Wrestling mailbag: Could we see a 5-time NCAA champ? Plus, extra matches, Jacob Warner, Iowa's lineup battle at 184

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

For the first time in more than 300 days, all three of Iowa's Division I programs are scheduled to wrestle this weekend.

That's exciting!

The top-ranked Hawkeyes return with their home opener Friday night against a very game Nebraska team, ranked sixth in Trackwrestling's latest Division I poll. All 10 Husker starters are ranked, and four are considered top-10 guys.

Both No. 9 Iowa State and Northern Iowa will be at Hilton Coliseum on Sunday afternoon wrestling against No. 10 Arizona State and No. 15 Missouri. These duals are intriguing tests for different reasons, but we'll finally see where the Cyclones and Panthers both stack up against tougher opponents.

I really don't have anything important to say here at the top other than the fact that it's been too long since we've this kind of weekend. The last time all three teams were in action (not counting the UWW Junior and U23 national championships in November) would've been their respective conference tournaments last year.

That was … *checks notes* … March 7-8, 2020.

Again, exciting!

I know there's still a feeling of weariness for some, and maybe the overall excitement isn't quite at the same level as it was a year ago. There are bigger concerns than sports, of course. We're still in a pandemic. There's a presidential inauguration next week. There are other battles we're all facing personally.

But if you're looking for an escape or distraction, you have plenty of wrestling options this weekend's. That's an exciting prospect, because we didn't have that for the longest time.

Part of the excitement for me is the idea that wrestling might finally feel like it's fully back this weekend.

We've been covering duals and tournaments and other various competitions for a while already, but maybe having all three in-state programs in action, against tough opponents, will help make it feel more like a normal season.

Or as normal as it can feel, I guess. Here's hoping.

Now, then. Onto the wrestling mailbag. Back to our regularly scheduled Tuesday. That's improvement from last week's day-late performance. Steps forward are good. Trust the process.

Please give me a follow on Twitter (@codygoodwin) and on Instagram (@codyjgoodwin) and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In the Room, each week as well. You can find the latest episodes below.

Thanks for your help here, and for reading.

The eligibility rules are simple. Everybody currently on a Division I roster gets a freebie year, so the 2021 season does not affect eligibility.

Think of it like this:

  • 2021 season: Alex Marinelli is a senior and Patrick Kennedy is a true freshman.
  • 2021-22 (next year): Marinelli is still a senior and Kennedy is still a true freshman, from an NCAA eligibility standpoint.
  • 2022-23: Marinelli will have graduated and Kennedy will be a redshirt freshman.

Take whatever year guys are from an eligibility standpoint, and just carry it over.

Put another way: Spencer Lee (and Michael Kemerer, since you asked) is considered a senior. It is his fourth year. But he will have two senior seasons, this year and next.

So, yes, Lee will have an opportunity to win four NCAA titles. And Marinelli and Kemerer each have a shot at two.

Make sense?

The true freshmen, like Kennedy, will basically get three freshman seasons — this year, next year, then the year after, assuming they all redshirt next season.

How this situation affects future lineups is a little tricky.

I wrote about this in October (and you can read it by clicking here), but the short version is that this year's true freshmen and the incoming 2021 recruits will all be the same age from an NCAA eligibility standpoint.

So, for Iowa, that's guys such as Kennedy, Jesse Ybarra, Bretli Reyna, Cullan and Colby Schriever, Leif Schroder, Gabe Christenson and others will all have the same eligibility clock as incoming recruits Drake Ayala, Caleb Rathjen, Wyatt Henson and others. 

That's going to create some funky scholarship issues, because that's a lot of dudes on the roster. If the NCAA follows the same precedent as it did for for spring and fall sports, the seniors this coming season who choose to return won't count against the scholarship maximums during '21-22. It will be up to each athletic department to foot the financial aid bill, but that could alleviate some issues.

