Freshmen giving Iowa offense a boost
IOWA CITY — For much of his tenure at Iowa, coach Kirk Ferentz largely avoided playing freshmen.
He has changed his mind on newcomers — a shift that has helped revitalize Iowa’s offense.
There are true and redshirt freshmen up and down the depth chart for the Hawkeyes, who are 3-0 heading into this weekend’s Big Ten opener against fourth-ranked Penn State (3-0) in part because of how productive their newcomers have been. Five of Iowa’s 13 touchdowns so far have been scored by freshmen.
“That’s big, man. That’s just them paying attention to detail. They’re really sharp, and they’re maturing,” senior running back Akrum Wadley said.
Ferentz became more receptive to the idea of using freshmen ahead of the 2015 season as part of a larger overhaul of the program.
This year’s freshman class could be as talented as any that Iowa has ever had.
A gruesome elbow injury forced senior running back James Butler to the sidelines of last week’s 31-14 win over North Texas. With Butler out until the end of October, Iowa has turned to freshmen Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young as Wadley’s backups. Both looked like potential stars in their debuts.
Kelly-Martin ran for 74 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 carries. Young, a redshirt freshman who put forth a standout performance in Iowa’s spring game, had 78 yards on 19 carries.
“Our plan will be to utilize all three. The good news is that the other two guys did a good job on Saturday. It was a good chance for them to get their feet wet,” Ferentz said of Kelly-Martin and Young. “They’re in there now.”
One of the linemen opening holes for Kelly-Martin and Young was freshman Alaric Jackson, who could be in line to become Iowa’s next standout left tackle.
Jackson, a 6-foot-7, 320-pounder from Detroit, was in the Hawkeyes rotation to start the season. But Jackson became more important after Iowa lost senior tackle Ike Boettger to a season-ending Achilles injury on Sept. 9.
The fact that Iowa has entrusted left tackle to Jackson is a strong barometer for his future given how many Hawkeyes who’ve played that position under Ferentz have gone on to have NFL careers.
“He’s a tremendous talent. He’s got good feet. A big, physical guy and he’s smart. He’s learning the offense really fast,” Iowa lineman Boone Myers of Jackson. “He’s just progressing at an alarming rate.”
Newcomers have also given the Hawkeyes a big boost in their passing game, which has been much stronger than expected so far.
Imhir Smith-Marsette caught the game-winning TD in overtime against Iowa State, and tight end T.J. Hockenson’s first five receptions have all gone for either a first down or a touchdown.
Ferentz’s changed philosophy on playing freshmen has also had a positive effect on sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley.
Though Stanley burned his redshirt to throw just nine passes in 2016, he said that the experience of being the No. 2 quarterback — which included running Iowa’s offense in practice — has helped him get off to a fast start this fall. Stanley leads the Big Ten with 10 touchdown passes.
“Just to be able to know the difference between practice and games, because there is a little bit of a difference between the two (is big),” Stanley said. “To be able to know what’s going to happens and to know the routine definitely helps you stay more focused.”