By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Three things come to mind when I think of Kirk Ferentz.
Consistency on and off the football field.
And the NFL Draft.
Ferentz is class personified, the kind of person you want running a major college football program where you’d like to believe that integrity means as much as winning.
Ferentz also has led Iowa to 17 bowl game appearances since 2001, and has done so while building an NFL pipeline that has changed the course of so many young lives and that continues to flow.
Iowa has had 70 players selected in the NFL Draft under Ferentz, beginning with tight end Austin Wheatley in 2000 as a fifth-round pick by New Orleans.
Iowa also has had at least four players selected in nine drafts under Ferentz, at least five taken in six drafts and at least six picked in three drafts.
Nine former Hawkeyes have been taken in both the first and second rounds under Ferentz, and those totals will almost certainly change on Thursday when the NFL begins its annual draft, although, under much different circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020 NFL Draft will serve as a three-day virtual fundraiser benefiting six charities – selected by the NFL Foundation – that are battling the spread of COVID-19 and delivering relief to millions in need.
Offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs and defensive end A.J. Epenesa are among the 58 players that have been invited to participate virtually in the draft.
The two former Hawkeyes, who declared for the draft as juniors, are both considered potential first-round picks, with Wirfs virtually a lock to go in the first round, and possibly in the top 10.
Former Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley and former defensive backs Michael Ojemudia and Geno Stone also have a chance to be selected in the seven-round draft, which will be held over three days.
Round one will be held on Thursday, rounds two and three on Friday, and rounds four through seven on Saturday.
By the time the draft concludes, Iowa could have 75 players who have been selected under Ferentz.
Iowa has had six players selected in the first round of the draft since 2010, including three offensive linemen, the most recent being Brandon Scherff in 2015.
To help put that in perspective, Iowa only had five first-round picks from 1987 to 2009, and two of them came in the same draft in 1997 as defensive back Tom Knight and offensive lineman Ross Verba were taken with the ninth and 30th picks, respectively, by Arizona and Green Bay.
Iowa’s pipeline to the NFL under Ferentz is flowing at a rate never seen before and shows no signs of slowing down with players such as offensive lineman Alaric Jackson and defensive end Chauncey Golston both on course to be selected in the 2021 draft.
The pipeline has been built with talent, vision, focus and determination, with Ferentz overseeing it all.
Wirfs and Epenesa both came to Iowa as heralded recruits, with big-time potential and with the goal of playing in the NFL.
They both are about to realize that goal, and they both have plenty of people to thank for helping along the way, most notably family, both blood and Hawkeye.
Wirfs was raised by a single mother in Mount Vernon, while Epenesa is the son of former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa, and one of four children of Eppy and Stephanie Epenesa.
The family will be together in their home in Glen Carbon, Ill., during the draft, which is fitting in some ways because family is so important to A.J. Epenesa, and to Wirfs.
Wirfs was asked during the 2019 season about his mother Sarah’s influence, and he spoke so proudly about her being his guiding force and inspiration.
“She worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to help me to reach this point,” Wirfs said. “She’s always been there for me.”
Wirfs will soon be able to show his gratitude in ways beyond just saying kind words and showing affection. And the same with AJ. Epenesa.
They both are about to make a lot of money and will join a long and ever-growing list of former Hawkeyes whose lives were changed dramatically by the NFL Draft.
There is speculation that Epenesa could fall to the second round after struggling in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and with not having a chance to improve his stock at Iowa's Pro Day, which was cancelled due to COVID-19.
But Ferentz believes that too much emphasis is placed on the combine, and that Epenesa's performance on tape speaks for itself.
"A lot of mistakes are made at the NFL Combine," Ferentz said.
Ferentz's top two priorities are to win games and graduate players, but his success in developing NFL players is also a big deal that helps with recruiting, and with changing lives for the better.
He and his support staff should have a lot to be proud about during the 2020 NFL Draft.
Iowa's first-round NFL Draft picks since 2010
Year, name, team, pick, position
2010 - Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay, 23rd, OL
2011 - Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay, 20th, Tampa Bay, DE
2012 - Riley Reiff, Detroit, 23rd, OL
2015 - Brandon Scherff, Washington, 5th, OL
2019 - T.J. Hockenson, Detroit, 8th, TE; Noah Fant. Denver, 20th, TE