There's a lot of different angles to this. Again, click that link above for a more-detailed breakdown. It's not as confusing as it might appear to be, promise, but there's a lot of things that are affected by the blanket waiver.

Patrick Kennedy, of Minnesota, is introduced before a match at 170 pounds during Flowrestling's Who's Number One event, Saturday, Oct., 5, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

I'm not sure we'll see any from Iowa, unless Patrick Kennedy somehow breaks into the lineup.

(Which could be fun!)

But there's definitely a chance we could see one. Maybe two or three, if we're lucky, but that's probably ambitious.

And the first name that came to my mind was Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis.

He's already got one title, from 2019. He took an Olympic redshirt last year, so he still has three years of eligibility remaining, plus this season. He could definitely win this year and each year thereafter, becoming the first 5-time NCAA champion.

You'd have to look at an uber-talented true freshman or redshirt freshman for that opportunity. There's guys such as Arizona State heavyweight Cohlton Schultz, Penn State heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet or their 174-pounder, Carter Starocci. Both Schultz and Kerkvliet would have to beat Minnesota's Gable Steveson and Michigan's Mason Parris to do that. Starocci would have Kemerer, Logan Massa, Mikey Labriola and others.

Perhaps someone else emerges over the next month or so and stakes their claim as a legit contender. I don't really know. I'm a fan of the way Michigan 125-pounder Dylan Ragusin has stormed into the national wrestling conversation over the past few months, but there's a guy in Iowa City that he needs to beat first.

I think the odds are small that we do actually see a five-timer, but Lewis probably has the best chance. Even then, there's Marinelli, Stanford's Shane Griffith, Oklahoma State's Travis Wittlake and Arizona State's Anthony Valencia, among others, who will be gunning for Lewis in March.

And that doesn't even take into account who else will emerge over the next four years who will try and take him out, too. Also, he has to stay healthy to really bolster his odds, and still bring his A-game each March. There's a lot of factors that play into winning even one national title, let alone multiple.

But you asked who had the best shot, and that's my answer. We'll see what happens.

Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis, right, celebrates his win over Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph in their 165-pound bout in the finals of the NCAA wrestling championships Saturday, March 23, 2019, in Pittsburgh. Lewis, of Bound Brook, becomes the Hokies' first national champion.

They will allow extra matches. We'll break this answer down in a few different parts.

First, here's what Iowa coach Tom Brands said last week regarding extra matches:

"There are extra matches that are permissible this year that are countable. They will be wrestled in the same format as the rules of a seven-minute college match. There's a couple differences. But, yes, we can have extra matches.

"That's important because we have a freshmen class that is high-powered. We have Bretli Reyna, Jesse Ybarra, Cullan Schriever, Patrick Kennedy, Schroeder, Gabe Christenson. Those guys will be getting matches as well."

So, again, yes to extra matches. Hooray!

Secondly, it looks like it'll be up to the participating teams to figure out how to do it, and everybody seems to be doing it differently.

Of the examples I've seen: Minnesota and Nebraska had six extra matches before the main dual. Michigan-Rutgers had eight extra matches, and Rutgers had two mats down, so I'm assuming they all went at the same time. Michigan-Maryland had five, which came after the main dual.

Northern Iowa wrestled 19 total extra matches at their tri-meet with South Dakota State and North Dakota State this weekend, and they ran at the same time as the main duals. Iowa State had 15 extra matches against Wartburg two weeks ago, all of which came after the main dual, then 10 each against Nebraska-Kearney and Loras this past weekend, which were contested on a second mat alongside the main duals.

An important note: I haven't seen any extra matches streamed anywhere, just posted results. I only saw Iowa State's extra matches because I was in the building the past two weekends. I watched Northern Iowa's duals against SDSU and NDSU through a Flowrestling stream, but I did not see the extra matches, just the main duals. (I did hear them, or I heard the coaches coaching the extra matches, which was a little weird.)

