Trend: Hawkeyes Turning to True Freshmen

Last season, Iowa played 11 true freshmen, the most in Kirk Ferentz's nine seasons as head coach at the school. In Saturday's opener against Maine, the Hawkeyes pulled the redshirt off seven players, which ties for the second-most true freshmen to play for Ferentz in a season. Senior Writer Rob Howe asked the coach and some players about the trend. Read about it in this free feature.

Ask high school seniors if they'll be ready to play college football as true freshman, and more often than not they'll say yes. Many times that confidence gets discouraged shortly after arriving on campus.

Players come from all over the country as at least one of the best players on their prep teams. Now, they're a long way from home, dealing with extreme changes in sport, academics and social life.

"No, absolutely not," Iowa third-year sophomore Julian Vandervelde said when asked if he could have played as a true freshman. "I look back on that year and at the time and it's kind of like when you're a kid and you look up at adults and say that they don't really know what they're talking about. Coming in as a freshman, you might look around and think you have a feel for the system, but as I look back now I realize just how little I knew at that time about college football, about playing Iowa football, about the offense and the offensive line.

"If they would have thrust me out there, I would have done my best, but I wouldn't say that I was ready by any means."

The Hawkeyes played 11 true freshmen last season, the most in Kirk Ferentz's nine seasons as head coach. Saturday, in a 46-3 victory against Maine, Iowa burned seven redshirts, which joined 2000 and 2003 as the second most in the Ferentz Era, meaning if one more and the last two seasons will represent the two highest totals for this coaching staff.

"(It's) not necessarily by design, but injuries have facilitated some of that," Ferentz said. "We haven't had the biggest senior classes the last two years. That's part of the equation too. We feel pretty good about all the guys that have played, obviously. I don't think in too many cases we've had to do it grudgingly, holding our breath.

"Hopefully it'll pay out a bit, work out for us. Reisner might be an exception to that rule. We didn't have much choice with him. In retrospect, it ended up being a great thing, he's a lot further along, the A.J. Edds analogy, that bit of playing they did as freshmen really propelled them forward faster than if we had redshirted them. That's helped me rethink things a bit, too. A.J.'s example has factored in there a bit with some guys."

Edds, now one of the leaders of the defense as a true junior, came to Iowa as a tight end, but moved over to linebacker after some injuries hit that position in '06. The Indiana product saw quite a few reps that season as the health of veterans like Mike Humpal continued to be up and down.

"A lot of it has to do with the depth chart and if the coaches need you in that role," Edds said. "I came in initially thinking I was going to redshirt, guys got banged up and I was kind of thrown in the mix. You also have to demonstrate to the coaches that you can handle it. You're focused in the meetings.

"It's easy to go out there as a freshman and be thinking about a million different things in your first couple of weeks on campus. You have to be able to show coaches you can focus on the game plan and put it into practice out on the field and have to poise to be on the field, not be awestruck with being in Kinnick with 72,000 people and everybody on campus telling you how great you are because you played one game as a freshman. The big thing is keep a level head about everything and knowing that you can always get better no matter how well you played."

Most times, a player makes his case for playing as a true freshman during training camp. If the coaches are going to burn the redshirt, they'd like to get him in right away and at least take advantage of his skills on special teams.

Edds played special teams his first season and made a mark there. He followed in the footsteps of other standout Hawkeyes that got their feet wet on those units in their first year, guys like Bob Sanders, Matt Roth and Jovon Johnson.

Iowa Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Doyle believes that it's easier for guys playing farther away from the ball to have more of a chance to play right away from a physical standpoint. For athletes playing on the lines and quarterback, the jump from high school to college is often too much for a first-year guy to handle.

Drew Tate has been the only quarterback in the Ferentz Era to play as a true freshman, and his reps behind Nathan Chandler were limited. Mike Jones, Dace Richardson and Bryan Bulaga are the only true freshmen offensive linemen to play in Year 1.

"The biggest exception to the whole rule would have been Bulaga," Ferentz said. "There aren't many guys that can walk into anywhere and play as a true freshman as an offensive lineman. Not just play, but play well. I go back to the ‘80s, a couple guys did it at Pitt, which was exceptional. You can't just because of the physical nature of the position."

Said Edds: "You're not going to see a lot of true freshmen play on the offensive line and quarterback. Offensive line it's physical and quarterback is too much for a freshman to pick up in the course of six weeks before the first game. If you have a receiver or a DB guy that picks up on the offensive schemes and is open to being coached and has the athletic ability, I know I can kind of see it. I knew the first week of camp that there were four, five, six guys had a chance."

Kicker Trent Mossbrucker, defensive backs David Cato, Shaun Prater, William Lowe, running back Jewel Hampton, wide receiver DeMarco Paine, and tight end Brad Herman all saw action as true freshman on Saturday. Hampton raised some eyebrows with a touchdown on his first carry, scoring again and finished with 68 yards on nine attempts.

One of the ways that Ferentz tries to ease the transition for his newcomers is keeping them off limits to the media. The coach feels like they have enough on their plate with football, school and social life.

Prep players are also helping themselves with the transition by taking a lot more unofficial visits to college campuses through the spring and summer to get a feel what things are like. A lot of them also attend numerous one-day camps around the country, which have become tryouts in a lot of ways.

"We get a lot of kids that visit a lot of college campuses and they get a taste of what college life is before they ever step on the football field at the college level," Vandervelde said. "That prepares them more, especially from a social standpoint. It's an advantage for the younger kids coming in, which is good for us as a whole."

One of the things that changed Ferentz's philosophy on using true freshmen was the 2006 season. That year, he expected more from his redshirt freshmen and sophomores on special teams and they disappointed him. He felt like he could have gotten more out of his true freshmen had he used them instead.

"That was part of it," Ferentz said. "I go back to 2001, that group redshirted. Hinkel, Greenway, Hodge, those guys could have helped our special teams. If a guy's going to play as a true freshman, a lot of those guys, we'll get them involved in special teams, just so they're out on the field. It makes it easier to transition."

Dominique Douglas paced Iowa in receiving as a true freshman in '06 before off-the-field troubles cost him a spot in the program. Last year, a redshirt freshman, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos led Iowa in receiving. He received a lot of attention for his ability coming out of high school and he felt fortunate to redshirt in his first year on campus, especially since he was switching from quarterback to wide receiver.

"I wanted to see how quickly I would be able to pick the game up at receiver in my first camp," Johnson-Koulianos said. "I felt like after my first camp that I wanted to redshirt."

In hindsight, Johnson-Koulianos understands what it takes to play right away.

"If you're going to play your first year, you have to do things right," he said. "You can't be late to lifts; being on time for things. And then when we're out on the field during camp, you just have to make plays. You have to be kind of a standout, like, "Who's this guy?""

Even though guys look like world beaters in high school, it doesn't mean they'll walk right in and do what's needed to play right away in college.

"That first year, I didn't know if I was going to make it," Johnson-Koulianos said. "My first couple of months here, I didn't know where to go, who to ask, what to do. Once I figured out what I was doing, I knew I wouldn't rather be anywhere else in the country."

Although the term is used more in basketball, college football true freshmen also can hit a wall as the long season progresses. It's a matter of being mentally prepared if you want to get through it, said Edds.

"It's basically a mindset," he said. "If you come in thinking that you can only do so much as a freshman, then that wall is going to be hit sooner rather than later. But if you come in with the mindset that the sky is the limit, there's no reason you can't improve every week and keep getting to where you want to be."

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