INDIANAPOLIS – Two years ago, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz took a rare plunge into the transfer portal. Where the portal is primarily known for housing high-profile recruits and names established in the college landscape, Ferentz recruited a little-known defensive wing from Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan.
“Someone can have some type of marquee,” Ferentz said. “We have Zach VanValkenburg, who I think is a famous guy, but he wasn’t two years ago. It wasn’t a big story.”
Today, VanValkenburg is an All-Big Ten selection and one of three players representing Iowa at the Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. He’s a “super senior” who used up his extra year of eligibility granted due to COVID-19.
Despite last year’s production – 30 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and four of the nation’s best fumble recoveries – this will be VanValkenburg’s first chance to be at the forefront of the line. defensive end of Iowa. It has a lot to do with his teammates in Iowa City.
Along the defensive line, Iowa has had three NFL draft products in the past two years, including 2020 first-round pick AJ Epenesa. VanValkenburg was a dominant player at Division II level, but there were growing pains from Power 5 during his reserve season in 2019, as well as when he was a starter in 2020.
“Learn a new defense and play behind some really good guys,” said VanValkenburg. “You get your time there and you just try not to waste it and it’s a hard way to play. Having the opportunity to start, get a lot of reps, you feel more comfortable, the speed of game slows down and you can concentrate on making pieces and not just holding your own. ”
After 19 career games, including eight starts (all last year), VanValkenburg has won. The transfer of third-year graduates were named to the All-Big Ten preseason first team and the LOTT Impact Trophy watchlist.
“To see this happen is a bit surreal,” said VanValkenburg. “I just hope I can make my family proud, my team proud and be worthy of these things.”
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VanValkenburg considered himself to be “raw” entering Iowa in 2019, especially in his hand techniques. Plus, he had to adjust to play as part of the program and recognize the right time to play his part rather than doing more to try and make a great game.
The time spent playing behind and alongside future NFL talent has allowed him to polish his game.
“Watch guys like Chauncey Golston, AJ Epenesa, Cedrick Lattimore,” VanValkenburg said. “You see their arsenal of pass-rush moves, their techniques and you say, ‘I can use this and that, maybe not that. “But you refine your own arsenal and that makes you a lot better.
“And besides, you’re going to see them play in the NFL and you know where they were at, so that kind of gives you a benchmark.”
With a full winter offseason, spring practice and summer conditioning period, Ferentz acknowledged the significant progress VanValkenburg has made since the end of last season.
“Fortunately, Zach is three years old instead of two,” Ferentz said. “He’s comfortable now. What I’ve seen this spring is a guy who plays really fast and confident. He was OK in (2019), last year he played really well, this spring, he played wonderfully. ”
The progress VanValkenburg has made is not limited to its own performance. Unlike in previous years, the Iowa defensive line unit is young and inexperienced. VanValkenburg took advantage of the offseason to fully assume the role of leader.
“Not only is he playing better, but he’s playing like a senior,” Ferentz said. “I think he realizes that in this room he’s the veteran now and he’s adopted it. He’s been the total package. He’s always had a great attitude but he also looks outward and has been great and we need it. ”
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VanValkenburg’s biggest tip to young players: Do what ultimately helped him: Learn from everything around you, whether you’re on the pitch or not.
“Obviously watch a lot of movies,” he said. “Be careful and always get something from someone else’s reps, because mental reps are just as good as physical reps.”
In Iowa, where the focus is on play on the line of scrimmage, VanValkenburg is pleased with the group’s progress so far. He noted that the class of 2019, which had no spring training last year, had particularly developed with a full offseason.
“Adapting to speed and tempo is sometimes difficult for young people,” said VanValkenburg. “I saw a lot of eagerness to work and a lot of humility. They know they need to make progress and they’ve pushed for it, and I think that can only be a good thing.”
With VanValkenburg setting the tone, the defensive line is expected to be ready when they play against Indiana’s scheduled Top 15 on September 4 at Kinnick Stadium.
In his final year, VanValkenburg will be hoping to show the progression of his game from what it was as a Division II transfer until now.
“I would say (I’m) a jack of all trades,” VanValkenburg said. “I’m definitely focusing on racing, but I’m focusing on my peak game and hope I will be better this fall.
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