Adrian Clayborn appeared ready to take off during last December's Alamo Bowl preparations. The true freshman was flying all over the field making plays.
Then, as is true with many young players, he hit the wall in the spring. He became almost invisible. He remained that way in August camp.
"But he was out there, but it was like he's out there but you never notice the guy. And then all of a sudden he started climbing up again. I think that's just youth. It's like you see something in a guy, but it's not coming out full percent, full way."
Clayborn has been reborn the last several weeks, becoming a major part of Iowa's defensive line. The emergence of true freshman Christian Ballard along the front has given the Hawkeyes a chance to utilize specialized packages and rest an overworked group of starters.
"The last couple weeks you've just watched these guys grow," Ferentz said. "We're seeing them practice, and most importantly you see it on the field. They're having some success, but they're earning it. It's not like somebody is laying down for them. They're earning it out there.
"I think that creates more success in both their minds. It's coming at a great time because really our defensive team has played enough the last three weeks prior to they've played about four games in three weeks' time, so starting to get some contributions from younger guys is really helpful."
Clayborn and Ballard have been inserted at the end spots when the Hawkeyes go to nickel and dime packages the last several weeks. Mitch King and Kenny Iwebema come out and Bryan Mattison slides from end to tackle.
"We're able to move the guys around a little bit, and that's been good," Ferentz said. "It's giving some of those other guys a break. Mattison moves inside a little bit and gives Mitch a break because he's gotten a lot of snaps this year. It just gives us a little flexibility.
"Chad Geary was coming along, too, we were pleased with his progress and he got hurt a couple weeks ago. But we'll get him back and he'll help us out, too. So that's good."
Ballard racked up 2.5 sacks in Iowa's crucial 28-17 victory against Northwestern last Saturday and totaled five tackles. Clayborn accounted for four tackles, a blocked field goal and a half sack.
The youngsters played well at critical times. Clayborn's blocked kick came from 34 yards out with time running out in the first half. It helped Iowa maintain momentum after it scored a touchdown to make it 14-7 a few minutes before that.
Earlier in the second quarter with the Hawkeyes down 14-0, Northwestern was driving and had the ball at the Iowa 32. Ballard sacked Wildcats quarterback C.J. Bacher for a loss of 13 and the drive eventually ended in a missed 49-yard field goal attempt.
With Iowa trailing 17-14 in the third quarter, the Wildcats were set up at the Hawkeye 35 with a 3rd and 13. Again, Ballard dropped Bacher for a nine yard loss forcing a punt. Iowa scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive and never looked back.
"They're providing a spark," Iowa Senior Defensive End Kenny Iwebema said. "It's something that we need, getting pressure on the quarterback, making plays. That's all you can ask from them. They're doing a good job."
In an important 34-27, double-overtime victory against Michigan State on Oct. 27, Clayborn registered four tackles, including a sack and a half and a forced fumble.
"That gets you going," Iwebema said. "You see a guy get the quarterback and it makes you want to match that or surpass that. It's a plus to have guys go in there and give you a little spell but there's no drop-off."
Clayborn came to Iowa with heady high school accolades. He was ranked a four-star recruit by Scout.com and the 18th best defensive end in his class. The St. Louis native turned down scholarship offers from Missouri, Nebraska and Texas Tech.
"Adrian played linebacker as a junior, and laid some great hits," high school coach Cliff Ice told Scout.com. "He is extremely physical and a punishing hitter. He is very athletic for his size."
Ballard also was a nice recruiting catch for the Hawkeyes. The Lawrence, Kansas native earned four stars from Scout.com and was rated as the 10th best defensive end in the country. He chose Iowa ahead of offers from Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and UCLA.
A basketball and track standout in high school, Ballard came into Iowa with the tools to play either tight end or defensive end, both of which he lined up at on the prep level.
"Quite honestly, I can say this now because I think he's found a home," Ferentz said. "We thought he had a chance at tight end, realistic chance; the guy is a good athlete. But we were pretty confident if that didn't work, he could probably play defense. And if that didn't work, there's always offensive tackle. That's not a bad spot to be if you're a big athlete.
"But yeah, I think he's found a home. I don't see that changing. That's a good thing."
Ferentz said Ballard suggested to coaches that he try defensive end first.
"The tight ends have to run a little faster than the linemen," Ferentz said. "It didn't take him long to figure that one out; jeez, 280 pounds, maybe I should be a lineman."
With Iwebema and Mattison using up their eligibility this season, Iowa fans could very well be getting a sneak peek at the future defensive end starters for the next three years in Ballard and Clayborn.
"They're playing good," Mattison said. "They really helped us a lot last week. I‘m sure the outcome would have been a lot different if they weren't in there. They played a big role and I'm juts glad to see them on the field."
It's been a progression for the two young ends.
"Early in the season, we'd joke around and be like, "Wow, they've got a long way to go,"" Mattison said. "They still have a long way to go along with us older guys. But they've definitely improved and that's what this is all about."