IOWA CITY, Iowa — Excuse the Iowa offensive line if it does a double take when looking at a calendar.
It says October, but feels like August. The group made a change midway through last week, focusing on basic fundamentals like it was preseason camp all over again.
It was one of two moves to help solidify a shaky offensive line as the Hawkeyes rushed for 191 yards against Illinois last Saturday.
The other was freshman Tristan Wirfs starting at right tackle. Wirfs is the short-term, and potentially long-term, key to the offensive line.
Wirfs’ play helped stabilize the offensive line, and his growth may well dictate how much progress the line makes in the second half of the season. It’s why the new, back to basics, approach came at the perfect time for both the newcomer and the offensive line.
“There is certainly a lot more we can improve,” guard Sean Welsh said. “A lot of room for improvement, fundamentally, assignment-wise. I think that is a great thing. We have a lot of guys with a lot of potential yet to fulfill it and it’s a great thing.”
Why Iowa needed to start Tristan Wirfs
Something needed to change. Iowa wasn’t winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Hawkeyes rushed for a combined 101 yards against No. 3 Penn State and Michigan State.
Injuries forced the Hawkeyes into a corner; options were limited. Starting Wirfs, a U.S. Army All-American five months removed from attending high school classes, was really the only move left.
Wirfs is a natural talent. He combines strength, length and athleticism in a way rarely found in a 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive tackle.
But he is raw. He had played only a handful of snaps before starting against the Fighting Illini. He more than held his own.
After the game, coach Kirk Ferentz came up with only two plays where Wirfs struggled. Coming from one of the foremost offensive line experts in the country, that counts as a ringing endorsement.
His teammates were a little more straightforward with their praise of how Wirfs came through.
“He had a good day,” Welsh said. “I think he showed a lot of maturity for his age. I think he took a step forward. He definitely added value to our offense today.”
Starting Wirfs was the right move, even if it came with uncertainty. Iowa struggled with its interior blocking the last few weeks. The loss of right tackle Ike Boettger forced Iowa’s best interior offensive lineman, Welsh, to play that position.
The ripple effect impacted the line. The best solution to solving the interior line problem was moving Welsh back to his natural position.
“If [Wirfs] can play well out there,” Ferentz said, “that’s good for us, obviously, and then the other thing, it allows Sean to get back to where he’s a little bit more comfortable. We’re kind of just fudging things a little bit with Sean out there. We’re taking a guy who’s a really good football player and maybe minimizing some of his effectiveness.”
The changes worked. The offensive line created better rushing lanes, and running back Akrum Wadley gained 115 rushing yards — his first triple-digit performance since Sept. 9.
And it doesn’t happen without Wirfs in the lineup.
“We started looking a little bit more like we want to look as an offense, so a big part of that is what’s going on up front,” Ferentz said.
The perfect practice approach
The status quo wasn’t working. It’s why the offensive line called an audible as it prepared for Illinois.
To fix the play up front, the Hawkeyes started working from the ground up. They focused on the smallest details, beginning with foot and hand placement.
It’s the the first thing offensive line coach Tim Polasek goes over with any newcomer. The Hawkeyes always harp on it, but everyone received a crash course in the basics last week.
“We kind of changed our mentality and really decided to focus on the fundamentals and what we were doing,” Welsh said, “the simple details and I think that really paid off.”
No one needed it more than Wirfs.
He missed part of camp with an undisclosed injury. Wirfs played well enough in August to convince coaches to burn his redshirt, but he was too far behind to make an impact right away.
“He missed about probably eight, 10 days in camp, and that’s like missing two months,” Ferentz said. “That really kind of pushed him backwards, but I think we’ve seen him improve now the last couple weeks.”
Wirfs needs all the practice reps and help he can get. The new mentality with the offensive line will ensure he doesn’t miss a step in the development process during the bye week.
It matters more for him than anyone else since he missed so much time, even if Welsh said Wirfs picks things up at the pace of an upperclassman.
“It’s the way he carries himself in practice,” Welsh said. “He acts like he has been around here for a while and he is a hard worker. I think he’s mature. He doesn’t let bad plays discourage him. He sees when he messes up on film before the coach will say it. He’ll go out and correct it the next day.”
Iowa faces an interesting question. What to do when Boone Myers is healthy? Ferentz already said the offensive lineman will play every snap once he recovers from an ankle injury. He played guard to start the season, opening the door for redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson to start at left tackle. Without a healthy Myers, Iowa turned to Wirfs last week.
Will Myers return at right tackle? Will he replace Keegan Render at left guard? Wirfs’ progress will play a part in the decision.
“I am really excited to see what he can do down the road,” Welsh said.
It’s why the best bet is to let Wirfs stay at right tackle and see if he’s ready to start full-time. Especially with the current emphasis in the offensive line room set to help his development.
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