SUPER BOWL SIGHTS & SOUNDS – FEBRUARY 5
By Leo Haggerty
THE KID CAN PLAY
Bucs right tackle Tristan Wirfs is an anomaly and I say that in a good way. He’s going to line up for his 20th NFL start as a rookie and he hasn’t missed a beat. The Bucs, so far, have hit the jackpot with the former University of Iowa star.
Had a chance to catch up with the coach who mentored #78 in Kurt Ferentz. Below is our conversation with the man who has guided the Black & Gold for the past 22 seasons on Wirfs and other Hawkeyes with the Pewter Pirates. Enjoy.
LH : Tristan Wirfs has lined up at right tackle EVERY snap this year for Tampa Bay and this will be his 20th game. That’s an accomplishment in itself but add to that the fact that he has given up only ONE sack all year on his own and ONE on a game. That’s great numbers for an All Pro veteran let alone a rookie. Are you surprised with how good he’s been so far as a pro?
KF : Well, yes and no. For any rookie to play 20 games straight, for anyone to play 20 games straight, that’s impressive. For a player in his first year it’s pretty amazing and to play really well. Sounds like Tristan has been playing just great. We’re really happy for him and proud of him. The surprise is that it’s a really tall order. On the other hand, the Bucs were really smart in drafting a guy who has a lot of upside. My guess is that you will see a lot of improvement still in a couple or three years. He’s still a really young guy.
LH : When I’m scouting offensive lineman, and you were an offensive line coach in the NFL, is he a knee bender is one of the boxes I need to check. When I saw the video of Tristan jumping out of the pool, I must admit that I never saw a 300 plus pound player ever do that. I checked that box as well as explosion along with athleticism and I said he should be the first tackle off the board in the draft. Then I found out he was the Iowa state heavyweight wrestling champ in high school. I know you’ve had some great ones come through Iowa City but is he the best offensive lineman you’ve coached so far?
KF : Well, first of all, it’s tough to make that distinction. We’ve had some really unbelievable guys. Another thing, he left when he still had a year on his meter. A guy like Brandon Scherff was here five years. Needless to say, he played at a very high level during his time here. So, he’s certainly in that group of guys with Scherff and Robert Gallery and Marshall Yanda. Marshall was a third rounder and there’s a reason for that. These guys were tremendous players and that’s certainly what you have in Tristan. To your point, his physical tools and all the other things, it’s hard to find anybody who’s 320 pounds that can do the things that he can do. It’s kind of jaw dropping in some ways and, I think, that’s the most exciting thing about him. I don’t think anybody there is worried about next year but he’s just going to continue to get better.
LH : In my opinion, Wirfs at 6’5″ and 320 pounds is a generational offensive line talent with freakish athletic ability. To add to that, when I’ve talked with Tristan, he seems to just love playing football. You hate to label a guy this early in his career but I believe I’m watching a Hall of Famer in the making. How good do you think he can be?
KF : It’s such a long road. For a guy to have a great career, a lot of things have to happen. Many guys have that potential. We haven’t had many guys with more than him. The fact is that he had to play here early also. His first year here, he wasn’t scheduled to play but, about a third of the way in, he was playing. He had to learn on the fly just like he’s done there. I just don’t see Tristan getting distracted or going off the rails. I just don’t. He just has to keep working and keep getting better. It was a pleasure for us to have.
LH : Another Iowa Hawkeye, Anthony Nelson, has started seeing more playing time for the Bucs. At 6’7″, the standup end/outside linebacker position in the 3-4 seems like a perfect fit for his skill set. Would you agree with that assessment?
KF : Yeah, Anthony is a really good story. He came from the other direction. He was a little bit undersized, body weight wise, as a senior. Obviously, he’s a very good athlete and a very good football player, more importantly. He worked extremely hard and I know that he’s still doing that. He played really well for us. Unbelievably well. We had a really good defensive line his last year. In fact, the last game for that group was in Tampa Stadium against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl game. He decided to come out early. I say early even though it was his fourth year. He was a graduate. I think in Finance. I know this, his test scores would be better than our whole coaching staff combined. A really smart guy. In fact, it might be Accounting. Yeah, Accounting. He’s an amazing young guy. A great family. His dad played here. So, to see him developing because he wasn’t as far along as Tristan, another year would have pushed him farther up the board. He’s taken to Tampa Bay and taken to pro football really well. It’s fun to see him playing as well as he is and he’ll just keep getting better.
LH : Steve Roe, your Assistant AD for Communications, informed me that there were 9 former Hawkeye players that were on the rosters of the four teams playing Championship Weekend and that was the most of any collegiate program. When I told a media colleague of mine that fact, his sarcastic response was “And the media still wants to say Iowa isn’t a top tier program.” Coach, you have some great teams and great players in your tenure at Iowa. As Rodney Dangerfield said, “Are you getting no respect” or do you just want to stay under the radar and keep developing those 3 and 4 star recruits into NFL level player?
KF : If we aren’t getting any, it doesn’t bother me. We don’t pay attention to what the chatter might be. You know, I’m just really proud of our guys. I can tell you this that we have had a lot of guys go to the NFL, and have had long and successful careers, and we’re really proud of that. This Sunday, we’ll have four guys playing. A lot of that is luck. If you think about Tristan, first of all, there’s a lot of pressure with Tom Brady playing quarterback. You get drafted to a team, and an organization, that’s a solid as the Buccaneers are, there’s a little bit of luck involved there too. That’s really kind of true of all those guys. Yes, they were fortunate but they’re doing their part to help those teams be successful. We’re proud of that. Going back to the NFL thing, it is not a program goal of ours. We want our guys to graduate and to be good citizens and have a great experience in football. Great meaning fulfilling and, if the NFL comes along, that’s just a byproduct. Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of guys have that opportunity. Had a lot of guys enjoy what I would call successful careers.