Pinstripe Bowl could be defining moment for two young Iowa Hawkeye tackles

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

NEW YORK — Keegan Render has lined up at guard in Iowa’s last 11 games.

Alaric Jackson was at his left shoulder for eight of them, Sean Welsh to his right for the other three.

Now Tristan Wirfs gets a turn to flank Render as the Hawkeyes’ topsy-turvy tandem of tackles plays out for the final time this season in Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College.

“Tristan has played a lot of games out there and is just switching sides,” Render said Monday. “It’s the same blocking scheme. I’m letting him know it’s the same as right (tackle), just different stance. You’ll be all right. You know what to do.”

Iowa's Tristan Wirfs waves to fans following the Hawkeyes' 17-10 win over Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017.

Wirfs, a true freshman, started seven games at right tackle after fifth-year seniors Ike Boettger and Boone Myers were lost to injury. That was after redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson was already pressed into starting duty on the left side to start the season.

Jackson has been suspended for the Pinstripe Bowl for an unspecified violation of team rules. And that means Wirfs will be getting his first start at left tackle in Wednesday’s matchup at Yankee Stadium. Sophomore Levi Paulsen will slide in at right tackle, the first time he’s ever started at that position.

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Senior guard Sean Welsh will mentor Paulsen on that side of the football; Render is helping Wirfs get up to speed on the left side.

The Hawkeyes (7-5) are down to their fourth and fifth tackles in the 13th game of the season. Whether Wirfs and Paulsen will show that they “know what to do” will be one of the biggest questions of the game, which kicks off at 4:15 p.m. on ESPN.

“He’s just a kid that came in college-ready,” Render said of the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Wirfs. “I think Tristan’s done a good job of learning (from mistakes) and moving faster than most freshmen usually do.”

Wirfs’ move to left tackle means he’ll be protecting quarterback Nate Stanley’s blind side. But Hawkeyes offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz downplayed the significance of that.

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“We see good pass rushers on both sides of the ball. We see good players on both sides of the hash,” Ferentz said. “Most teams are going to find your worst guy anyway and line up on him. So left tackle, right tackle; it’s the same to us. We run to the left, we run to the right. I think he’ll play pretty well there.”

Render concurred that changing spots isn’t all that challenging for Iowa offensive linemen. He’s started at center and both guard positions this year, for example. He thinks that will work in Paulsen’s favor, despite the fact that his only previous extensive action was at guard last season.

“When it comes to run-blocking, it’s all really the same stuff, just different spots,” Render said. “So the biggest challenge probably will just be pass protection, But I think it will be all right. Obviously, he’s got Sean, a great player, right next to him, so that will help him.”

Battling with Hawkeyes defensive end Anthony Nelson in practice the past two weeks also will serve Paulsen well against the Eagles (7-5), Render said. Nelson, at 6-7, 260 pounds, is “slippery,” Render added.

Boston College’s starting defensive ends are senior Harold Landry (6-3, 250), an NFL prospect, and junior Zach Allen (6-5, 285). Each has five sacks this season.

Render compared the Boston College defensive front to Northwestern’s. There is no attempt at deception; they just line up at come at you.

“They’re big guys. They’re physical. They’re not going to hurt themselves. They’re going to make you earn everything,” Render said.

“Outside of our conference games, they’re probably the most ‘Big Ten’ team we’ve seen. I think it kind of just gives us something to expect.”

So that’s what the free-spirited Paulsen is facing in his debut at tackle. It’s what Wirfs must contend with as he completes his rookie season by shuffling four spots to his left.

Ferentz said he’s excited to see how both young players handle their new roles. The answer may start to shape how the Hawkeyes approach next season’s line combinations after Welsh graduates.

“I think this will be a good opportunity for him. He’s a guy that’s continued to grow, continued to get better with every week,” Ferentz said of Paulsen.