As far as I know, the rough plan for Iowa is to host their extra matches after the main dual against Nebraska on Friday. That plan is not concrete, by the way, and the number of extra matches is still to be determined. The situation is still fluid.

But there will be extra matches. I plan on being in the building this Friday, so if those extra matches aren't on any sort of stream, I'll tweet. If they are, I'll tweet that, too.

Jesse Ybarra, of Arizona, scores a takedown on Jakason Burks for a  3-1 win while wrestling at 120 pounds during Flowrestling's Who's Number One event, Saturday, Oct., 5, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

My initial thought when I read this question was to counter by saying that 197 pounds isn't that wide-open. Then I started assembling a list of wrestlers who I thought might be capable of winning and once I reached 10, I stopped and said, "OK, yeah, wide-open."

Here's the list of names I came up with who probably belong in the championship tier at 197:

West Virginia's Noah Adams, Virginia's Jay Aiello, Penn State's Michael Beard (I think), Michigan State's Cam Caffey, Northwestern's Lucas Davison (I think), Arizona State's Kordell Norfleet, N.C. State's Nick Reenan (I think), Nebraska's Eric Schultz, South Dakota State's Tanner Sloan … and Iowa's Jacob Warner.

Warner has the talent, technique, capability and mental fortitude to do it. He's gotten physically stronger since being at Iowa, which matters. I used the phrase "baby fat" when he first arrived. His hands have always been heavy, but at 197 pounds, you're wrestling grown men. He's since shed that baby fat and put on muscle. That helps.

Warner is also at his best when he uses those heavy hands to set up shots and, if nothing else, apply pressure. When he gets tough, he's hard to beat. We saw it when he beat Iowa State's Willie Miklus after injuring his ankle, and when he won three matches in the wrestlebacks at the 2019 NCAA Championships to become an All-American.

If he can strike the right balance with all of that, at the right time, you've got a monster. A Division I coach once told me that when Warner mentally and physically locks in for a match — think the aforementioned Miklus match, or when he wrestled Penn State's Shakur Rasheed in the dual last year — he's almost impossible to beat.

He can sometimes over-apply that pressure, which allows his opponents to get in on shots and move him around the mat. So part of putting together a title run is learning when you apply pressure and when to rein it in. There are also times when he may not be as locked-in as he is for certain matches. That brings Brands' consistent "always be ready" mantra to mind — because if he's always locked-in, there's no reason to think he isn't the best 197-pounder in the country.

We'll see if this is the year he can finally put the entire puzzle together. The weight is there for the taking.

Iowa's Jacob Warner wrestles Oklahoma State's Dakota Greer at 197 pounds during the Hawkeye's last home dual of the season, on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, in Carver Hawkeye Arena.

Are we going to ask this every week?

One more time, here's what Brands said last week with regards to 184:

"You see guys making progress, like Nelson Brands, Abe Assad. They're going to be head-to-head again. There are great things going on. There are great things going on because of how they handle themselves on a daily basis through whatever."

So they're going to go back and forth. If I had to guess, I think Nelson Brands will get the nod to start, and Assad will get a shot in the next dual. I could be wrong.

But here's more where my head is at: without the Midlands Championships or other tournaments to factor into the evaluation process, this decision will come down to who shows more consistency during the season.

That was Assad last year, over Nelson and Cash Wilcke. That's why he got the spot and went to the Big Ten Championships.

Who knows how that evaluation process will go this season, with only so many opportunities to compete. But, again, I think back to Tom Brands' readiness mantra, and how that'll be more important this season than ever.

It might sound like a cliché, but there's some serious truth to it.

"I think you train your body and your mind and your spirit to the point where nothing really matters," Tom Brands said last week. "Things happen that upset the apple cart. You could have a regular season that's normal and only end up with wrestling in the qualifier, for instance, and have to go to the national tournament.

"You take it and you do the best you can with it. When you have an edge, you'll be OK."

Starting Friday, we'll see who has a better edge.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.