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Tristan Wirfs feeling more comfortable in sophomore season. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Specks of blue and orange went whizzing by as Tristan Wirfs tried to find his bearings. It’s not that Illinois’ football prowess caused confusion — check the final score there — but Wirfs hadn’t done this before. This first start came with no trial run.

“It was like blue and orange were just flashing around,” he recalled Tuesday. “I was just seeing bits of color.”

Sounds like an impressive archive pull, not a memory that’s just barely 365 days old. But that’s how soon Wirfs has ascended into cementation along the Hawkeyes’ offensive line. A little more than a year after that starting debut last Oct. 7, there’s no hesitancy to place him among Iowa’s most pivotal players.

That fact doesn’t change Saturday, when Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) heads to Indiana (4-2, 1-2) for its second road game in as many weeks. The Hawkeyes enter having surrendered just five sacks, which tops the conference and is tied for 19th nationally. Credit Wirfs as a big reason why.           

“He works extremely hard,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “He cares a tremendous amount about this team, and I think he’s going to do everything he can to make sure he’s prepared to play. He pushes himself really hard to make sure he can be the best player he can be.”

There are a few inadvertent reasons why Wirfs’ name has circulated longer than it seems. Perhaps it’s his local roots, as a Mount Vernon kid. Or maybe it was his relentless prep dominance as a three-sport star, creating an aura as one of Iowa’s greatest high school athletes ever.

An early commitment in December 2015 coupled with a U.S. Army All-American Bowl invite made Wirfs a recruiting centerpiece. He, along with A.J. Epenesa, were the crown jewels of Iowa’s 2017 class. Nearly two years of buzz, hype and anticipation had already been swirling when Wirfs took the field against Illinois.

Injuries to offensive linemen Ike Boettger and Boone Myers ripped away a potential redshirt season. Instead of wading into the deep end, Wirfs splashed in head-first. That kind of introduction, he says, helped ignite the transition from celebrated recruit to immediate contributor.

“It was huge,” said Wirfs, who ultimately started the final eight games last season. “I was forced to learn the stuff. I didn’t have that year to redshirt and kind of hang back and slowly learn. I was thrown to the wolves and had to know what was going on. I had a ton of help from the rest of the O-line, but it just jumpstarted everything. It really accelerated what I had to know.

“We had Ike and Boone when I was coming in, so I thought freshman year might’ve gone by with a redshirt. If I did play, maybe it was at the end of games or something like that. Then with those two going down. I had to step up. Coming into this season, I feel like I really had something to prove — like it wasn’t just, ‘They got hurt so they threw me in there.’ I really can play.”

In proving that, Wirfs said he’s shed much of the nervousness and anxiety that used to linger before games last year. His film room preparation has increased, as has the overall comfort level on a heightened stage.

Evidence of a more dialed-in tackle appears each week, none more jarring than Wirfs’ down-field pancake block on Iowa State’s Marcel Spears. Afterward, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said his sophomore right tackle “looks like an NFL guy, but he's still learning how to play up front there.” Another quality highlight came last week, when Wirfs and Cole Banwart bulldozed up ahead for running back Mekhi Sargent.

The Hawkeyes’ ground game largely sputtered against Minnesota, but Wirfs and Iowa’s up-front unit have evolved significantly from its preseason positioning. Stanley has been kept clean all season as the passing attack has warmed up. An offensive line group that seemed pedestrian by Iowa’s lofty standards has rounded into form.

Redshirt senior center Keegan Render commands the room, but Wirfs is the name that pops among the big boys.            

“It's kind of funny some of the guys we consider veterans,” Ferentz said, referencing a list of established pieces who haven’t been starting but a year and change.  “… But they're veteran guys. We've got confidence in them. They're leaders — not only just players, but leaders as well. That's just part of the ascension, hopefully.”

A sophomore campaign that began with community service and a suspension, Wirfs has found a groove over Iowa’s last four games. With more productive showings, his name could ascend much higher than it already has.

“I never want to let anyone down,” he said. “I just always want to be the best that I can be.”  

 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.

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