Leistikow's final thoughts: Earliest Big Ten opener ups Iowa's urgency; true freshmen rising

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s been chatter all offseason about Iowa’s difficult road schedule and how that might affect its hopes to rule the Big Ten West.

But what hasn’t been talked about much is the fact that these 19th-ranked Hawkeyes (1-0) are starting conference play earlier on the calendar than at any time in school history. Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup against Rutgers (1-0) also marks the first conference game played by any Big Ten teams this season.

It’s a new dynamic that requires extra urgency.

“The baby steps are out of the way,” cornerback Michael Ojemudia said Tuesday. “We have to play our best now.”

An ill-timed stumble in the first week of September could hijack a team with designs on winning a Big Ten championship.

Fans seeing Iowa as a 20-point favorite Saturday may be more focused on next week’s Cy-Hawk showdown in Ames. But players can’t afford to think ahead.

Nate Stanley (4) and the Hawkeyes will be thrown into Big Ten Conference play with Saturday's 11 a.m. game against Rutgers. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

“It is a little bit different playing a Big Ten team in Week 2, but we’re in the Big Ten, and we love to play physical football,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “And this is what we live for.”

The earlier Big Ten opener was not lost on senior leaders Stanley and Ojemudia during fall camp. Stanley said they stressed to younger players “where we want to be as a team, and what we want to accomplish."

On that note, Iowa players feel great about their culture. Stanley said coaches preach the importance of that type of lock-step leadership, as was demonstrated by the 2015 Hawkeyes that achieved a 12-0 regular season. Winning the West, like that team did, is an attainable goal for the 2019 Hawkeyes.

But a slip-up Saturday would be costly.

“A lot of the older guys,” Stanley said, “really realize how special this team can be.”

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To put a firm timetable on Alaric Jackson’s injury would be guesswork.

But overall, it’s good news that Jackson is dealing with a sprain, and not something worse. We know he’s out for the Rutgers and Iowa State games, but Iowa has a bye week after that. Could that make the Sept. 28 Middle Tennessee State game a reasonable return date?

“We'll see. I think it's realistic,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But everybody heals differently, and the good news is it doesn't look like (he needs) surgery, so that's a good thing. Hopefully, he (heals) a little faster than everybody hopes or thinks.”

Certainly getting Jackson, a three-year starting left tackle with high NFL upside, back for the Oct. 5 game at Michigan would be beneficial. Jackson is from the Detroit area, increasing the meaning of that matchup.

In the meantime, look for Iowa to roll with Tristan Wirfs as the starting left tackle, with Levi Paulsen on the right. Interestingly, that same combo started the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl together when Jackson was suspended.

Wirfs looked dominant on film against Miami, swinging from right to left and back to right, and Ferentz validated that assessment Tuesday.

“I thought he clearly played his best game since he's been here,” Ferentz said.

Kyler Schott was the media darling at Tuesday’s player availability.

The long-haired, high-motored walk-on from North Linn High School was grinning ear-to-ear as he interacted with reporters, four days before what’s expected to be his first collegiate start. He's the new No. 1 right guard.

Safe to say, he’s a lot like all of us: He didn't necessarily see this coming.

“I was probably going to Wartburg if I didn’t play here,” he said of the Division III school where his brother played and wrestled.

Schott was a classic Reese Morgan recruiting find. On Saturday, Schott became a revelation to the rest of us. He was mowing down defenders throughout Iowa’ 38-14 win against Miami of Ohio.

“I did pretty good, I guess you could say. I don’t know if you guys saw them,” he said, referring to his multiple pancake blocks. “(Coaches) loved that.”

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Tyler Linderbaum was a stable fixture on Iowa’s offensive line against Miami.

The redshirt freshman from Solon was impressive as a first-time starter at center; a year ago in Iowa’s opener, he was playing defensive line. Unfortunately, his tenacity inadvertently took out Jackson — when he finished his block on an early Stanley pass attempt, Linderbaum knocked his defender into Jackson’s right leg. He continued to finish his blocks with force throughout the game. He helped pave the way on Mekhi Sargent’s 41-yard reception that changed the game.

“My mentality is (to) block the guy that’s in front of me. Until that whistle goes, I’m not going to stop,” Linderbaum said. “You never know if your block is going to be the block that springs the big play. You need to have that mentality.”

Iowa’s suddenly getting thinner in its once-crowded secondary.

The latest blow was dealt to Riley Moss, a five-game starter as a true freshman. Moss injured his leg during a special-teams play against Miami and will miss four to six weeks, Ferentz said. Julius Brents, who sat out the opener with a knee injury, will be out another few weeks, too.

That means the top backups to starting corners Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia are redshirt freshmen D.J. Johnson (who will likely see time at Iowa’s cash position this week) and Terry Roberts.

The Moss and Brents injuries could be contributing to Iowa’s comfort with a 4-3 alignment, as opposed to the 4-2-5. In the short-term, Iowa could certainly use good health from Hankins and Ojemudia.

One other thing to keep in mind: Brents and Moss are true sophomores, so if either injury lingers, both guys could play up to four games and still preserve a year of eligibility.

Four true freshmen are in the full-season plan: offensive lineman Justin Britt, running back Tyler Goodson, wide receiver Desmond Hutson and tight end Sam LaPorta.

Ferentz declared as much Tuesday, signifying an aggressive mindset in using talented youngsters.

Britt (6-foot-5, 290 pounds) has impressed coaches quickly and, if he keeps progressing as expected, wouldn't be a five-year guy anyway. (Remember, James Daniels left after three.) 

Goodson has already caught up to Ivory Kelly-Martin as Iowa's No. 3 back, so there's no sense sitting him. Goodson looked like he belonged Saturday, and this nugget from Fox analyst Robert Smith (who gets practice access) perked up my ears.

"Iowa fans are going to love what the see out of Goodson. You can just tell," Smith said during the broadcast. "When you’re around a team, you can just see guys that move differently. Tyler Goodson moves differently than most of the players on the team. He’s got some pop.”

Iowa needs to build future tight-end depth, so LaPorta is on the fast track — although Ferentz added that Josiah Miamen has been impressive, too, and that he could be elevated by season's end. Hutson's inclusion is more curious, considering Iowa has a clear top five at receiver, but coaches must see a role for him.

Daviyon Nixon was smiling this Tuesday, but he was crying Saturday night.

Last fall, Nixon was apart from the team for several months as he was on what Ferentz termed an “academic redshirt.” He needed to get his weight under control, too, before being brought back to the team.

Jackson, Amani Jones and Kaevon Merriweather were among the teammates who tried to keep his spirits up during that tough time. So on Tuesday, Nixon was beaming as he spoke about completing his first Division I game.

Those friendships triggered him to cry inside the Hawkeye locker room after playing 18 snaps at defensive tackle against Miami.

“All the coaches were walking up to me and asking, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’” Nixon said. “… Amani says, ‘Don’t worry about it, Coach, it’s tears of joy.’ Amani’s laughing, I start smiling and crying. It just felt good.

“Knowing that I just played a big game with my brothers, it just overwhelmed me.”

Nixon played well in his first game; he said the film validated that. He could be a big help for the Hawkeyes this fall. He looked quick out there. There’s a reason why: He’s playing at about 295 pounds, even though he’s listed at 6-3, 309. Now, he needs to get his weight up a little bit, not down. Coaches want him at 303.

“I felt like I belonged (and) this is the best place to be,” Nixon said. “After Amani got his sack, seeing him happy made me happy.”

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.