Burly blockers (and future early NFL draft picks) bulldozing for Iowa, Kentucky

Sep 14, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs (74) blocks Iowa State Cyclones defensive end JaQuan Bailey (3) at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

On a college football Saturday lacking a single showdown between teams ranked in the top 25, it makes sense to focus this week’s NFL draft spotlight on a couple of rugged offensive linemen unlikely to get much national press – at least until more in the media begin to recognize them for what they are – future first round NFL draft picks.

Combining prototypical size, strength, underrated athleticism and good old-fashioned orneriness, Iowa’s true junior offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and Kentucky senior left guard Logan Stenberg bullied their opponents with both nearly leading their teams to come-from-behind victories over key rivals.

Of the two, Wirfs, a 6-foot-5, 322 pound man-child is easily the more recognized prospect, generating NFL buzz since he became the first offensive tackle to start as a true freshman at Iowa in the past 20 years.

Starting along the offensive line for a Power Five program as an 18-year old is an incredible accomplishment for any player. Doing it at Iowa for the nation’s most respected offensive line guru, Kirk Ferentz, is a different level.

But then again, so is Wirfs, among the top 32 prospects on my board entering the season and a player, who at just 20-years old, already boasts awesome raw power.

Further, he was named one of the freakiest athletes in college football by Bruce Feldman.

It was the versatility Wirfs demonstrated Saturday against rival Iowa State, however, that should have him pushing to be the first blocker off the board this spring, should he opt to declare early for the NFL.

Voted to the Honorable Mention Team at right tackle a year ago, Wirfs’ massive frame appears best suited to remain at this position in the NFL. With the Hawkeyes’ talented left tackle Alaric Jackson (a highly regarded NFL prospect in his own right) getting injured in a season-opening win over Miami (Ohio), however, Jackson has been asked to slide over to the critical blindside role since.

With all due respect to Rutgers last week, Iowa State – and specifically its talented defensive end JaQuan Bailey – was considered Wirfs’ biggest challenge to date.

To be fair, the powerful Bailey had his moments, even knocking down the much bigger man on a first quarter pass pro snap in which Wirfs lost leverage. Throughout most of a game delayed twice by weather and in front of a rabid Iowa State crowd riled up by ESPN’s College Gameday on campus, Wirfs stoned Bailey and the other Cyclones who rushed him in this contest, demonstrating terrific agility for a man with his prototypical arm length and thick, power-packed frame.

While much more athletic than his size would suggest, make no mistake’s Wirf’s specialty is simply overwhelming opponents with his girth and power. The high school wrestling and shotput champion simply rag-dolled competition, at times, and Iowa outlasted the Cyclones, winning 18-17.

Wirfs’ team won and therefore he earned the last laugh. Stenberg was perhaps even more impressive, though in a losing effort as the 9th-ranked Gators rallied late to stun the Wildcats in Lexington 29-21.

Whereas Wirfs’ is already being included in many early mock drafts, Stenberg remains under the radar by comparison despite starting each of the past three seasons and earning praise already this year from respected analysts.

Sporting a nearly identical frame as Wirfs, the 6-6, 322 pound Stenberg was dominant inside all night for Kentucky, repeatedly pancaking defenders from a Florida team with a long track record of producing early round NFL draft picks.

That is especially ironic, as it could be that Kentucky’s lack of highly drafted blockers is the biggest hurdle left for Stenberg to overcome at this point.

While Mark Stoops has done a phenomenal job of turning Kentucky into a legitimate force in the SEC, the Wildcats have produced NFL prospects more frequently at virtually ever other position in the game than along the offensive line. The last blocker selected in the first round out of Kentucky, for example, was when the Atlanta Falcons picked tackle Warren Bryant sixth overall back in 1977.

Whereas recent Kentucky blockers have not earned very high draft picks, guard Larry Warford (No. 65 overall, 2013) and certainly Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson (No. 44 overall, 1988) have proven that when the talent is special, NFL scouts know full well that the Wildcats are “not just a basketball school.”

Like Wirfs, Stenberg likes to bully his opponent with raw strength and he is a good athlete for the position. Where he really stands apart, however, is his nastiness. Stenberg could be nicknamed IHOP (rather than Stenny) for the number of pancakes he delivered Saturday, reveling in his opportunities to knock opponents to the turf and standing over (or laying on top of) Gators just long enough to deliver a message and not draw a flag for taunting.

The Wildcats know exactly what they have in Stenberg, which is why they repeatedly ran behind him, totaling 140 yards on the ground against a physical Florida front. While he is not agile enough to move outside, Stenberg's broad frame, balance and iron grip allow him to lock onto defenders in pass protection, rendering them useless.

A year ago, it was Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson who caught my eye in September, steadily rising up draft boards all year before earning first round buzz at the Senior Bowl. He eventually was selected 54th overall by Houston this past spring.

Do not be surprised when Stenberg (a Madison, Alabama native) is the Wildcat on the prowl in Mobile this year and competing for a first round selection of his own just a few months later.