Examining why Iowa football's young key contributors are enjoying early success

IOWA CITY — Next man up mentality.

Iron sharpens iron.

Keep the standard.

These are just a few mantras that characterize Iowa's football program. Phrases that are preached by coaches, internalized by players and, this year, have played out on the field, helping the Hawkeyes reach the national top 10 three weeks into the season. 

But there's another that's becoming just as relevant. 

"Our coaches often say, 'Youth is not an excuse,'" linebacker Jestin Jacobs said. 

It hasn't quite made it to mantra status yet, but it's been a significant talking point this year, because Iowa's football team had question marks entering the season at key positions where young guys were going to need to contribute early and often.

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Iowa sophomore linebacker Jestin Jacobs tackles Kent State sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas in the first quarter at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.

Expectations were high this preseason despite the youth and Ferentz understood that a preseason top-20 program such as his wouldn't receive sympathy. 

"I think that's really kind of been part of our ... discussion this year," Ferentz said. "Nobody really cares if we're young at this spot or that spot, because ultimately whenever you play the games it's about getting the job done that day." 

Jacobs is one of those first- or second-year players making an impact, stepping into a top-three linebacker/cash position with voids left by current NFL players Barrington Wade and Nick Niemann. The sophomore has emerged as a leader among the young Hawkeyes. Last week, he finished second in tackles with eight and contributed to a forced fumble at the goal line, his second in two weeks.

More:Iowa's defensive line has been a pleasant surprise. Will that continue in Big Ten play?

But he's not along among Iowa's young key contributors.

"All of our young guys are hungry to get better," Jacobs said. "Each and every one of them come in here, head down, ready to work and you're seeing that on the field." 

Let's look closer at Iowa's roster for more context. 

Offensively, Iowa has five true or redshirt freshmen either starting or within the playing rotation: linemen Connor Colby and Mason Richman, wide receivers Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson, and tight end Luke Lachey. Additionally, sophomore linemen Justin Britt and Nick DeJong and wide receiver Jackson Ritter are starting or playing significant snaps for the first time. 

Defensively, the bulk of the youth is on the defensive line. Of the nine-man rotation, four are redshirt freshmen: Yahya Black, Deontae Craig, Ethan Hurkett and Lukas Van Ness. (Although Hurkett will be out for an extended period of time with a lower body injury.) Before this season, only Noah Shannon and Zach VanValkenburg had started a game. 

Iowa offensive lineman Mason Richman (78) blocks during a NCAA non-conference football game against Kent State, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Nearing the quarter mark of the season, there's been encouraging signs throughout the young core. It's a season-long process but last Saturday's 30-7 win over Kent State was another affirmation that things are headed in the right direction. 

What's been key to these young players' maturation? It's different for every position. Receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. says it's two-fold for his unit. 

"One of my biggest things was adjusting to the speed," Tracy said. "How fast the ball's coming, picking up coverages and running routes differently. Second is understanding you're not 'the guy' anymore. There's a lot of playmakers who can do the same thing you're doing." 

Bruce, Johnson and Ritter make up half of Iowa's receiver rotation. Johnson has yet to record a catch but has played, while Bruce and Ritter recorded their first catches against Kent State. Both were on third downs that extended drives, with Bruce's coming on the 20-play touchdown drive. 

"They're all exceling at a high rate," Tracy said. "I think they're doing the best that they can and trying not to be selfish because I don't think they are, they're just playmakers. I think we're all doing a good job right now." 

For the offensive linemen, having a short memory has helped a lot. Especially against two strong defenses to start the season, players knew they would get beat and mistakes would happen; the important thing would be not to dwell on them. 

Players like Richman, the starting left tackle, developed that mental toughness in camp and the dividends are beginning to pay off on the field. 

"One thing about Mason — and this is important for every player — goes back to camp," Ferentz recalled. "VanValkenberg really worked him — I think it was on a Monday — maybe the second week or whatever. The next day Mason came back, he stood right up to it, and did a really nice job. He had some scar tissue, but he didn't carry it with him." 

MORE: What does Kyler Schott's return mean for the Iowa offensive line?

Iowa Hawkeyes defenders Joe Evans (13) Lukas Van Ness (91) Seth Benson (44) and Kaevon Merriweather (26) celebrate a safety against Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum during a NCAA non-conference football game, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

On the defensive side, the younger players have put an emphasis on preparation. Last year, with veterans ahead of them, players like Jacobs worked on sharpening the mind as much as the body. 

"It's always about paying attention," Jacobs said. "Getting mental reps when you're on the sideline so when do you get in, you're ready to go." 

Added Noah Shannon: "You have to prepare like you're a starter. That's something we emphasize and I think the younger guys on the defensive line have taken that to heart." 

The biggest test for the young contributors is yet to come: the remainder of Big Ten play. What's most immediately ahead is a final nonconference game against Colorado State, a final opportunity to work through any kinks. 

But so far in the early season, young players who haven't "been through the fire" have performed well against a steep level of competition. There's even tougher competition to come, but to this point, it's hard to ask for a better early season showing. 

"We're hardly there yet, but at least we're making progress," Ferentz said. "You just see the guys doing things with a little bit more confidence now. But, we still only have played one road game, and there are still a lot of things in front of us. 

"But I've also got to think at least our guys ... (have) some evidence now that, 'Hey, maybe I can do this and do it pretty well.' So hopefully it's something we can build on. But that's everybody doing their part to make that happen. So I feel a little bit better about things now than I did a month ago certainly." 

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 ksmith@gannett.com