Iowa City, Ia. — James Vandenberg’s first play? Sure, he remembers it.
“It was terrible,” Vandenberg said Tuesday, with no hint of hesitation.
Vandenberg, Iowa’s senior quarterback, remembers dropping back for a mop-up duty pass at Iowa State in 2009 — the memory resurfacing half smile, half wince.
“Unfortunately, they made one of the toughest calls in the (play)book,” said Vandenberg, now 3,537 yards into his Hawkeye career. “It was an ‘out route’ all the way across the field.
“I took a step back, and my plant leg was all wobbly. I threw a one-bouncer to the receiver, and everyone on the sideline was laughing at me.
“But it took all of the edge off. The next play, I hit Don Nordmann on a 38-yarder.”
Actually, it was 35 — but what’s a few yards, give or take, three years down the road?
Vandenberg’s point: There’s always a first play for a college football player who makes it to the field at the Division I level and, many times, it’s less than pretty.
Iowa football — the 2012 model — often could feel more like a shiny new car than a weathered road warrior, complete with the right-off-the-lot smell, clean ashtrays and an eager odometer.
In the world of Big Ten football, though, the vehicle generally proves more highway-ready with a healthy amount of dents, scratches and tire wear.
In 14 seasons, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has never entered a season with fewer returning senior starters. The two-deep depth chart for this weekend’s season-opening game against defending MAC champion Northern Illinois lists the word “freshman” 14 times — including four true freshmen.
“I haven’t tracked it exactly,” said Ferentz, when asked to define this team’s inexperience in relation to his other teams at Iowa, “for just the obvious reason — I don’t think I want to know the answer.”
The youth movement in Iowa City is a not-exactly-exclusive group, with membership booming in ways that can make major-college coaches fight for sleep at night.
Redshirt freshman Austin Blythe is expected to start at right guard on the offensive line. The No. 1 punter heading into game week is another first-timer — true freshman Connor Kornbrath.
At running back, sophomore Damon Bullock owns 10 career attempts for 20 yards, with true freshmen Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy listed right behind.
Scan the roster and the trend holds, especially along a defensive line that lost three starters, including impact-makers Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels.
As if Iowa needs more change to digest, there are new coordinators — plural, as in Greg Davis on offense and Phil Parker guiding the defense.
“We feel like this team can be successful,” Ferentz said. “But that being said, we know how inexperienced we are and we know every snap’s going to be a little bit of an adventure.”
Another Ferentz — Iowa center James — remembers Vandenberg’s first play, too.
The moment is easy to recall, considering James was the one who delivered to the football to him seconds before the grass-abusing misfire.
“James came to the line and checked (called) the wrong play twice, so we had to call timeout,” said Ferentz, adding that it was his first play for Iowa, as well — and amused in a way that only the passage of play-calling time allows. “And I had the wrong ID (blocking scheme call) twice, too.
“Then James threw that one-hopper. I remember that one pretty well.”
Conor Boffeli, a junior who backs up James Ferentz and played at West Des Moines Valley, bides times with his own game-long-decided experience scattered across eight career visits to the field.
“One of our coaches told me as an incoming freshman — ‘Don’t talk, just watch,’” he said. “So I’ve watched James. I watched how he practices, how he interacts with teammates, how he carries himself on the field.”
Watching starts the car down the road, but more is needed to test the performance when it matters most — on the Big Ten’s tightest corners and humming along the conference’s slickest surfaces.
Ferentz and Iowa football fans will learn a lot about how the vehicle handles on Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The Hawkeyes will pick up even more detail about the accelerator and brake a week later against rival Iowa State.
Experience isn’t ordered out of the catalog. It’s built — a play at a time.
“After the first play, it’s over and you go back into practice mode,” said Vandenberg, who completed his only two passes after the first attempt. “But wow, that was a bad throw.”
The best thing about first snaps in college football? You’re one snap closer to the next one.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football