Back in Iowa, Tristan Wirfs reflects on rookie season with Tampa Bay Buccaneers, looks ahead to 2021 year
MOUNT VERNON, Ia. — While many NFL players may opt for Arizona, California, Florida or Texas for off-season training sites, Tristan Wirfs is back in his native Iowa. It's his home, where he's most comfortable.
Wirfs, a Mount Vernon native, has been training at the University of Iowa since March. He trains alongside current Hawkeyes offensive linemen.
"I know the training I'm going to get at the University of Iowa," Wirfs told the Register. "I saw Marshal Yanda come back and do it for his entire career, worked out all right for him.
"I love being back in Iowa. Being close to my community and family has been really nice."
Wirfs is quickly ascending to a larger-than-life figure. Last Saturday, he was presented with a newly minted award by his alma mater Mount Vernon High School: "Mustang Outstanding Achievement Hall of Fame Award."
A 'crazy' last year for former Iowa football player Tristan Wirfs
In a word, Wirfs describes the last year of his life as "crazy." This time last year, the 13th pick in the 2020 NFL draft was preparing for his first NFL training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the midst of a pandemic.
One year later, Wirfs has established himself as one of the top young offensive linemen in the NFL. He was the only offensive lineman on the Super Bowl champion Bucs to play every snap of the season.
He was named to the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team.
"COVID started right after the (NFL draft) combine," Wirfs said. "I remember doing Zoom meetings with teams and the at-home draft where they bring the cameras to not knowing what to do after the draft, like I just stayed home and trained till I moved to Florida.
"Season finally got here, turned out to be a good year. Now this (honor from Mount Vernon), it's just been crazy."
Wirfs left his mark on Iowa, a school that has built a reputation as an offensive line factory. He was the first true freshman to start at tackle in the Kirk Ferentz era in 2017. The following year, he broke the hang clean record (450 pounds) held by 2015 first-round pick Brandon Scherff.
As a junior, Wirfs was a first-team All-American and Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year. He was the fourth lineman selected in the 2020 NFL draft behind Andrew Thomas (Giants), Jedrick Wills (Browns) and Mehki Becton (Jets).
"You never know what's going to happen (on draft night)," Wirfs said. "Someone told me you never want to get it in your head that you're going somewhere. It was a weird night, I don't really know the feeling I had. Just sitting there watching guys come off the board, but once your phone starts ringing and see your name across the board is a feeling like no other."
Wirfs: 'A lot of the vets have been telling me don't take it for granted'
Wirfs found in Tampa a team aspiring for a Super Bowl. If they were to accomplish that, he was expected to have a big role protecting one side of Tom Brady. His first assignment was All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan of the Saints.
Other opponents included Joey Bosa, Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack. Mack was the only player to successfully get by Wirfs for a sack in 2020.
"I remember how nervous I was for that first game (against the Saints)," Wirfs said. "One of my biggest takeaways was that it's just football. Once I got a few snaps in it was like 'I've been playing this my whole life, I'm here for a reason.'"
One of Wirfs' biggest challenges last season, and the biggest area of emphasis in his off-season training, has been his depth on pass sets. At Iowa, he primarily lined up at a 45-degree angle, but the level of pass rushers he would face in the NFL called for a complete change in his stance.
"(At that angle) I was trying to just get my hands on guys fast," Wirfs said. "I wasn't setting with a lot of depth off the line of scrimmage in college, but you have to in the NFL with some freaks of nature on the D-Line."
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Wirfs' shining moment came in the Super Bowl, a resounding 31-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Wirfs finished the game with a 91.7 rating according to Pro Football Focus, the highest number of any player.
Less than a month later, Wirfs and his mother were apartment shopping in Iowa so he could start training for the upcoming season. One year wiser, he has a better understanding of how to prepare for what's to come.
"I think it's knowing what I'm good at and keep defining those," Wirfs said. "Obviously, setting with depth is a big thing I still need to do ... staying square, throwing my outside hand but just knowing what works for me and what I need to do to emphasis those."
Wirfs reached the pinnacle of professional football in his first season but isn't resting on that. His sights are on taking veteran lessons and applying them to take a bigger step forward in 2021.
"A lot of the vets have been telling me don't take it for granted," Wirfs said. "There's guys on the team who've been in the league nine or 10 years and never made the playoffs. I'm just looking forward to getting back to work with my teammates. There's guys I haven't seen for a few months so just getting back to work with those guys.
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Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org