In 2019, 88.1% of the players drafted into the NFL were multi-sport athletes and 92% of the active rosters of the Super Bowl teams in 2020 were multi-sport athletes in high school (Tracking Football). Prospects who have played multi-sports are generally more athletic, have dealt with varying degrees of team dynamics, and the disparate challenges of each sport. Iowa’s head coach, Kirk Ferentz, succinctly said, “the more diverse you can be, the better.” Ferentz knows firsthand because he has coached one of the most athletic players the NFL Draft has ever seen in tackle Tristan Wirfs.
Wirfs was a multi-sport athlete growing up, pretty much dabbling in every sport possible, but he majored in three in high school. Wirfs was a three-time state champ in the discus, a two-time state champ in the shot put, and a state champ his senior year in wrestling. While there are certainly transferable traits and values in the shot put and discus events, wrestling arguably has the most values that can be applied to not only the football, but also to life.
Commitment and Discipline
As a freshman in high school, Wirfs was not all in on wrestling. In fact, he was hesitant. But Mount Vernon Wrestling Coach Aaron Truitt needed a heavyweight wrestler. Wirfs dove in, but his season ended up being a disappointing one. He only won 10 of his 37 varsity matches, which came as a shock to the ego of such an incredible athlete.
“In wrestling, it’s you and another person,” former wrestler and Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Harrison Phillips told the media at the 2018 NFL Combine. “You can’t blame your shoes for slipping, you can’t blame your coaches for the play call, you can’t have any excuses, you let another man beat you.
After Wirfs’ first season wrestling, Coach Truitt told Wirfs that “you can’t judge the experience off of your freshman season, you have to wait until February 2017 when you’re a senior, the final chapter is written.” So over the next couple of years, Wirfs put in work.
For those that don’t know, football and wrestling are almost polar opposites philosophically. In football, you want to be bigger, stronger, faster, and there are no limits to your weight, whereas in wrestling you have to compete in a certain weight class. So Wirfs dealt with the grind of gaining weight and strength for football season, then immediately having to scale it back once the season was over to prepare for wrestling. That sort of discipline is not something many high school kids could endure, and his biggest test was going into his senior year.
With an offer to play football for Iowa already in hand, Wirfs contemplated not wrestling in his final season at Mount Vernon, but the letter Coach Truitt wrote to him freshman year resonated. Wirfs wrote a letter back to Coach Truitt after the football season stating that he was “going to see it through.” But that meant Wirfs needed to cut 37 pounds to make weight over the span of the next month. Wirfs made the 285-pound weight class and wound up pinning his opponent for the state championship as he realized his opponent was tired. Eventually, he was named the Des Moines Register as All-Iowa Boys High School Athlete of the Year in 2016-17.
— patrick meyer (@myrdsm) February 18, 2017
A former coach of Wirfs, Vance Light, told The Des Moines Register that “having to lose the weight helped him a lot in hindsight, just because he had to learn how to discipline himself, I don’t think he’s really had to be that disciplined before, as far as having to watch what he eats and everything.” That strict of a regimen also teaches players how to set goals and the feeling when you reach them.
*NT vs 3t & how being a former wrestler has him trained in how to fluctuate weight. “You give me a number I can be there and be healthy at it.”
*Three-time State champion, four-time National Champion
*The mindset behind wrestling & how translates to OL/DL play pic.twitter.com/y3yknR7yk1
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) March 8, 2020
We saw that sort of commitment and discipline play out at Iowa, too. When Wirfs arrived on campus, he wanted to surpass Brandon Scherff’s hang-clean record of 433 pounds. Eventually on ‘Max-out day’ in mid-April, Wirfs hang-cleaned 450 pounds for four reps and held the last rep a tad longer, almost as if to relish in the accomplishment. Iowa guard guard Cole Banwart told The Athletic that “people never thought Scherff’s record would ever be broken.”
