IOWA CITY | At the midpoint of the season, newcomers are making a significant impact on the Iowa football team.
Ten true freshmen have had playing time for the Hawkeyes during their 4-2 start, matching the number who played for Iowa a year ago.
The contributions have come in a multitude of areas, with Tristan Wirfs making his first start at right tackle in last week’s game against Illinois and A.J. Epenesa now averaging more than 30 snaps per game at defensive end.
Punter Ryan Gersonde made his collegiate debut last week in a game which saw Matt Hankins recover an onside kick, Geno Stone intercept a pass, Ivory Kelly-Martin add to his 94 rushing yards for the season and Ihmir Smith-Marsette caught his eighth pass for Iowa.
Noah Clayberg, Max Cooper and Brandon Smith from the Hawkeyes’ 21-player 2017 recruiting class have also seen playing time this season.
That’s about the same percentage of Hawkeyes who made their college debuts as true freshmen in 2016, joining a group of six redshirt freshmen who have played their first college football this season. That group includes three starters from the Illinois game, offensive tackle Alaric Jackson, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back Toren Young.
Coach Kirk Ferentz said collectively, players in Iowa’s two more recent recruiting classes have earned their opportunities.
“I think we feel good about the last two groups,’’ Ferentz said. “Some guys are going a little faster than others, but for the most part we feel like the guys are on the right track. We feel like the bottom part of our roster is pretty strong right now.’’
That includes the work of Wirfs and Epenesa.
At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, Wirfs arrived at Iowa with both a body and mind ready to see early action in his collegiate career.
He worked his way into a starting opportunity last week, becoming just the fourth offensive lineman and the first tackle to start as a true freshman in Ferentz’s 19 seasons as the Hawkeyes’ head coach.
“More than one of us had a nervous night on Friday, thinking about all the things that could go wrong,’’ Ferentz said Tuesday on the Big Ten’s weekly teleconference, saying the concerns proved to be unfounded.
That didn’t totally surprise Ferentz, who has been pleased with the growth and progress Wirfs has made since arriving on the Iowa campus from Mount Vernon, Iowa, earlier this year.
“He’s very coachable and it doesn’t seem like he gets overwhelmed by it all, he just competes,’’ Ferentz said. “I saw that from him on Friday. I saw that from him on Saturday. Watching him, you would have never known it was his first time playing a major role as a starter in a college football game.’’
Epenesa has provided the same type of performance as his role has grown.
Arriving at Iowa from Edwardsville, Illinois, rated as one of the top-30 recruits in the nation at any position in the class of 2017, the 6-5, 270-pound defensive lineman started with a handful of plays in Iowa’s season opener against Wyoming and is now positioned to handle between 30-40 plays as part of a rotation at the end position.
“He’s just comfortable around here,’’ Ferentz said. “He could run for mayor. It seems like he knows everybody in town.’’
Epenesa’s father, Epenesa Epenesa, lettered for Iowa in 1997 and the family’s familiarity with the program has created a seamless transition for the freshman lineman.
“A.J. came in and just competed,’’ Ferentz said. “He fit in quickly, arrived ready to fill his role and has done a good job with that since the time he arrived on campus.’’
Like the rest of the Hawkeyes, Wirfs and Epenesa are spending the bye week in Iowa’s schedule working toward continued growth.
“We’ve got this week to recharge a little bit and to learn a little more about our team before we get ready to go again next week,’’ Ferentz said.