Levi Paulsen's nerve-filled week ends with a smile

Chad Leistikow

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — One of the most improved Hawkeyes was also one of the most nervous Saturday before kickoff at Memorial Stadium.

Then, with one snap, redshirt freshman Levi Paulsen settled in and played just fine in his first career start as Iowa trounced Illinois, 28-0.

“Favorite moment of my first start? Probably that first snap,” said Paulsen, who played right guard as the Hawkeyes rolled up 262 rushing yards. “I was probably the most nervous guy in the locker room. After that first snap, it’s just like practice. Blow people off the ball, block downfield and have a great time.”

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As Paulsen spoke with a smile, Sean Welsh looked on from about 10 feet away.

Welsh is Iowa’s offensive-line veteran, a junior with 34 career starts, but he remembers what it was like for him before start No. 1.

Levi Paulsen (66) listens in to C.J. Beathard during Iowa's 28-0 win against Illinois.

“It kind of comes full circle. I remember my first start,” said Welsh, who lined up at right tackle Saturday with Ike Boettger injured. “I was freaking out before the game, twitching, all that stuff. (Brandon) Scherff and (Andrew) Donnal were giving me a hard time.”

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Head coach Kirk Ferentz admitted having trepidation putting Paulsen in a week ago after Boettger got hurt. Then almost immediately after Iowa's 14-13 upset of Michigan, Ferentz pulled Paulsen aside and mentioned he’d probably need him to be ready to start against Illinois.

Paulsen, as is his nature, got to work — and got better.

“Out of everyone on the offensive line, I think he’s grown the most,” Welsh said. “I can say that with certainty.”

Paulsen and his twin brother, fellow lineman Landan, have a lot of fans cheering for them in Northwest Iowa. Regularly on Ferentz’s call-in show, someone from Paulsen’s hometown of Moville checks in for updates.

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Saturday, they could watch the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder do his thing on TV. LeShun Daniels' first touchdown run went right behind Paulsen, who just seemed thrilled to contribute after struggling through some injuries during his first year on campus.

“I didn’t feel like I was doing my part on the team,” Paulsen said. “As soon as fall camp hit, I was off to the races. I was going to do my best to help the team out.”

And with tackle Cole Croston likely out until the bowl game and Boettger’s status uncertain for Friday’s game vs. Nebraska, Paulsen might be needed again.

“I’ll have to see the film but it looked like Levi, from the sideline, did a really nice job,” Ferentz said. “That’s critical. Because we’re getting a little thin.”