Leistikow: Iowa's game week begins with reliable pillars in Alaric Jackson, Tristan Wirfs
If you happened to catch college football’s Florida vs. Miami season opener Saturday night, you probably couldn't miss the importance of offensive-tackle play.
The Hurricanes started two freshmen offensive tackles against eighth-ranked Florida, and it didn't go well. They surrendered a mind-blowing 10 sacks and lost, 24-20. Inexperience at that position can create a no-win situation. If the quarterback is uncomfortable, an offense becomes paralyzed.
Flash back to 2017, inside the mind of Tristan Wirfs, for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Injuries to veteran starters had thrust Wirfs into the lineup as a true-freshman right tackle.
“I’ll never forget, it was Wisconsin my freshman year,” Wirfs recently recalled. “That was the first time I’d seen an ‘okie’ (3-4) front. I remember we were backed up to our own end zone.”
The noise at Camp Randall Stadium was so loud, he couldn’t even hear the play call from quarterback Nate Stanley. When Wirfs got to the line of scrimmage, he hollered at right guard Sean Welsh (a senior), “What’s the play?”
“He would just say go right or go left. And he was just yelling it, too. I could barely hear him,” Wirfs said. “That was the most intimidated I’d ever been in a game.”
The Hawkeyes lost that day, 38-14, and gained just 66 yards of total offense — the lowest total of the 20-year Kirk Ferentz era. While Wirfs and Alaric Jackson certainly weren't fully to blame, there's no getting around the fact that they were feeling overwhelmed in a hostile environment.
Today, Jackson (6-foot-7, 320 pounds) and Wirfs (6-5, 322) enter their junior seasons as seasoned third-year starters; as two hulking pillars for a Hawkeye team that is expected to contend for a Big Ten West championship.
What a difference two years makes.
As sophomores, their growth was obvious. They anchored an Iowa offensive line that tied for the Big Ten lead in fewest sacks allowed, with 16.
As juniors, they’ve got a combined 44 career starts under their belt and — if they continue their upward trajectory — they’ll have NFL decisions to make. Wirfs was recently pegged as the No. 7 overall player in the 2020 draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.
“It is a real question. It is a real possibility,” offensive line coach Tim Polasek acknowledged, about maybe losing both early to the NFL. “I think both of those kids are in a good mental state, as far as, 'I need to play well now.'"
It’s possible that, when all is said and done, that Jackson and Wirfs will be considered the greatest tackle combination of the Ferentz era.
Wirfs has unquestioned power and athleticism; he broke Brandon Scherff's hang-clean record for offensive tackles and recently appeared in a video doing a backflip, from a standing position, into a swimming pool at Ferentz’s house.
Jackson perhaps gets overlooked because of Wirfs’ physical prowess, but he shouldn't. He initially wanted to play college basketball and had several low-level Division I offers; that should tell you about his skill set.
“I actually wanted to play basketball in the NBA, to be honest,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he arrived overweight at Iowa, and strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle has helped him become faster and leaner. No doubt his basketball background helped speed up his left-tackle learning curve. He was named second-team all-Big Ten last season.
“My agility, my speed, staying in front of guys,” Jackson said. “Basketball is way faster than football.”
The hype train for this pair has already left the station, even though Jackson turned 21 last month and Wirfs won't turn 21 until January.
Third-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz made sure to publicly assert that neither player has arrived during a press availability last week.
“I’m interested in what guys do on Saturdays. Not what we’re writing about. Not who’s a freak,” he said. “I want to know who lines up and plays football on Saturdays. That’s what these guys need to do right now. We need to stop talking about everything we’re going to do, and we need to do it.”
Their junior journey together starts Saturday in the 6:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1-televised season opener against Miami of Ohio, which was picked to finish third in its division of the Mid-American Conference. Iowa is an early 21½-point favorite.
No doubt, Iowa is well-positioned to have them both. It's a huge luxury to feel good about offensive tackle going into a season. A year ago, Jackson and Wirfs were suspended for Iowa's opener.
To get ready for the visiting RedHawks, Wirfs will be listening to the same song he always does on game days: “Can’t be touched” by Roy Jones Jr.
The goal for he and Jackson: That Stanley goes untouched for three hours.
“It’s kind of weird how fast it’s gone in three years and how much A.J. and I have progressed and grown,” Wirfs said. “…We’re just going to go out and do the best that we can and keep Nate as clean as we can. If he leaves the game with no stains or anything, then we’ve done our job.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.