MOUNT VERNON, Ia. — As a diligent sophomore with collegiate football thoughts swiftly spinning, Tristan Wirfs hunkered down and began the research. His resume already included a year of starting experience, but his expectations remained modest after absorbing some negative chatter.
The only criteria: He just wanted to play somewhere.
“My first year on varsity, we had a couple kids who told me I couldn’t (play Division I football),” said Wirfs, then just a 265-pound offensive tackle. “And so that (following) summer … I was like thinking of places to walk on and stuff — like Coe or if I had to walk on at Iowa — just Division II and Division III (schools).”
Fast forward to today, and Wirfs can’t help but laugh.
It’s easy to see why.
Wirfs, who officially shifted from Iowa commit to Hawkeyes signee Wednesday, now stands as one of the highest rated players in Kirk Ferentz’s current class. More than 20 minutes after he put the final signature on a “dream come true,” a throng of family, friends, coaches and fellow Mount Vernon students still buzzed with admiration at their hometown product.
As a powerful, yet versatile, offensive lineman, Wirfs has racked up one prep accolade after another including back-to-back selections to the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Eight squad. Just 2 1/2 months ago, a similar crowd to Wednesday’s gathered to recognize his U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection.
“I think he’s one of the better guys in the class,” said Allen Trieu, Scout.com’s Midwest football recruiting manager. “… He’s a guy who’s only going to get better. I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he can be.
“There’s a lot there to like about the kid.”
And it quickly became apparent the initial college search was just a bit off.
Sarah Wirfs eventually had to call it quits.
With her young son, Tristan, consistently towering over his flag football peers, she knew it was time for a bump up in competition.
“Third grade was the last time he played flag football because he was so much bigger than everyone else,” the mother said. “It made me nervous. Not only was he big, he was athletic — he could jump, run — so it just made me really nervous that he was going to hurt somebody coming down.
“He was a good 75 pounds heavier than everyone else.”
As an active kid who embraced nearly every sport, Tristan’s size advantage spilled into high school football. With new Mount Vernon coach Lance Pedersen taking over the Mustangs beginning Wirfs’ sophomore season, the fledging offensive linemen was big enough to play on varsity — but needed a mental improvement.
“He needed to really grow into his body,” Pedersen said, “get the mindset and mentality of a big man and be able to gain some confidence.”
After a solid varsity introduction — Tristan started along the offensive line for a Mount Vernon squad that reached the Class 2A second round — the conversations turned big-picture.
“I think that 10th grade year when we got new coaching,” Sarah Wirfs said, “they were really starting to take an interest.
“Coach Pedersen was asking those guys about what their goals were, and that really was a turning point because people weren’t asking him that before.”
‘It was really surreal’
So the research commenced. Various small schools crossed Tristan’s mind. Coe was just 20 or so miles down the road. Albeit a long shot, maybe walking on at Iowa or Iowa State could turn into something special.
Yeah, not quite.
“Then, after a baseball game, Iowa State called me and said they wanted to offer me a full scholarship,” Wirfs recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what?’
“I then went to Iowa’s camp, and they offered me. It felt really good to me, just proving those (former teammates wrong). In the back of my head, I knew I could do it — just because that was my dream and I was going to work for it no matter what. So just knowing that I did it was really nice.”
The Cyclones first pulled the trigger on June 5, 2015, with the Hawkeyes following suit nine days later. Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan and a slew of other collegiate coaches had first caught wind of Wirfs a few weeks prior at the state track meet, where the Mount Vernon standout won the 2A discus throw and placed second in shot put.
He visited both schools — along with Michigan State — in the following months. The interested ultimately poured in.
“My favorite movie has always been ‘The Blind Side,’” Wirfs said, “and I wanted that to be me. I wanted all those letters to be coming in — all those phones calls — and it did.
“It was really surreal to think that was happening to me.”
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Wirfs took his time with the recruiting hoopla, focusing on a successful junior season during which Mount Vernon rumbled all the way to the 2A finals. Once the year concluded, the prized prospect flipped things forward.
After a trip to Michigan State in late November, he just knew.
“We were on our way home from the Michigan State visit,” Sarah Wirfs said, “and he realized right then. … He was sitting in the back seat, and said, ‘Mom, I know that I want to go to Iowa.’”
The Hawkeyes landed him on Dec. 7, 2015.
So what are they getting?
“He definitely gains your attention on film,” said Mid-Prairie coach Pete Cavanagh, whose Golden Hawks faced Mount Vernon in Week 4. “When you’re trying to block a guy (who is) 320 (pounds), it’s kind of hard when we’re 160 on the line. So he was definitely one of those kids where you know where he’s at all times on the field.”
As a massive body who towers over most 2A competitors, Mount Vernon used Wirfs relentlessly. He was a fixture at left tackle for a Mustangs rushing attack that rolled up more than 3,000 yards and 46 touchdowns, while also serving as a formidable force on the defensive line and special teams.
“I knew coming into senior season that I couldn’t just rely on being big,” Wirfs said. “I wanted to be as technically sound as I could and just maximize that strength. I lived in the weight room this summer, and that’s when I really started filling out and stuff.
“I started dominating kids.”
Wirfs doesn’t sacrifice agility and strength for size, playing most of this season near 320 pounds. And although he chopped a good portion of that off for wrestling — Wirfs said he hovers around 292 to 294 pounds, then drops down to 287 for meets — the Iowa signee expects to be back near his playing weight come track season.
“He’s very light on his feet,” Trieu said. “There are a lot of guys his size who can’t move the way that he can, and I think he’s a naturally strong kid who you look at what he could be after a couple of years — maybe even a year in a strength and conditioning program.
“I think that he could be a monster in a couple of years.”
With quality performances at last spring’s The Opening Chicago Regional showcase, last month’s US Army All-American Bowl and various team camps over the years, Wirfs has quashed any notions that his smaller-competition dominance won’t translate up.
Trieu admitted he’d still be surprised if Wirfs plays as a true freshman given Iowa’s common redshirt route with offensive linemen, but he sees the Mount Vernon product vying for playing time sooner rather than later.
“Unless it’s something dire where you absolutely need the kid as a freshman,” Trieu said, “I think what he could be as a fifth-year senior as opposed to a true freshman, you’d rather have him out there in five years than out there next year.
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“But I think he’s a kid who could develop quickly and possibly compete for time as a redshirt freshman. That’s how I kind of see his trajectory going: Take a redshirt year and then start competing in Year 2.”
Needless to say, Wirfs has zoomed past a Division III or walk-on future. He put the official stamp on that Wednesday.
He’ll head to Iowa City searching for more.
“Tristan was built for football,” Sarah Wirfs said. “He was just kind of born for it.
“That’s just what he was made for.”
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.