IOWA CITY, Ia. — One of Iowa’s top offensive players will return to the lineup for Friday’s regular-season finale against Nebraska.
“If I had to play in a boot, I’ll play in a boot,” tight end George Kittle said Tuesday. “I’ll be out there on Friday.”
Yes, he’ll be blocking and running pass routes despite not being 100 percent after suffering a nagging right foot injury Oct. 15 at Purdue.
But how well can he play, and for how long? It was encouraging that Kittle practiced Tuesday.
“I think he's going to play; I just don't know how effective he'll be,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That's the real issue right now. Can he drive off? Can he be effective? In the run game, you've got to drive off and strain a little bit with resistance. And (in the) passing game, can you make a decisive break or cut?”
Kittle played but was ineffective in losses to Wisconsin (Oct. 22) and Penn State (Nov. 5). Coaches shut him down the past two weeks, forcing Iowa to rely on two walk-ons and a true freshman at tight end.
“I didn’t have a choice for the Michigan or Illinois game (both wins),” Kittle said. “I tried (to play). I would’ve if they let me.”
It would be a bonus if Kittle (19 catches, 289 yards) could be a threat in the passing game; C.J. Beathard has been held to a total of 146 passing yards the past two Saturdays.
Beathard spoke Tuesday of the strong “chemistry” he has with the fellow fifth-year senior on pass routes.
“It’s huge (having him back),” Beathard said. “We’ve missed George the past few weeks. He’s a big part of our offense.”
One other injured Hawkeye might return this week. Right tackle Ike Boettger missed the Illinois game with a lower-leg injury, but he practiced Tuesday. If Boettger can’t be productive, look for redshirt freshman Levi Paulsen to get his second straight start at right guard, with Sean Welsh going to right tackle.
Mabin's injury: 'Disheartening'
Ferentz rarely permits injured players to be interviewed. But the week of Senior Day, when that injured player is a senior, is an exception.
Greg Mabin won’t be as fortunate as Kittle; the cornerback from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., can’t play on his Senior Day. Mabin was on crutches with a cast around his right foot Tuesday with what Ferentz called a lower-leg fracture.
Mabin has missed the past two games after getting injured during practice. Stepped on a teammate's foot.
“It’s disheartening,” said Mabin, who has 35 starts in his Hawkeye career. “You put in so much hard work, so much effort. You grind for so long to be in this position to play those 12, 13, 14 games. To have it taken away from you, it’s something that’s hard to deal with.”
True freshman Manny Rugamba has taken Mabin's place the past two weeks.
Mabin on Tuesday didn’t sound like a guy who would be back for a bowl game, but he wasn’t ruling it out.
“I’m always optimistic, no matter what the situation,” Mabin said. “God willing … I’m going to rehab it as much as I can, and hopefully I’ll be out there sooner rather than later.”
Preparing for Tommy
The Hawkeyes are preparing as if Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong will be fully healthy in Friday’s 2:30 p.m., ABC-televised game at Kinnick Stadium, even though word is from Huskers camp that Armstrong's running ability will be limited as he recovers from a hamstring injury.
“I think we'd be fools if we didn't assume their starter's going to be in there and playing full-throttle,” Ferentz said.
Armstrong and backup Ryker Fife (broken left, non-throwing wrist) both practiced Tuesday.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference that what he saw in practice was “encouraging” in regards to the team’s quarterback health.
“They could have a Heisman winner back there, for all I care,” defensive tackle Faith Ekakatie said. “Gotta prepare for whoever’s back there.
“As far as I’m concerned, we should be prepared to have the most mobile quarterback back there."
Who starts at safety?
To be determined, Ferentz said.
Fifth-year senior Anthony Gair has played admirably in the last two games while filling in for injured starter Miles Taylor at strong safety.
But now Taylor, a junior who has 23 career starts, is healthy and practicing. Both are listed on this week’s depth chart as co-first-teamers.
Gair said they’ve been alternating first-team reps in practice.
“I’m not sure how it’ll play out in the game," Gair said. "But I’ll just be ready for anything.”
Ferentz was pleasantly surprised what Gair brought to the table as his career winds down.
“The good news is Anthony has really played well (and) Miles seems to be healthy,” Ferentz said. “So hopefully we're deeper than we were a few weeks ago.”
Friday will mark the third Senior Day for a son Ferentz has coached when walk-on Steve, the youngest of five of Kirk and Mary Ferentz's children, follows Brian (now an Iowa assistant) and James (now with the Denver Broncos).
The previous two Ferentz boys, both scholarship athletes, cried on Senior Day.
“I’m sure there’s a prop bet on whether there’s some water works for me,” Steve, a walk-on, said Tuesday.
What about Dad?
“Yeah, I’m sure he will,” Steve said “That’s what he does.”
Steve describes himself as the least-gifted brother genetically, but he has built himself from 225 pounds to about 280 and is listed as Iowa’s backup left guard. He has never played a meaningful snap in his career, but he’s stuck with the program anyway. He wants to be a high-school history teacher someday.
“The advice my dad gave to me when I first got here was it’s going to be a long road,” Steve said. “The only way it’s going to lead to anything is if you show up every day. That’s kind of been my approach.”