AMES, Iowa - Brandon Wegher created a lot of noise on the field here on Saturday. He was silent off of it.
Media members from around the state were blocked from the fabulous freshman by an Iowa rule that keeps first-year players away from journalists. If the Sioux City native keeps this up, that might be a tough one to stick to.
Wegher burst onto the scene in the state’s biggest athletic event. The running back raced for 101 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in front of 52,089 as Iowa dumped Iowa State, 35-3, at Jack Trice Stadium.
Wegher’s performance lit up the message boards, talk shows and general conversation around the state. His rise in popularity might even challenge the fan’s obsession with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.
For that reason, it’s a good thing that Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz is shielding Wegher from the media. His teammates and coaches will keep him grounded as he navigates the very tough course that is playing as a true freshman when things like football, academics and social adjustments are coming at him full speed.
Opinions on Wegher were mixed since he signed with the Hawkeyes in February. Some felt the 54 touchdowns he ran for last season for Heelan wouldn’t transfer to the Big Ten. Doubters saw him as a defensive back.
When Jewel Hampton, the projected No. 1 back coming into the season, went down with a season-ending injury, some fans wondered what Wegher could do given the chance. He didn’t get to touch the ball in last week’s 17-16 win against Northern Iowa.
Then, the coaches decided this week during practice that it was time to let the colt out of the barn after the team averaged 2.8 yards per carry in Week 1.
“It was our plan to play him last week,” Ferentz said. “As you recall, there was never a moment when we felt comfortable. I don’t mind telling you that I’m a little bit nervous about putting a true freshman out there at running back when a turnover just would have killed us.
“We made the decision early in the week of practice to give him a push and get him out there. Sometimes I need to get over some things. We made the decision early in the week to play him regardless. The plan was to go third series with him and then just let both guys keep playing.”
If you read that closely, Ferentz is admitting that, in hindsight, that he probably should have given Wegher a try last week.
“There are times when I’m afraid to put guys out there,” Ferentz said. “It’s only a running back. If he fumbles, don’t worry about it or blows a protection. I mentioned before that he missed some time in camp, not an extensive amount of time. But he’s done enough and come far enough in practice for us to be confident he can play. He certainly showed today that he belongs on the field. Keenan Davis is the same way. We have to keep him involved, too.”
Ferentz said that Wegher has moved past Week 1 starter Paki O’Meara on the depth chart with Saturday’s outing.
After watching Wegher, O’Meara and Adam Robinson the last two weeks, it’s obvious who is the most gifted runner. Wegher does things you can’t teach but just come naturally for the good ones. He showed great vision, strength and burst against Iowa State.
Wegher displayed some incredible athletic ability with a one-handed grab on a ball thrown over his head. His leap over the pile for a touchdown from a yard out was impressive.
“I was teasing him on the sideline than he got some serious hang time on that play,” Iowa guard Dace Richardson said. “He looks good. We also have Keenan Davis out there. He was dragging defenders for that first down. We knowing going into camp just the way they were playing they would have good years when they got their chances to get out there.”
Richardson played as a true freshman and remembered that its no easy feat.
“It’s very nerve racking, especially when you play away,” he said. “But they did well. They have the O-line blocking for them and we tried to make it as easy as we could.”
Iowa linebacker A.J. Edds also played as a true freshman. The senior has been impressed with Wegher in practice.
“It’s tough,” Edds said. “Luckily for me, my first time we were at home in a pretty receptive atmosphere playing Montana up five touchdowns. For him to come into a hostile environment like this and play the way he did is huge. It says a lot about him and the type of preparation he put in and the player he is. He could have easily gone out and played like he was in high school last year.”
Iowa radio voice Gary Dolphin called Wegher a bigger version of former Hawkeye receiver Tim Dwight. First, it’s only been one game against a pretty weak ISU defense. Second, I’m not sure Wegher reminds me of any previous Hawkeye back outside of perhaps Jermelle Lewis, and that might be a stretch.
Wegher is unique and possibly a combination of former Hawkeyes. Maybe he’s a receiver in the Ladell Betts mold (can’t go Ronnie Harmon yet). Maybe his carrying the ball is a mixture of traits exhibited by Sedrick Shaw, Albert Young and Shonn Greene. It’s hard to tell after one game, but he doesn’t really bring one guy to mind.
The challenge for Wegher will increase quite a bit in the next two weeks. Arizona boasts a salty defense and two weeks at Penn State likely won’t be a picnic.
But the Iowa running game made tremendous strides from Week 1 to 2. They did it with moving parts on the offensive line and two guys that were expected to be behind Hampton and Brinson this season.
“I never imagined playing as a freshman,” said Robinson, who carried 12 times for 72 yards on Saturday. “I knew once Jewel’s knee for hurt that there might be a chance that I could compete and get a couple of carries here or there. I was more thinking of special teams of my way of getting on the field.
“It really is an eye-opener of how quickly things can change.”