July 21, 2010
By RICHIE ZAWISTOWSKI
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Jeff Tarpinian rests on a couch, recovering from a vigorous morning workout. Beside him on a table are three bottles of Gatorade.
The bottles — labeled “Prime,” “Perform,” and “Recover” — are symbolic to the 2010 University of Iowa football team.
Looking to move forward after an 11-2 season capped by a 24-14 victory in the FedEx Orange Bowl, Tarpinian and the Hawkeyes are priming to perform for another successful fall. Tough summer workouts and film study are preparing Iowa for success, while new players step in to replace those who have departed.
Six UI players were selected in the 2010 NFL Draft, including linebackers A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer. Iowa lost two of its most experienced linebackers from the 2009 team. This is college football and other players must step into vacated roles and perform. It’s a constant game of next-man-in.
Now, enter Tarpinian.
Stepping Into New Role
Iowa has a history of success at linebacker. Within the past four years, Angerer and Abdul Hodge were drafted into the NFL after playing middle linebacker. Looking to continue the success at that position, Tarpinian, a senior, is slotted as the starting middle — or “Mike” — linebacker following spring drills. Tarpinian, an Omaha, Neb., native, formerly played outside linebacker in his previous years as a Hawkeye.
“There’s a lot of things that are similar,” Tarpinian said. “But when you’re playing middle you have to be the quarterback of the defense. You’ve got to make sure all the calls are there. You’ve got to get in the huddle and get everyone going as the leader of the defense.”
After playing “Will” — or weak outside linebacker — Tarpinian is starting to enjoy playing “Mike.”
“There are things I like about both of them,” Tarpinian said. “Mike is a lot of fun being in the middle where the actions is, and making plays and getting the defense going.”
Fellow linebacker Jeremiha Hunter said learning a new position is tough, but he likes what he sees from Tarpinian.
“It’s something you can know on paper and on the play board, but when it comes to on-the-field, it takes reps,” Hunter said. “Tarp had a good spring so hopefully he continues to get even better.”
“There are things I like about both of them. Mike is a lot of fun being in the middle where the actions is, and making plays and getting the defense going.”
UI senior linebacker
Tarpinian was scheduled to be the starting weak-side linebacker in 2008, but a hamstring injury forced him out of action. Hunter stepped into the vacated role for the remainder of the 2008 season and into the 2009 season.
“We all get along well,” Hunter said. “We spend a lot of time together so we naturally build a bond, but when it comes to job battles, we all just work hard and play our cards as they fall.”
Hamstring injuries are difficult to overcome, as players are looking to fight through and not miss time instead of taking the needed time off.
“Hamstring is kind of an annoying injury, a nagging one,” Tarpinian said. “I did it in camp of 2008, and then I kept trying to come back too early and kept pulling it again and tweaking it. You can walk around just fine but you can’t run or do anything like that. So it’s kind of frustrating but I was able to get through it.”
Now healthy, Tarpinian looks to make his mark on a dominant Iowa defense with championship aspirations.
With a defensive line returning all four starters, Tarpinian and his fellow linebackers should have ample opportunities to make plays.
“Those guys are unbelievable up front,” Tarpinian said. “We’ll be giving them the calls and they know in advance exactly what to do, but we just have to echo it and make sure. It helps us out a lot when we know the guys up front are doing everything correctly, and it makes our jobs easier.”
A Special Teams Demon
While Tarpinian’s hamstring injury cost him playing time at linebacker, he made plays and helped Iowa on special teams at every opportunity. He registered three special team tackles on four opportunities in Iowa’s FedEx Orange Bowl victory.
Tarpinian spent the majority of playing time on special teams, compiling most of his 20 tackles covering kicks. Tarpinian feels that playing special teams is a great opportunity for younger players to make plays and “do things right.”
He did “things right” when he laid the lumber on Michigan’s Darryl Stonum with a hit that sent “ooh’s” through the crowd in Iowa’s 30-28 win at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 10.
“When you go out for kickoffs and you’re running down, you kind of have to disregard your body,” Tarpinian said. “It’s a lot of fun but you have to get amped up because it’s just one play and then you’re done. We had fun last year as a special teams unit and we felt we had guys that would step up and be leaders, so hopefully that will transition well.”
“We obviously have some big shoes to fill at linebacker with A.J. and Pat gone, but we have so many older guys. Between me, Jeremiha, Niels ( Tyler Nielsen), Troy (Johnson), Bruce (Davis), and Ross (Petersen) and all those guys, we have a bunch of guys who have been around and have seen what it takes to be successful. We’ve been trying to push each other and we know what it takes. We’re competitive and looking to get better, so I’m excited about the opportunity to step up and be one of the guys to lead this year.”
UI senior linebacker
Three-time Academic all-Big Ten
The transition should be successful for Tarpinian. An accounting major, Tarpinian is a three-time Academic all-Big Ten honoree. Not only the physical work, but the metal work, that is required to be a successful student-athlete at Iowa is something for Tarpinian to be proud of.
Tarpinian has played multiple positions on defense, something that could help as he will call the defense playing middle linebacker.
“I started off at safety and played both safeties when I was freshman,” Tarpinian said. “Then I moved to Leo (strong-side linebacker), and then played Will for the past two years. Now I’m at Mike so I’ve seen the defense from a lot of different positions, and it helps now that I’m playing Mike.”
Not every player would be able to transition between positions as easily as Tarpinian, but in doing so, he knows the responsibilities of his teammates around him.
“I know exactly what the Will’s responsibility is, I know what’s going on behind me, I know what’s going on as far as the Leo and where he should be,” Tarpinian said. “It helps us work together as a defense if you can trust that the guy next to you is doing his job. It helps out and makes everything come together.”
Intelligence and instincts are as important in football as physical attributes like size and speed. Although with Tarpinian who was originally listed as a safety, there might be more speed there to make plays.
“We obviously have some big shoes to fill at linebacker with A.J. and Pat gone, but we have so many older guys. Between me, Jeremiha, Niels (Tyler Nielsen), Troy (Johnson), Bruce (Davis), and Ross (Petersen) and all those guys, we have a bunch of guys who have been around and have seen what it takes to be successful,” Tarpinian said. “We’ve been trying to push each other and we know what it takes. We’re competitive and looking to get better, so I’m excited about the opportunity to step up and be one of the guys to lead this year.”
With Tarpinian coming into his final season and stepping into the middle linebacker role, he has every opportunity to be one who leads this year.
If 2010 is successful for the middle linebacker, he might even hear his name called in April during the NFL Draft. Then it will be his shoes that will need to be filled in 2011.
“We’re focused and looking to lay the foundation for the season this summer,” Tarpinian said.