IOWA CITY — If you haven’t picked up on it yet, Kirk Ferentz isn’t accepting excuses for his team’s 4-4 record.
Attrition, recruiting, injuries, he’s saying “no thanks” to them all. Obviously, the aforementioned elements affect Iowa in the now and the later.
The Hawkeyes (4-4, 2-2 Big Ten) go into their road trip to Indiana (3-5, 1-3) with 13 freshmen listed in the two-deep depth chart released this week. Ferentz is locked into the now, which is trying to make something out of a season that has seen his team lose at home to Central Michigan (3-5) and win on the road at Michigan State.
“I don’t follow that stuff,” he said. “I know this: When guys get hurt, somebody has to come in. Players don’t fall out of the sky, but injuries are part of football. That happens.
“I just know this: We have enough to be successful this week, and that’s really what I’m worried about. I didn’t count how many guys we had on our depth chart. We have enough to win. We just have to find a way to get it done.”
Defensive end Drew Ott (6-4, 245) jumped into the action during last week’s loss at Northwestern. He was the seventh true freshman to play this season. Punter Connor Kornbrath, defensive backs Sean Draper and Kevin Buford, running back Greg Garmon and wide receiver Tevaun Smith have made contributions in their first seasons at Iowa.
The trend in the last couple of seasons has been true freshmen have great chance to play for the Hawkeyes. Last season, 10 true frosh saw the field. Nine played in ’10, while just three saw the field in ’09. The most true frosh to play in the Ferentz era was 11 in 2007. The current fifth-year senior class was 2008, which saw seven first-year players shun their redshirts.
“Anybody who comes through this program, you will be out there your freshman year,” said junior cornerback B.J. Lowery, who played as a true freshman in 2010. “I was nervous, I can’t lie. I think I stepped in and did all right when I came in.”
Take it a step farther with redshirt freshmen. Iowa’s guards against Northwestern were from the ’11 recruiting class, Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh. Defensive tackle Darian Cooper has seen significant time this season.
“I think it [the number of freshmen on the two deep] shows the coaches play who’s ready to play and who the best person is for that position,” Blythe said. “I also think that’s a testament to the hard work everybody puts in, not just the freshman. If you put in the hard work and you’re good enough to play, you’ll have a chance. That’s just what it’s about.”
Attrition and recruiting misses are the “why” for so many freshmen. Ferentz is right when he mentions injuries, but for every departure and every project that doesn’t pan out, it’s probably a freshman filling that gap.
The 2008 class has provided just five starters. The ’09 class has three starters, four if junior Nolan MacMillan plays ahead of redshirt frosh Jordan Walsh at guard this week.
“Attrition’s college football,” Ferentz said. “It’s college football. There’s ebb and flow in college football. There are programs where you’d think there wouldn’t be. If it could happen at some of the ‘brand-name schools,’ it’s going to happen everywhere.
“All that being said, this season isn’t over yet. We haven’t written it off yet. We still have four games left. We intend on playing as hard as we can.”
Iowa was in emergency mode at running back from minute 1 this season, pushing Garmon (13 carries, 36 yards and “did not play” in the last four weeks) into the lineup. Ott’s entrance into the Northwestern game was an emergency move.
“He’s picked things up pretty quickly,” Ferentz said. “[He] doesn’t have the strength or girth you would hope at this point, but that’s what happens with first-year guys. He gives us depth and a guy who can help us win right now, which is important. And secondly, I think it’s going to help him as we look forward to. I think it’s a win‑win situation.”
Not all the freshmen moves have been forced. Draper and Buford earned time in nickel and dime defensive situations. Kornbrath won the job over a senior and a sophomore. Smith’s role has grown over the weeks. He’s not been handed No. 1 or 2 wide receiver targets, but he’s seeing more than he did when he first entered the lineup.
“Coaches here won’t ever say you’re redshirting,” said wide receiver Keenan Davis, who played as a true freshman in ’09. “Everybody has the opportunity to play, that’s one of the things I love about here.”
The running back “need” has been an ongoing phenomenon at Iowa, which has seen 10 running backs leave the team for various reasons since 2008. Still, when sophomore Damon Bullock showed up and played last fall, he had to demonstrate he was able.
“It’s a matter of accountability and if the coaches can trust in you,” said Bullock, who’ll be Iowa’s No. 1 running back this weekend. “It goes beyond football — grades, showing up to meetings on time. If you can show that, they’ll trust you and they’ll put you in the game.”
Iowa’s freshman contributors this season
G Austin Blythe — A 6-3, 275-pounder who earned the spot out of camp and is just now returning to form after an ankle injury.
RB Greg Garmon — The 6-1, 190-pounder has served as the “stop gap” option at running back. Damon Bullock went down with a concussion and Garmon (22 carries for 62 yards and five catches for 17) went in. Then, he suffered an elbow injury and Mark Weisman went in. Now, Weisman is hurt and Garmon will be behind Bullock.
WR Tevaun Smith — Caught his first pass last week. Was targeted on the fourth-and-3 on Iowa’s last gasp. He’s also back on kick returns, but has yet to touch the ball.
G Jordan Walsh — The 6-4, 270-pounder made the start against Northwestern last week. Ended up splitting time with junior Nolan MacMillan.
DT Darian Cooper — Has 23 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in his first season.
CB Sean Draper — Has seen a lot of time in nickel and dime coverage. He has five tackles and one pass breakup.
CB Kevin Buford — Has three tackles.