Iowa football takeaways: James Daniels' injury decision, A.J. Epenesa's quick impact
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa coaching staff had a tough decision to make Friday.
Do they let James Daniels play in the season opener against Wyoming?
Daniels has been working back from an injury. He plays center, which at Iowa is the most important position on the offensive line. And, when healthy, he’s really, really good.
Daniels wanted to play. It had to be tempting for Ferentz and the coaches — including new offensive-line coach Tim Polasek — to go with their best player to help get the season started with a win.
But, in the end, the staff went with the long-term decision.
Give Daniels the day off.
"We all agreed Friday that he wasn't playing,” Ferentz said. “Just felt like you've got to look at the big picture. It's like being a parent sometimes. He was knocking on my door, whatever time it was, 2:30 (Friday), but he wants to play. He wants to do it for the team. But it just wasn't a smart decision.”
So instead, the Hawkeyes turned to Indianola native Keegan Render to snap the ball for the first time in a game. And he was snapping to quarterback Nate Stanley, who was making his first college start.
Oh, yeah, there were nerves — from the coaches and the player.
“I knew coming into the week there was a chance,” said Render, who had been slated to be the team’s starting left guard. “Mentally, I was focusing more on center than I did at guard. You can always fall back at guard. I’ve played enough of it.”
Render said he first started snapping the ball a little bit in fall camp, then got a lot of reps during a key Friday-night scrimmage. Polasek told Render that, even though backups Spencer Williams and Cole Banwart are improving, he would be the guy if Daniels went down.
So it worked out: Daniels got to rest, and Iowa got the 24-3 win against Wyoming.
And there weren’t even any bad snaps.
“Which, believe me,” Ferentz said, “I was worried about.”
Ferentz expects Daniels to return to practice by Monday or Tuesday and be in the lineup next Saturday at Iowa State. That's good news for the Hawkeyes.
“What we didn't want to do is deal with this issue five or six weeks from now,” Ferentz said. “It's not fair to him. He's too good a kid and too good a player.”
Although the Daniels decision didn’t come until Friday, it sounds like Iowa has known for weeks that Alaric Jackson would be its starting left tackle.
The 6-foot-7, 320-pound freshman got his first career start there Saturday and did just fine.
“The first snap was pretty nervous,” Jackson said. “After that, it was just play football. (Seniors) Ike (Boettger) and Sean (Welsh) said to just calm down.”
Jackson’s starting role was a surprise to media members who saw Boone Myers listed as the No. 1 left tackle this week and all summer. But Jackson said coaches told him “two weeks ago” that he would be getting the start.
“They told me that they would believe in me,” Jackson said.
Myers has been hobbling through fall camp, and on Saturday he served as a backup left guard to Waukee product Ross Reynolds, who made his first career start in Render’s usual spot. Reynolds and Myers shared time there against Wyoming as Iowa rushed for 138 yards.
Iowa’s coaches aim to develop an offensive-line rotation. They’re already seven-deep there, and it’s only Week 1.
A.J. and the freshmen
Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was the most impactful of Iowa's six true freshmen who played Saturday.
Epenesa got into the game early and played often when Wyoming got into third-down passing situations.
The five-star recruit even logged his first career sack, chasing down Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen from his right defensive end spot. He also hog-tied Allen for no gain on a quarterback keeper.
“Great for him to get started. He's still trying to figure it out totally, but, boy, he goes hard and has a great attitude,” Ferentz said. “He's fun to have on the field.”
The other Hawkeye rookies who played: cornerback Matt Hankins (as a nickel), safeties Noah Clayberg and Geno Stone (on special teams), running back Ivory Kelly-Martin (on special teams) and wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
Smith-Marsette lost a fumble the only time he touched the ball on an end-around: a tough way to start his career.
“We had every intention of giving the football back to him,” Ferentz said. “If the situation came up again, we weren't going to back off of it. But he'll learn from that.”
Two highly billed freshmen didn’t play: wide receiver Brandon Smith and offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs.
Wirfs worked as the second-team left tackle in pregame warmups.
Mixed bag in kicking game
Miguel Recinos is the guy at place-kicker, and the redshirt junior delivered.
He drilled home a 44-yard field goal in the fourth quarter (his only attempt), made all three of his extra points and was outstanding while handling kickoffs. He had three touchbacks, with the other two kicks forcing tackles inside the Wyoming 20.
If Recinos holds the job, maybe that gives Iowa the opportunity to redshirt last year’s starting kicker, Keith Duncan. Stay tuned.
Iowa’s punting game wasn’t as convincing, but the results were acceptable.
Colten Rastetter, who won the job over true freshman Ryan Gersonde, punted four times for an average of 38.2 yards. His kicks weren’t awe-inspiring and benefited from generous downfield rolls. It would’ve been nice to see a better performance, but on this day, it was quietly effective.
Akrum Wadley recorded his 10th career 100-yard rushing game with a 24-carry, 116-yard performance. As usual, he was Iowa's most dynamic offensive player.
The senior started the day by running back the game's opening kickoff for 30 yards. Not a bad start in a new role.
And in a highlight-reel moment, he stuttered, juked and even high-stepped his way to a 19-yard gain to create a first-and-goal situation with Iowa trailing 3-0 in the second quarter. On a day mostly devoid of big plays, that came at a good time. Iowa scored its first touchdown four plays later.
“Coach always talk about finishing runs," Wadley said. "He would’ve been pissed off if I stepped out of bounds after that big gain. I just gave it a little something and went right into him.”