IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Coach Kirk Ferentz will go for his record-breaking 144th win at Iowa this weekend.
To get it, he will have to rely on a bunch of players making their first significant appearances for the Hawkeyes.
Ferentz's quest to pass Hayden Fry as the program's winningest coach might not be all that easy, either. In addition to the usual concerns about depth-chart turnover ahead of Saturday's opener against Northern Illinois, Iowa will be without three starters — most notably tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson — because of one-game suspensions.
"We knew a while back that we were going to have this dilemma, so I think we've been working ... to try and get (the backups) reps and get everybody on the same page," center Keegan Render said.
In Wirfs and Jackson, Iowa appears to have a pair of prospects set to continue Ferentz's tradition of producing NFL starters at offensive tackle. Nobody seems to know what to expect out of their one-week replacements, Dalton Ferguson and Mark Kallenberger.
Ferguson, a 6-foot-4, 308-pound senior, is a former walk-on who will be making his first career start after being largely playing on special teams. Kallenberger, at 6-foot-6 and just 282 pounds, is a redshirt freshman who has never taken a snap for the Hawkeyes. Kallenberger played in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl after a strong career at nearby Bettendorf High, but left tackle is a tough place to make a first career start at any school.
Junior tackle Levi Paulsen will also be in rotation for opening day.
"They've been working in with the (starters) all throughout camp. They've done a pretty good job, so I feel comfortable with where they're at. They've been working extremely hard," quarterback Nathan Stanley said.
The third starter suspended for the opener is defensive lineman Cedrick Lattimore. But the Hawkeyes are so deep there that losing Lattimore and backup lineman Brady Reiff, also out for one game, isn't expected to be a big issue.
In fact, Paulsen said Iowa's offensive line is "blessed" to have such a strong unit to face in practice — especially given their depth concerns for Saturday.
"We're going against some of the best guys we'll see all year every day," Paulsen said. "We have the opportunity to see a different type of pass rusher every single day. We have small fast guys. We have guys that'll bring power. We've got guys that'll stab you. That's really cool — and good for us because it allows us to adapt to whatever situation is thrown our way."
Iowa will also be the greenest it's ever been under Ferentz, now in his 20th season, at linebacker. None of the top three on the depth chart has ever started a game, a first for Ferentz.
But junior Amani Jones has solidified his status as the starting middle linebacker. Sophomore Nick Niemann, whose brother Ben was a longtime starter as linebacker before graduating a year ago, will line up on the outside and junior Kristian Welch will make his first start after appearing in 24 games.
"Feel good about the way the guys have progressed. Amani Jones has certainly done a nice job ... he's a building block for us to start with," Ferentz said.
Ferentz also said that true freshmen defensive backs Julius Brents and Riley Moss, defensive tackle Tyler Lindebaum and linebacker Dillon Doyle are expected to contribute immediately, with Brents the best bet to see extensive time at cornerback.
Doyle is the son of longtime Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle.
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