IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes’ sword should be pretty sharp this season.
With preseason all-American A.J. Epenesa and all-Big Ten Chauncey Golston lining up at defensive end, across the line of scrimmage sits a pair of offensive tackles earning high praise of their own in Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.
The battles that quartet has up front in practice bodes well for Iowa this season.
“Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson are the two best offensive tackles in the Big Ten (Conference), in my opinion. Those guys are good, and they are difficult to go against every single day,” Epenesa said at the team’s annual media day Friday. “They’re able to get their hands inside and hold on and stay in front of you. Those guys are really good at what they do, they come in and do extra work whenever they have time, and just the two of them together, they’re like a dynamic duo.
“Me and Chauncey struggle some days, and some days we have success, but it’s all about our mantra: iron sharpens iron. Good going against good just really makes you better. That’s what we focus on and that’s how we treat it.”
Epenesa led the Big Ten in sacks last year and is the league’s preseason defensive player of the year. He was named to three major trophy watch lists, including the Nagurski and Bednarik awards, and earned six preseason all-America nods, including five first-team selections.
Wirfs, the right tackle, and Jackson, the left tackle, were both named to the Outland Trophy watch lists. Jackson was a preseason first-team all-America pick by four different outlets, and Wirfs earned five preseason All-America honors ranging from first to fourth team.
Epenesa typically lines up across from Jackson in practice while Golston, a preseason third-team all-Big Ten pick, draws Wirfs.
“We’re just trying to make each other better,” Wirfs said. “They’ll beat us, sometimes we’ll beat them. It’s just a lo tof back and forth. A lot of battles are happening in practice.”
“Me and Chauncey, when we go against each other, if I see something he does, I’ll tell him about it after the rep and if he sees me leaning or my hands are down, he’ll tell me. Unless we get a little mad at each other. He won’t tell me what he saw and I won’t tell him. But there’s a lot of feedback to each other and that’s helping us refine things down to as good as they can be.”
Iowa is coming off a season in which it went 9-4 and beat Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. But much of the offseason talk surrounding the Hawkeyes centered on replacing a pair of standout tight ends, both selected in the first round of this past spring’s NFL Draft.
One would be better to talk about the pieces Iowa has coming back. Sure, the Hawkeyes lost a sizable chunk of production along the defensive line with the departures of Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson, and a key defensive leader when safety/linebacker hybrid Amani Hooker left early for the NFL. But Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff figure to step in first at defensive tackle, and starting linebackers Kristian Welch, Nick Niemann and Djimon Colbert return.
The Hawkeyes return five players with starting experience in the secondary, including preseason all-Big Ten picks Matt Hankins and Geno Stone.
Along with losing tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant to the NFL, Iowa’s offense also lost one of its most dependable receivers in Nick Easley.
But Iowa returns a third-year starter at quarterback in Nate Stanley, who has a chance to etch his name permanently into the program’s record books, and a three-headed rushing attack with Toren Young, Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin.
Sargent, who transferred from Iowa Western Community College prior to last season, led the trio with 745 yards and nine touchdowns. Young finished with 649 yards and five scores, and Kelly-Martin, who was limited by injury in spring practice, contributed 362 yards and two touchdowns.
“We didn’t see an awful lot of (Kelly-Martin) healthy, and that’s been the big question mark with him,” Ferentz said. “He is healthy now. That’s the good news, and he is looking really good.
“Toren and Mekhi both took big steps in the spring. I thought they just did everything a little bit better. I think that group right now, the group of those three guys that have been on the field, that’s a really healthy group of guys. They’re good players. They care about each other. They complement each other well, and if we can go into the season with all three of them healthy, it would be our job to figure out how to use them really intelligently.”
Stanley has thrown 52 touchdown passes over the previous two seasons and ranks fourth in program history. It is the most touchdowns in a two-year span by any Iowa quarterbacks. He also ranks ninth in career passing yards (5,351).
“He doesn’t have to be the guy that’s going to save our team or be the face of Iowa football,” Ferentz said. “He’s just got to play really well at quarterback. Like all of our seniors, but you hope your quarterback is a leader, and he’s been that.”
Twins Levi and Landan Paulson return to bolster the offensive line along with Cole Banwart. Mark Kallenberger also has starting experience along the offensive line.
Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette figure to lead a rebuilt receiving corps while Nate Wieting and Shaun Beyer get first crack at replacing the production of Hockenson and Fant.
“Coach Kirk Ferentz always talks about next man in, next man up, and every year a team loses good players,” Wieting said. “It’s up to the young guys to step up and fill that role.”
Iowa’s receiving corps could get an additional boost if Michigan transfer Oliver Martin is granted an eligibility waiver from the NCAA. Ferentz said he still hasn’t heard an update on the potential availability of Martin, a former Iowa City West standout.
“As I understand it, it’s been forwarded to the NCAA, and what happens thereafter, probably no way to predict, like most things that go that direction,” Ferentz said. “Oliver doesn’t have any information, I have no information, so right now we’ll just kind of wait and see how it all goes.”