Tristan Wirfs returns from suspension eager to make a difference for Hawkeyes

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tristan Wirfs spent the season-opening Iowa football game the way many fans did — watching on TV with a neighbor while eating bratwurst.

Of course, Wirfs, a starting offensive tackle for the Hawkeyes, would much rather have been suited up inside Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 1. But he was serving a one-game suspension after a summertime OWI arrest.

So, instead he was hanging with Mr. Tucker. That’s his 83-year-old neighbor and new friend this year. Wirfs doesn’t even know his first name.

“Ike Boettger, Bo Bower and Josey Jewell used to live in that house that we live in now. They became acquaintances with him,” Wirfs said Tuesday, referencing three former Hawkeye players. “He came over and introduced himself the first day that we moved in. He’s really cool.”

Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs talks with reporters during Iowa football media day on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in Iowa City.

A 6-foot-5, 320-pound 19-year-old future NFL player chilling and grilling with his 83-year-old neighbor while watching college football games sounds like a great idea for a reality TV show. But it was put on hiatus last Saturday as Wirfs returned to the field and shook off some rust before turning in an impressive performance in Iowa’s 13-3 victory over Iowa State.

Wirfs spent much of the day contending with Cyclone defensive end JaQuan Bailey, a quality player in his own right. Wirfs got the better of the matchup, limiting Bailey to four tackles as Iowa State was never able to sack Hawkeye quarterback Nate Stanley.

“Wirfs looks like an NFL guy," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward. "But he's still learning how to play up front."

Wirfs, a sophomore from Mount Vernon, agreed with the second part of that statement. He said his run-blocking in particular needs to get better. Iowa averaged a mere 2.9 yards per carry Saturday. Wirfs was surprised to hear that statistic. He grimaced. The goal is 4.5 to 5 yards.

He’s hoping to help his offense get there this Saturday against Northern Iowa (6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network). He has been encouraged by much of what he’s seen from the Iowa offensive line.

“I think our finish has been really good. We’re finishing people,” Wirfs said. “Our effort’s been there. There’s always going to be assignment errors and stuff. You’ve just got to keep cleaning those up.”

Two weeks ago, Wirfs and Iowa’s other starting offensive tackle, Alaric Jackson, worked on the scout team during practices. That’s the deal when you’re suspended (Jackson’s was for an unspecified violation of team rules). They sat in on the Hawkeyes’ offensive meetings but mostly gave themselves a crash course in what Northern Illinois does on offense, which is vastly different from what they’re used to.

Wirfs admitted he became fatigued in practice last week after returning to his starting spot and working on Iowa’s usual zone-blocking schemes.

Iowa punted on its first two possessions against Iowa State and went into halftime tied 3-3. Its longest drive of the half was 38 yards. Wirfs wasn’t the only one looking a little sluggish.

The second half was better for Wirfs and the team. But he knows that the offense needs to find a better rhythm earlier with Big Ten Conference play just around the corner.

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“It’s a lot easier just standing here and saying it than doing it,” Wirfs pointed out.

Wirfs was a highly regarded recruit who made Hawkeye history last season when he started at offensive tackle as a true freshman. That hadn’t happened in Ferentz’s first 18 years as head coach here.

He has impressed teammates like senior guard Ross Reynolds and not just because of his unusual physical ability.

“He’s dedicated to it. He works really hard, which is awesome,” Reynolds said of Wirfs.

That’s what made Week 1 so difficult for Wirfs, despite the kind invitation from Mr. Tucker.

“The guys that I live with, they all got some of their first snaps against Northern Illinois, and not being there to experience that with them was really tough,” Wirfs said of that 33-7 Iowa win.

Wirfs’ Week 1 gameday began with some team-mandated community service. That is also part of the punishment for Hawkeye players who run afoul of the law or violate team rules.

For Wirfs, that meant heading to the Marriott in Coralville and helping clean up the remnants of the previous day’s FryFest activities. Wirfs admitted he wasn’t even sure what FryFest is. He now knows how much trash gets left behind.

It sounded like awful duty for someone used to spending his fall Saturdays swarming with his teammates. Wirfs said it was just what he needed.

“It wasn’t bad,” he said. “It’s just trying to make you a better person. You made a mistake, you’ve got to pay for it.”