Iowa’s best and most important player has only two backups, and both are yet-to-be-developed freshmen. Tyler Wiegers’ departure to Eastern Michigan as a grad transfer leaves the 2018 Hawkeyes in a quarterback bind. If Stanley gets injured for an extended amount of time, Iowa’s season will likely go down the tubes.

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.