With Week 1 suspensions in place, opportunity knocks along Hawkeyes' offensive line

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central
Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs speaks to reporters during an NCAA college football media day, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in Iowa City, Iowa.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The message is a simple one, preached relentlessly in all facets of the Iowa football program. And it carries more weight now than ever.   

“We expect you to be ready when you get your opportunity,” Hawkeyes offensive line coach Tim Polasek said. “You have to have a, ‘I can’t wait mentality.’ And when that opportunity comes, you’re either ready to seize it for the team — for yourself, for your unit — or you’re not.

“And that’s just kind of the way it is.”

Opportunity is in abundance for Polasek’s unit — more so than the average “one snap away” coach speak. With starting tackles Tristan Wirfs (OWI) and Alaric Jackson (team rules violation) both suspended Week 1 against Northern Illinois, there’s a defined chance for emergence among Iowa’s reserve unit

    No one was naming official replacements during Friday’s media day. Not surprising with the Sept. 1 season-opener still three weeks away. But Kirk Ferentz did throw out redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger, redshirt junior Levi Paulsen and redshirt senior Dalton Ferguson as the “three most logical guys” to fill in.

      That trio owns two career starts, extensive special teams work and — in Kallenberger’s case — no game experience.

        Opportunity knocks.

        “There’s definitely a little bit more urgency in the practice,” Kallenberger said. “I definitely have to go a lot harder. It’s pushed me — not like I wasn’t going hard in practice before — but it’s opened my eyes up that the opportunity is there to take for that first game.

          “I’ve got to prepare better, have a better practice, have to be better in meetings. I really just need to step forward and take the opportunity that’s in front of me.”

          More from Iowa football media day

          Of the three, Kallenberger seems the surest bet to start, likely at left tackle. If not for five-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa and the Army All-American Wirfs, the Bettendorf product likely would’ve gotten much more recruiting buzz.

          Kallenberger was Iowa’s second-highest ranked prospect in Iowa’s 2017 class, according to 247Sports Composite, but simply needed more weight on his freshman frame. Although an illness in camp momentarily derailed his upward trend, Kallenberger said he’s still put on significant weight in the last year.

          He’s listed at 282, a sizable leap from the 250 on his recruiting profile.      

          “(Mark) really understands the full concept of things,” Polasek said, “Now, can he play through it when it gets sticky and things change. Can you still be a dominant guy?

          “Pass protection right now, he’s real focused on working on a couple things, so then that slows down another area. Then when he gets one area corrected, we’re going to be correcting the other area. So he’s still learning to put it all together. But I do know this: I think as of today, he’s able to go out there and know what he’s doing and can get in front of people. He can provide a sense of, ‘OK, this guy’s assignment-sound. This guy has the ability to play with the attitude that we’re looking for.’”

          With Wirfs’ arrest coming in late July and Jackson’s suspension announced this week (although it was apparently an issue from the spring), Kallenberger admitted he’s still adjusting to an expanded role.

          He’s leaning on every resource he can, ahead of what’s now expected to be a more amplified season opener.

          “I still don’t think I’ve wrapped my head around it, and I just need to settle down,” Kallenberger said. “A lot has happened, and it’s been really crazy. Practices have been a lot tougher because I am filling in a bigger role at times. But I’ll get there. This camp is going to be good for me, just talking with the coaches, studying the playbook more, getting to know the offense a lot more than I do right now. I’ve just got to use this as an advantage to motivate me.”

          Paulsen owns the trio's two starts, one last season and one the year prior. He started at right guard in 2016 against Illinois, then slid in at right tackle for the Pinstripe Bowl with Jackson suspended for a separate incident.

          He brings a veteran and respected presence.         

          “Every single day, you’ve got to be working your tail off,” Paulsen said, “because at Iowa, we really believe in the next-man-in mentality.”

          Ferguson is in the same boat — a seasoned player that knows the Iowa way even though playing time hasn’t necessarily materialized. The former walk-on from Solon had an injury-plagued 2017 and was primarily a special teams guy the two years before.  

          “There’s a huge opportunity — there’s two spots — and we’ll figure that out when the time comes,” Ferguson said. “But right now, we’re all competing and trying to get better. If you have the right mindset it will be status-quo when you go in. Everything will just fit into place.”

          That’s just what Iowa hopes to achieve. The situation is there to seize — a chance to transform two suspensions into an early-season opportunity.

          It’s on those up next to take advantage.

          “It’s totally up to them,” Polasek said, “what they do with their opportunities.”

          Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.