IOWA CITY, Iowa — James Daniels was too talented and too important to Iowa’s future to watch from the sideline as the 2015 season unfolded.
It was his first fall on campus, and Daniels was good enough to see action on a rotational basis, even if it meant sitting one of the Hawkeyes’ best offensive linemen.
“Sean Welsh had to come out of the lineup at times to get James Daniels in there,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “At that time I didn’t really feel like Sean deserved to come out of the lineup. I didn’t think that James had earned that playing time. But, we knew that he was going to develop and that we were going to need him at some point.”
Daniels, now a junior, took some lumps that season, particularly against Illinois when he played right tackle. But it led Daniels to gain valuable experience to become a starter as a sophomore.
“Being able to do it my freshman year helped me prepare for my sophomore year,” Daniels said. “Players, like the redshirt sophomores last year when I was a sophomore that haven’t played, I could help them when they were on the field.”
Daniels was one of four players in their first round of fall practice to see action in 2015. That number has soared the last two years. In 2016, 10 players without redshirts saw action. This year, that number stands at nine through three games. That’s 19 players without a redshirt seeing game action.
2016, 2017 Non-redshirt freshmen
Why first-year players see time
It’s a mixture of reasons why Iowa jumps so many inexperienced players into action. One, it’s at positions of need. With only two scholarship receivers practicing in the spring, three freshman wide receivers have lost their redshirts this year. Two, it’s a play for the following season. Last fall, safety Amani Hooker and cornerback Manny Rugamba saw action on special teams and sub-packages, and both now are starters.
Then there are those who are too good to sit. This year, that includes defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs.
“Again, it’s got to be the right positions,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You can’t do it at every position. A.J. is a little bit of an outlier on the defensive side, but that’s a little bit more unusual.”
Hooker, a sophomore, last year played on all four special teams units, which is given the term “savage back.” Seeing action early helped him adjust to game speed and the physical nature at a faster rate. Hooker will make his first start this week at free safety.
“If I didn’t play, I wouldn’t have that game experience and the first game this year would be a little bit different,” Hooker said. “It’s a good thing I played on special teams last year. I got a feel for things.”
Tight end Noah Fant and quarterback Nate Stanley were in similar positions in 2016. Fant possessed enough athletic ability to become a receiving threat in his first training camp. The coaches opted to play him without redshirting so he could accelerate his role in 2017.
“I would say it definitely played a role in my progression and my building as a player,” Fant said. “I think it was really helpful in the part of just getting to know what being in a college football game is like and stuff like that. I would say definitely pushed it along faster.”
In his first training camp, Stanley was embroiled in a full competition with Tyler Wiegers for the No. 2 spot. The coaches took the decision down to the final few days before elevating Stanley. That enabled him to get reps with the second-team offense and kept him focused. Even seeing limited action helped make the transition to starter this year much easier.
“Just continuing to be in our offensive system the whole time, not having to run the scout offense helped to learn our offensive concepts a lot better,” Stanley said. “Being able to stay in our offense rather than in a different offense helped a lot.”
Mostly skill positions hit the field early
Ferentz never was reticent about playing first-year players at skill positions or away from the line of scrimmage. Since 2009, Iowa has used 58 first-year players, including 15 defensive backs, 11 wide receivers, 10 linebackers and 8 running backs. When it comes to offensive linemen, only two — Daniels and Wirfs — played over that span while only four saw action on the defensive line.
Many young players lack the size, strength and technique to compete adequately up front. Although he’s considered one of the nation’s top centers now, Daniels struggled his first year. That afternoon against Illinois, he barely touched defensive ends Jihad Ward and Dawuane Smoot, both of whom were drafted within the first three rounds of the past two NFL drafts.
“I honestly think about that game every day,” Daniels said. “During the draft when they showed [Smoot’s] highlights, they showed his highlights against me. So I’m watching the draft and I’m like, ‘That’s me on TV.'”
Senior tackle Boone Myers, who arrived as a tight end, never could envision playing offensive line as a first-year player.
“Two years ago James came in and played as a true freshman and he was built. Physically, he was ready to play,” Myers said. “James was a really smart player and learned the offense really quickly. A.J. and Tristan, that’s what they’re doing, they have the physical stature to play and they’re working on the mental side of it and stuff like that.”
A few of the players competed immediately out of necessity. Defensive end Drew Ott had his redshirt yanked halfway through the 2012 season. After tight end Tony Moeaki was lost after season-ending injuries in 2007, first-year tight end Allen Reisner was thrown into action.
“I’m thinking to myself, this guy looks like he’s 12,” Ferentz said. “He looks so young. But we were out of guys, and he agreed to go out there and play, and he competed his tail off, did a really nice job. But that was a case where we were out of guys.”
Attrition also plays a role. Of the nine freshman wide receivers signed from 2013 through 2015, only Matt VandeBerg remains on the roster.
Those who benefit from that attrition are first-year players. In his second game with the Hawkeyes, wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette caught 4 passes for 36 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the overtime game-winner at Iowa State.
“There are things you can’t count on, a guy like [wide receiver] Jay Scheel, for instance,” Ferentz said. “We had such high hopes for Jay coming in, and he had a medical situation that never really allowed him to look like the guy we thought he would, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s part of what we do.
“So when those things happen, it creates opportunity.”