Dace Richardson looked every bit the part of a Division I offensive lineman when he trotted onto the field early in Saturday's second quarter. The true freshman broke from the huddle, lined up at left tackle and pushed defenders around.
Interestingly, Richardson chose to wear No. 78. The last guy who sported those digits for the black and gold at Iowa accomplished some pretty big things.
"If you asked me that three years ago, I would have had no idea who wore that number," Richardson said with a big grin. "Now, I know who wore that jersey. Every time I wear it, I just want to honor him. Every time I wear it, I work my ass off so as not to discredit him."
Richardson, who only has played organized football for three years, realizes he has a long way to go to reach the elite level.
"One of the factors for me coming here was knowing that they produce good linemen," the 6-foot-6, 300-pound man-child said. "I was raw. I needed a school that would teach me the fundamentals to become a great football player."
Richardson's appearance during Saturday's 56-0 blowout of Ball State might have surprised some Iowa fans, who expected many of the players in this highly touted true freshmen class to redshirt. Shonn Greene, Tony Moeaki, Alex Kanellis and Ryan Bain also saw action as first-year players.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz announced Tuesday that Moeaki and Greene would be on the field, leaving the door open for a few more true freshmen to play. It was believed to represent the most true freshmen to play since 2000, when Jonathan Babineaux, George Lewis, Nate Kaeding, Bob Sanders, Benny Sapp, Chris Smith, Fred Russell and Kevin Worthy all saw action in their first years on campus.
Injuries played into the use of this year's five freshmen, Ferentz said. The Hawkeyes lost defensive lineman Ettore Ewen to an ACL injury during the week, opening the dour for Bain and Kanellis. Richardson ascended up the depth chart with Todd Plagman quitting the team and a host of bumps and bruises on the offensive front.
"We've been looking at a lot of our guys in the depth chart, and so we've made the decision to go ahead and play Alex and Ryan Bain," the coach said. "Just watching Dace practice, it's going to be a long season, we just made the decision with all three of those guys that if we had the opportunity, we'd go ahead and play them."
The buzz surrounding Greene in the preseason was palpable. The rookie runner did not disappoint, rushing a team-high 18 times for 116 yards and a score. He was believed to be the first true freshman running back at Iowa to exceed the century mark.
"I've got a lot to learn, but I think I did fairly well," Greene said of his debut. "I think I did play more than I thought. I thought that I would get a couple of carries and that would be about it."
To a man, the freshmen agreed with the coaches' choice to bypass the redshirt season. They all expressed a desire to help the team any way that they could.
"It was something that the coaches had been talking about," Kanellis said. "I just found out a couple of days ago (Thursday) that I was going to be playing. I just trust them. They know what's best. I don't question it at all. It's their decision to make."
Most experts felt Richardson would require a year or two of polishing before seeing action at the highest level of college football. He held no preconceived notions in that regard.
"I'm taking it stride by stride," he said. "The one thing that they say that you can't take away from someone is just being aggressive. And every time out on the football field, I'm aggressive. I might not be the best technician, but the one thing that I can control is being aggressive."
Although the Ball State defensive line failed to provide the stiffest of tests, Richardson used his aggressiveness to push around oncoming rushers. His footwork wasn't always the smoothest, but he displayed a nice ability to hold defenders off with his long reach.
Richardson's entrance was aided by the inclusion of Moeaki. They teamed up together Warrenville South High School in Wheaton, Ill. Scout.com ranked Moeaki as the top tight end in the country, while Richardson was the fourth best on the offensive line.
"That really helped me going into the game knowing that my teammate from high school was right there beside me," Richardson said. "It made me feel calm, because I know what he can do and he knows what I can do. We just play ball out there."
Moeaki looks like he was born to play tight end, boasting the athleticism of a power forward in his 6-4, 235-pound frame.
"We have a chemistry," Moeaki said of he and Richardson. "We just know what to expect from each other."
Shortly after entering the game late in the first quarter, Moeaki caught a five-yard pass from Drew Tate that proceeded a scoring toss to Clinton Solomon. The young tight end finished with team-high three receptions for 28 yards. He also looked adept at blocking in the running game.
"It was awesome," Moeaki said of his first college game. "This was my first game at Kinnick (Stadium). The atmosphere is unbelievable. While we were running out in the swarm, it was just so overwhelming. It was just a special opportunity. I've never experienced anything like that."
Kanellis grew up in the shadows of Kinnick and dreamed of playing for the Hawkeyes for as long as he could remember. The 6-4, 255-pound end prepped at Iowa City West.
"It was fun…the most fun I've ever had," Kanellis said. "Just to run out there (was great). Then to play, that was just icing on the cake."
Kanellis recorded two tackles, one for loss, and a quarterback hurry, which came against former Cedar Rapids Washington star Warren Suess.
"It brought back some memories; a little déjà vu playing against Warren," Kanellis said. "It was good to see him."
Bain tallied four tackles in his initial game. The 6-2, 260-pound Bolingbrook, Ill. native also terrorized Suess on a few occasions.
"Bain and I are pretty good friends," Kanellis said. "He found out the same time that I did (that they were playing). We just kind of looked at each other and were like, "Oh, man. This is…" We were both pretty pumped. It's fun to have him in the same spot as me and to be going through it."
Iowa fans eagerly anticipated Greene's debut. The 5-11, 225-pound battering ram with speed and quickness spent last season at Milford (Conn.) Academy prep school after failing to qualify academically for Division I football following the 2003-04 high school year.
Greene never wavered on his desire to become a Hawkeye. And the Iowa coaching staff stuck with the New Jersey native.
"Because I didn't make it (academically), I didn't know if they were still going to be there," Greene said of the Hawkeyes. "But they stuck it through the whole time. I really appreciate that. That's one of the reasons that I picked Iowa because I knew they would stick with me."
"When I first got here, it was the coaches and the players (that attracted him)," Greene said. "It wasn't so much (Iowa's) prestige and all of that. It was just the program. It was a big family, and everybody worked together."
Greene reveled in the act of proving some people wrong with his performance on Saturday.
"I know that a lot of people thought, "He couldn't make it in grades, so he's not going to be here,"" he said. "That was actually a motivation to me to get back here and do what I can do. You can achieve anything if you keep working."
Their feet wet with their first experience of college football, the group of true freshmen move on to the event that is the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry next weekend in Ames.
"I'm excited," Moeaki said. "I heard it's crazy."
He and the rest of the rookies will learn the level of craziness in a week.