IOWA CITY, Ia. — Third time around, Jay Kallenberger and his wife Melissa know the drill by now. The concern is going to come; the anxiety is going to linger. Their own time as collegiate athletes does little to alleviate the apprehension when their children experience the same.
It happened with their daughter Kaycee, a basketball player at Eastern Illinois, Kirkwood and Augustana. Then again with their oldest son Jack, an Iowa Central standout turned Hawkeye defensive lineman.
Now, the third kid is readying for his first college crack. With Iowa down two offensive linemen for Saturday’s opener against Northern Illinois, Mark Kallenberger is expected to make his Hawkeye debut as the starting left tackle.
“My wife and I — we talk about this all the time — we get more butterflies in our stomach and more anxiety and adrenaline flowing than we ever did as players,” said Jay, he and Melissa both former St. Ambrose athletes. “When it’s your own kids, that anxiety runs a little bit more.
“But the excitement is definitely there. We couldn’t be happier for Mark. He’s wanted to prove himself, and I think it’s a great opportunity to do so.”
It’s been well-documented how we got here. Starting tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs will watch from home while serving one-game suspensions for offseason incidents. Opportunity looms for Kallenberger. That’s been known for three-plus weeks.
Since then, much of the chatter has centered on who Iowa is missing. This is a dive inside who they have.
'He was going to ... have a chance to be one of the great ones'
Perhaps it was because Kallenberger committed early and began with a redshirt season. Or maybe it was the U.S Army All-American firepower in Iowa’s 2017 class that overshadowed the Bettendorf product a bit.
Regardless, his recruiting dap was as strong as anyone’s.
Kallenberger had four Power Five offers (Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas State and Nebraska) when he pulled the Hawkeye trigger in March 2016. Aaron Wiley is positive more would’ve rolled in had his star offensive lineman extended the process. Heavy hitters like Oklahoma, LSU, Wisconsin and others were in contact with the Bettendorf coach.
“If he had held out, I think you would’ve seen him landed a lot of big-time offers probably,” Wiley said. “If you just watch his tape, man, he was very rarely ever wrong. His technique was so solid.
“You just knew he was going to get in there and have a chance to be one of the great ones.”
His recruiting stock reflected just that. 247Sports Composite ranked Kallenbeger as Iowa’s second best 2017 prospect, slightly ahead of the heralded Wirfs. Only A.J. Epenesa was rated higher.
Unlike Wirfs, though, Kallenberger needed an immediate Chris Doyle makeover. His recruiting profile reads 250 pounds, not quite enough to cut it along a Big Ten offensive line. So, like many of Iowa’s up-front signees, Kallenberger dove headfirst into the Hawkeye way.
Iowa’s developmental prowess is well established at this point. Follow the guidance and the weight will come. It did: more than 25 pounds of productive gain.
Had the new redshirt rules been implemented last season (freshmen can now appear in up to four games without burning a year of eligibility), Kallenberger likely would’ve seen some 2017 action.
Still the readiness never wavered, even from the sidelines. Whenever it may be, Kallenberger knew a shot like Saturday’s was imminent.
“Every conversion we’ve had, even last year when he was redshirting, we talked about preparation,” Jay said. Even last year, ‘Prepare yourself as though you are the starter.’ I do get a sense now when I talk to him, ‘Yeah I am prepared, dad. I am listening. I understand what’s ahead of me and I accept the challenge.’”
'You’re the guy we’re going to be counting on'
Although announced on Aug. 8, Jackson’s suspension dated back to a team rules violation from the spring — so Kallenberger figured his Week 1 role might be amplified as a possible depth option. Then came Wirfs’ OWI arrest, just a few days prior to camp opening.
There was no doubt now. Kallenberger was plunging into the fire.
You could tell things were still spinning at Iowa’s Aug. 10 media day. The redshirt freshman admitted he hadn’t “wrapped my head around it” and “just needed to settle down” as far as absorbing the sudden change. But those who have observed Kallenberger’s recent progress notice an uptick in comfortability.
“I think his confidence has improved a lot,” redshirt senior center Keegan Render said. “Obviously I meet with Mark outside of football too, and (the message has been) just, ‘You’re the guy we’re going to be counting on.’ It was just something he had to get adjusted to, and I think Mark did that throughout camp. Him just taking the plays that might not have been perfect one time and correcting those issues really enforced that Mark’s going to be OK to play.”
Rebounding from sudden change is pivotal at any position, but offensive tackle especially. You’re on an island outside. Every error is magnified, especially when a defensive end comes barging through for a sack or quarterback hurry.
Kallenberger will handle Nate Stanley’s blindside, as well as brash Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith at times. The Husky chirping has already started.
How quickly Kallenberger can lock in and drown out the noise will dictate a ton.
“It comes down to clearing my mind,” the redshirt freshman said at media day. “If I’m thinking about, ‘Oh, I had a bad play the last play.’ That’s just going to affect me. So I just need to have more confidence so I can just put my hand down — I know the play, what the play’s going to be, my assignment — where all that is.
“It’s just stuff like that, clearing my mind and letting it all flow.”
'A race to maturity'
If there’s any silver lining to the up-front shuffling, it’s the timing of it all. This isn’t a game-week conundrum, where coaches and teammates had just a few precious days to get Kallenberger up to speed. Weeks have passed in this current setup.
Iowa has thrown all it could at the young tackle. Parker Hesse, Epenesa, Anthony Nelson and others have provided stiff competition in practice, helping replicate a game-like scenario as best as possible.
Still, nothing can fully mirror that first step on the Kinnick Stadium turf. More than 69,000 fans are glued to your every move. The nerves will be pumping, the adrenaline surging. Coaches do their best to eliminate stress and anxiety, but ultimately, it’s the players who decide the outcome.
“Redshirt freshmen better be growing up around here. It’s a race to maturity,” Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek said earlier this month. “But part of being young is learning everything enough so you can go play harder.”
When asked Tuesday about Kallenberger’s progress, Kirk Ferentz said he’s “really rallied the last two weeks” in practice after a seesawing stretch. A strong final push before gameday could certainly make a difference.
Gameday is the only thing that counts, though. Those who know Kallenberger best believe in his preparation and poise. It’s now on him to deliver.
“Saturday afternoon, we’ll find out,” his father said. “And Mark will be ready for it.
“At the end of the day when the game’s over and he has time to reflect, I truly believe he’s going to say, ‘I gave it my best, and I helped my team do everything it needed to do to be successful.’”
Only then can his parents relax.
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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.