Iowa football notebook: VanValkenburg a leader on the d-line, analyzing the two-deep

The Hawkeye representatives in Indianapolis took the stage Friday to conclude Big Ten Football Media Days.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa players Zach VanValkenburg, Tyrone Tracy Jr., and Tyler Linderbaum discuss Iowa football on Big Ten Network during day two of Big Ten Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Friday, July 23.

Robert Read, Summer Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg was an incoming transfer from Division II Hillsdale College two years ago. But on Friday, the sixth-year senior was one of the Hawkeye football program’s three player representatives at the 2021 Big Ten Media Days.

Along with center Tyler Linderbaum and wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr., VanValkenburg took an early morning flight from Iowa City to Indianapolis to be at his podium inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

VanValkenburg has appeared in 19 career games for the Hawkeyes, including eight starts last season. The 2020 second-team All-Big Ten defensive end is a preseason first-team all-conference selection and found his name on the LOTT Trophy Watch List.

“To see this happening is kind of surreal,” VanValkenburg said. “I’m just hoping I can make my family proud, my team proud and be worthy of those things.” 

VanValkenburg is taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility provided by the NCAA in light of the pandemic. Last season, he recorded 30 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks.

But with the departures of consensus All-American defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, first-team All-Big Ten defensive end Chauncey Golston, and starter Jack Heflin, VanValkenburg is the only starter returning on Iowa’s defensive line. And according to his head coach, VanValkenburg is adjusting to being the veteran on the line well this offseason.

“Not only is he playing better, he’s playing like a senior,” Ferentz said. “I think he realizes that in that room he’s the veteran guy now and he’s embraced that. He’s been the total package. He’s always had a great attitude but he’s looking outward too and has been tremendous and we need that.” 

VanValkenburg dominated at the Division II level, but described himself as “raw” when he arrived at Iowa in 2019 and worked behind players like A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston.

Now entering his second and final season as a starter for the Hawkeyes, VanValkenburg is hoping to continue his development from Division II player to a face of the Iowa program.

“I’d say (I’m) a jack-of-all trades,” VanValkenburg said. “I definitely focus on the run but I’ve been focusing on my pass rush game and hopefully I’ll be better this fall.” 

Ferentz addresses Iowa’s offensive line depth chart

The Hawkeyes released their preseason two-deep depth chart on Thursday, and Ferentz expanded on where the offensive line stands with his team on Friday.

Iowa’s first-team offensive line, from left to right, is listed as: Jack Plumb, Cody Ince, Linderbaum, Kyler Schott, Nick DeJong. The second unit is: Mason Richman, Tyler Elsbury, Matt Fagan, Justin Britt, Connor Colby.

“Right now I’d be speculating if I understood where everyone is going to fit,” Ferentz said.

Ferentz said that he is “pretty sure” that DeJong, Ince, Linderbaum, and Schott will be starters to start the season. He said Ince can play center, guard, or tackle, and the team is comfortable with him playing anywhere. Ferentz added that DeJong will be a starting tackle, but he has not decided whether it will be on the left or right side.

Two true freshmen on preseason two-deeps

Only two first-year players appeared on that depth chart released on Thursday: freshman wide receiver Keagan Johnson and freshman offensive tackle Connor Colby.

Both players are listed with the second unit at their respective positions. Johnson is behind Tracy at wide receiver, while Colby is the No. 2 right tackle behind Nick DeJong.

“He did a really good job in the spring,” Ferentz said of Colby, the 6-foot-6, 298-pound tackle from Cedar Rapids. “I’ll be able to answer the question a lot more in about five weeks with how he handles August. But he’s definitely a guy right now, in my mind, would be in our top 10 [offensive linemen on the roster]. Maybe he will move up, maybe he will drop down. But nonetheless, I always encourage recruits to think big picture. He’s going to have a good career. I’ll go out on a limb and say that after seeing him for [practice] 15 days. He got off to a really good start.”

Ferentz said both players benefited from enrolling early this spring, when they could have still been in high school. Both players went through spring practice and workouts while also taking classes at the university.

Johnson in particular was a standout during spring practices, drawing mentions from his teammates for his quick adjustment to the college atmosphere.

“He’s a tremendous young guy,” Ferentz said of Johnson. “We were so impressed with him in the recruiting process. But we were more impressed when he showed up in January… He’s got a maturity to him that’s a little bit unusual for a first-year player, and really he should have been a high school senior when he was working with us.”

Ferentz comments on conference realignment

Shortly after Ferentz, dressed in a black suit paired with a gold tie, walked up onto the stage as the Iowa fight song during the opening portion of Friday’s media day session, he was asked about teams that aren’t even in the Big Ten.

Ferentz, as the longest-tenured head coach in the FBS, was asked for his thoughts on reports that Oklahoma and Texas may leave the Big 12 for the SEC, and how that may relate to a potential expansion of the Big Ten.

“Nobody’s got a crystal ball and that just popped out of mid air, whatever, two days ago, I guess,” said Ferentz, who is entering his 23rd season as Iowa’s head coach. “Right now I’m really not too focused on that. I’m just kind of thinking about August and our football team. But again, just from experience, nothing — you know, never say never to anything right now in college football or whatever’s going to happen in the future, for sure.

“It’s an interesting smoke bomb, or whatever it is. At this point, nothing would surprise me.”

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