IOWA CITY, Iowa — On their first homecoming game in their first fall in college, a group of Iowa freshmen became more than just party favors.
Running back Ivory Kelly-Martin caught a 3-yard touchdown strike. Safety Geno Stone intercepted a pass. Cornerback Matt Hankins recovered an onside kick. Tristan Wirfs started at right tackle. Ryan Gersonde became the punter. Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette hauled in a pass. And defensive end A.J. Epenesa notched a pair of tackles.
In all, 10 fresh-faced newcomers have balanced their first year of football eligibility with a full class schedule this fall. It’s the same number who saw action in 2012, and the group this year is making significant contributions this season.
“That’s something that’s very challenging,” said junior defensive end Parker Hesse. “I’m really proud of the way they’ve all played. I can speak personally when I was in that position, there was no way I was ever remotely capable to be out on the field. You’re really impressed with their ability and how they’ve improved throughout the season.”
Based on the incoming roster, it was obvious a freshman wide receiver or two as well as a few newcomers in the secondary would see action. Epenesa, a 5-star player from Edwardsville, Ill., was too good to sit. It was undecided whether Gersonde, a scholarship punter from Milwaukee, would see action.
But that list has grown to include three wide receivers — Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and Max Cooper. Stone and Hankins are joined in the secondary by Noah Clayberg, who spent the 2016 fall as a grayshirt outside of the program before joining the team in early 2017. Wirfs, whose physical frame belies his age, was a necessary addition when senior right tackle Ike Boettger was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
Unlike redshirt freshmen, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t allow interviews for true freshmen.
“Freshman year there’s a lot of challenges, new environment, you’re playing at such a higher level than you’re used to,” said Iowa senior linebacker Ben Niemannm who played in his first fall on campus in 2014. “Mentally is the hardest part, just getting down the playbook and all that. I think those guys have done a good job and they’ll continue to grow, get better and we’re going to need those guys to perform this year.
“You look at guys like A.J. He’s done some really good things coming up with some big plays. A lot of those guys are key contributors on special teams. Ihmir and Ivory on the opposite side of the ball have been big sparks for us. We need those guys to continue to progress and help us the rest of the year.”
Epenesa has become a valuable member of the defensive end rotation. He’s tied for second on the team with 2 1/2 sacks this year and leads with 4 quarterback hurries. At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Epenesa already has the size to compete with Big Ten offensive linemen, and he’s in the game on most pass-rush situations.
Entering this season, Epenesa had plenty to prove just to see action. The Hawkeyes returned their top three defensive ends, including Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson. But Epenesa proved he was up to the challenge, and 6-foot-8 Matt Nelson shifted inside to defensive tackle. Hesse slid to defensive tackle on pass-rush situations.
Non-redshirt freshmen seeing action
An impressive athlete, Epenesa even caught a 15-yard pass on a fake field-goal attempt at Michigan State.
“I think the way [Epenesa] approaches his role on the defense [is impressive] because that’s one thing coming in you’ve got to learn what to do,” Hesse said. “That’s in your first couple of months here. The way he’s approached that, just eager, just trying to do his role, that’s really impressive to me. Then obviously his ability to make big plays. That’s something that’s impressive. Everyone sees that and just trying to hone that trying to make that more of a regular occurrence.”
Smith-Marsette has come up with big catches in Iowa’s high-profile matchups. He hauled in 2 touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime, to beat Iowa State.
Kelly-Martin became a surprise contributor this fall. Along with senior Akrum Wadley, the Hawkeyes brought in graduate transfer James Butler plus returned sophomore Toks Akinribade and redshirt freshman Toren Young at running back. But Kelly-Martin’s toughness, speed and quickness was too good to ignore and he wasn’t redshirted. He replaced Wadley as the kick returner, then moved into the co-No. 2 running back spot when Butler injured his right elbow. Kelly-Martin has 2 rushing touchdowns and 1 receiving score.
But they’ve also had their bumps in the road. Smith has 2 catches for 10 yards this year, but he also had a critical fumble against Michigan State. Smith-Marsette fumbled against Wyoming in the opener. Against Illinois, Kelly-Martin fumbled inside the 20-yard line as did Stone after an interception.
“Young players are going to have some bad experiences,” Ferentz said. “That’s at least been my experience, and it bothered [Smith] certainly and should bother you, and then you move on, just like the team has got to do from that game.”
Along with the new contributors this year, Iowa has started six players from the 2016 recruiting class (tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, left tackle Alaric Jackson, cornerback Manny Rugamba, safety Amani Hooker running back Toren Young).
“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, and we do have the bottom part of our roster is pretty strong right now.”
The post Iowa’s freshman class making significant on-field contributions for Hawkeyes appeared first on Land of 10.