Iowa takeaways: Big plans, high praise for Hawkeyes' true freshmen

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Bring on the true freshmen.

There’s no doubt several will play for Iowa in Saturday’s season opener against Wyoming at Kinnick Stadium. Seven are on the two-deep, and there may be more beyond that who burn their redshirt this week.

Is counting on true freshmen a bad thing or a good thing?

It seems like, across the board, these are rookies who have risen up and taken jobs from older players. So, let’s say it’s a good thing until proven otherwise.

Iowa wide receiver Brandon Smith runs drills during the open practice on Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.

Here’s a sampling of what was said about some of the intriguing names, by position:

Offensive line: Head coach Kirk Ferentz said “we’ll see” whether Mount Vernon monster Tristan Wirfs (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) actually plays this season. But as the second-team right tackle, it seems like if Iowa can get a big lead in some of these early games, we’ll see him.

“He’s still making a lot of first-year mistakes, but he’s learning quick,” starting right guard Sean Welsh said. “The biggest thing with him… He tries to make sure it doesn’t happen a second time. Which is a big sign of maturity.”

Wide receiver: Look for Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Max Cooper to burn their redshirts. Smith is the only one on the two-deep, at second-team split end.

“All three of those guys, you could see them out there in some capacity this Saturday,” Ferentz said.

More from Tuesday:Ferentz halves raise to hire an extra coach

Running back: Ivory Kelly-Martin is impressing his teammates — both on and off the field. The running back from Oswego, Ill., is quiet but has made an impact. He's also the No. 2 kick returner behind Akrum Wadley.

“Flashes of greatness,” No. 2 running back James Butler said. “He’s already really good.”

Defensive line: Have we really gone this long without mentioning A.J. Epenesa?

The five-star, 6-5, 270-pound defensive end is expected to get 20 to 30 snaps a game.

“His explosiveness — disruptiveness — is what makes him rare — what makes him really good,” said Parker Hesse, who is the starter in front of Epenesa at right defensive end. “Right now, he’s just kind of learning the defense, learning how to react to different things, learning what goes into game weeks.

“I think, as the year goes on, he’s going to keep going higher and higher and higher — and that’s going to be exciting to watch.”

Defensive backs: We heard last week that Matt Hankins will get tested in his first college game as Iowa's No. 3 cornerback, with starter Manny Rugamba suspended. But the feel-good story of camp is one you've heard before: A hard-hitting freshman from Western Pennsylvania who's ready to make an immediate impact.

That’s Geno Stone, not Bob Sanders, and that’s Iowa’s No. 2 free safety behind Jake Gervase.

“He kind of made a later charge, if you will,” Ferentz said. “Started out OK, but when we scrimmaged — especially a week ago Friday … When we finished camp up, he had a big night that night — and basically shows up where the ball is. And that's a good trait for a safety.”

More from Tuesday:In saying little about Stanley, Ferentz says a lot

All the kickers

Don’t rule out seeing Iowa dispatch four different kickers — if not in Saturday’s opener, at least at some point this season.

At placekicker, Monday’s depth chart revealed that junior Miguel Recinos had moved ahead of sophomore Keith Duncan, who was last year’s starter and Michigan-win hero. On Tuesday, Ferentz compared this competition to the tight quarterback battle between Nate Stanley and Tyler Wiegers — a back-and-forth.

Except, in this case, Ferentz is willing to let both continue competing on the field.

“Right now, Miguel has got the edge in percentages, but Keith has done some good things, too, and that's one we'll just keep letting those guys compete during the course of the year,” Ferentz said. “It's possible we could use both of them. We did that last year, and we're certainly open to that.”

At punter, it’s a similar story. Sophomore Colten Rastetter is No. 1, but you might see freshman Ryan Gersonde as well.

“Colten has done a good job, and we're really happy with Gersonde, too,” Ferentz said. “He looks like a good prospect. We may split those duties, just like the PAT/field goal stuff. There may be some mix-and-match on that stuff.”

More from Tuesday:Ferentz looking past Iowa's QB battle, impressed with freshmen class

‘We’ll find out’ about Josh Allen

Josey Jewell’s meticulous, precise preparation combined with a physical, fast closing speed is what makes him one of the country’s top college linebackers.

So it’s not really bulletin-board material when Jewell says about one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, "I guess we'll find out Saturday how good he is. Right now, just preparing for him like a normal guy."

That’s just how Jewell operates: laser-focused on his own responsibilities.

And he was, of course, discussing the prospects of facing Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, who, many say, could be a top-three pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

He certainly has Iowa’s attention. And you’ll read a lot more about him between now and Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff on Big Ten Network.

“If you're not on top of your game with the rush, keeping your contain — and those types of things — you're going to get hurt,” Ferentz said. “And then if you're not covering guys tightly, you're going to get hurt there, too. He's got a great arm.”

More from Tuesday:Hawkeyes look for 'octane' in their return game

Up or down?

Ferentz joked that the dilemma about where his son, offensive-coordinator Brian, will operate on game day has become almost as common a question of late as who his quarterback would be.

And as of Tuesday, there was still no answer.

“Bill Snyder (as Iowa’s offensive coordinator) was up there for my first eight years here (1981-89), and it worked pretty well,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I've seen it both ways, and I think it really gets down to what the preference is, and it wouldn't shock me if (Brian) starts one place and ends up the other — preferably not in the first quarter."

We’ll find out Saturday.

Kinnick stuff

Ferentz compared the midfield Tiger Hawk at Kinnick Stadium to being a grandparent. Why? Because nobody complains about being a grandparent. And Ferentz hasn't heard any complaints about the logo.

"It seems like it's been pretty popular," he said, "so I'm all for it. Hope it makes us play better; that would be even better."

Expect a crowd of about 65,000 on Saturday. The UI said, as of Tuesday, about 5,500 tickets were available. The cost is $45 for adults, $25 for kids. The forecast looks great; Sunny, with a high of 83 degrees.

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