Wirfs is likely going to be a top-15 pick given his insane athleticism, and his wrestling background will have a lot to do with it. When a wrestling match starts, it’s only you and your opponent. During those three periods, there are a lot of ups and downs. Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott, a former two-time state wrestling champion, said wrestling helped him be “rugged and aggressive,” so he could “stick it out for all four quarters” in a football game.
You have to have a strategy on how you are going to attack the opponent, but that plan is very fluid throughout a match. You’re constantly processing physical and positional leverage of your opponent and calculating efficient movements to use while being completely exhausted. When you turn on Iowa’s film, you can see all of these traits in action. Whether Wirfs is at his normal right tackle position or rotating over to the left side on every other series, as he did at times, Wirfs’ body control, understanding of spacing, and processing of angles was special. His pass sets are what we like to call smooth and connected. I swear there are times that if you taped a level to his shoulder pads during his sets, it would stay perfectly level. His body control is just phenomenal.
Wirfs showed that he could adjust his angle, or what is commonly referred to as “maintaining the half-man relationship.” Generally, this means that as the rusher approaches, the lineman should be aiming down the mid-line of the rusher in relation to the QB, or what Howard Mudd calls the “middle of the cylinder.”
During a rep, the mid-line changes based on the QB’s spot. A roommate of Wirfs at Iowa and former Buffalo Bills lineman Ike Boettger simply put it this way, “draw a line from the defender to the launch point of QB, get to that point and then battle.”
This was not an easy task given how often teams aligned rushers out wide against Wirfs.
Maybe it’s just me, but RT Tristan Wirfs faced A LOT of wide alignments, especially when he was to the open side. Overall, I thought his sets were smooth and his angles were generally rock solid. pic.twitter.com/BwgxID3xgq
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) March 6, 2020
Wirfs’ raw athleticism comes in hand as players try to test him on these wide alignments and speed rushes. He is able to cover an insane amount of depth while still keeping good positional leverage on the rusher.
Wirfs routinely showed scouts his body control and ability to judge angles while playing within Iowa’s scheme. Wirfs executes a smooth angle set and the offensive line holds their blocks for over three seconds.
A lot of offensive line coaches look at Wirfs’ kick slide and are triggered, mainly because he consistently turns his shoulders or “opens up.” But this is generally done by design and, with how often Wirfs saw wide rushers, it all makes sense. Offensive Line Coach Tim Polasek appears to be of the Howard Mudd pass blocking school of thought: “be aggressive early, start at the endpoint and distort the rusher’s line.”
Love Howard Mudd’s pass pro philosophies. I’m sick of vertical sets.
Set shorter, go get him
Aggressive, passive, aggressive (Not passive, aggressive, passive (vert sets)
Shake hands, start at the endpoint
All passes are play action, go hit em pic.twitter.com/tRW1BXDxRm
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) October 6, 2018
The Mudd method is sort of unorthodox, but a lot of coaches use it, especially when you have an athlete like Wirfs. This aggressive mindset can interrupt a pass rusher’s plan and “eat” fewer pass rush moves. It’s risky and not always picture-perfect, but Wirfs excelled in it. It’s sort of like wrestling, especially at the heavyweight division. A take-down isn’t always pretty. An escape doesn’t go according to plan. You just get it done. It’s that type of processing on the fly that is at the core of wrestling.
This can be seen on several reps from his 2019 game against Michigan’s uber-talented Josh Uche. Uche consistently lined up out wide to test the pass sets of Wirfs, and Wirfs was up to the test. He did not let Uche get the corner. Instead, he maintained his positional leverage at all costs. But he did it often by “stepping over a pencil” and “meeting at the endpoint then working the line,” all Mudd teachings.
Uche attempted his touch-n-go-rip move several times, which can sometimes throw a lineman off-balance.
Linemen will generally feel the rusher’s hands and look to push back, which can cause their feet to momentarily stall as the rusher then transitions to a rip.
But not Wirfs — his balance and feet allow him to recover and maintain his positional leverage on the talented rusher. This was one of those matchups that Harrison Phillips likened his wrestling matches to. Phillips stated that wrestling “felt like two gladiators out there and one of us was going to walk off and one of us was not.”