IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nathan Bazata and Sean Welsh arrived in Iowa City in 2013 hoping to make an immediate impact. Instead, they discovered their place in the world was at the very bottom of the Hawkeyes totem pole.
“You come from high school where you’re the top dog and you learn real quick,” said Welsh, who enters his final game as a four-year starting guard at the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27. “It’s a humbling experience. It’s good. It knocks you right down where you need to be.”
Bazata, a three-year starting defensive tackle, hails from Howells, Neb. He was listed as 280 pounds on Iowa’s roster that first camp but he probably weighed in 20 pounds lighter. Welsh was listed at 285 pounds when he arrived from Springboro, Ohio. Neither player was prepared for what he was about to face that first August.
They jumped right in on scout team duty and their opponents were 5 years older and on the verge of NFL success. For Welsh, he stared at defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. If Welsh reached the second level, it was linebackers Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris. All of them made NFL rosters.
“My first camp, your eyes are like wide open the first day,” Welsh said. “What did I get myself into?”
Bazata’s challenges were perhaps even more difficult. He battled the technically sound guard Conor Boffeli and sometimes squared off with consensus All-America tackle Brandon Scherff.
“I think my welcome-to-Iowa moment [occurred] when I was actually on scout team and lining up against Boffeli and taking a double team from him and Scherff,” Bazata said. “That’s when I kind of knew that I’m not a big guy, so I’ve got to be perfect with my technique because they were just kind of throwing me around.”
Senior running back Akrum Wadley had his own tough early experience. As a Newark, N.J. native, Wadley had no background with Iowa’s rivalries or trophy games. He found out quickly those games matter from his older teammates.
“As a freshman, my first time coming in I didn’t know anything about [the Cy-Hawk] game until this week came and I seen how guys prepare for it,” Wadley said. “I was able to watch guys like Hitchens. He hit. The amount of impact he brought to the scout team, the hits he was giving me that week, you never forget those things.”
All three of those players redshirted and attended school at least 5 hours from their hometown. Without a chance to play, it’s easy to lose confidence or feel homesick when the players you face are older, better and stronger. More than half the recruiting class left the program with eligibility remaining.
But those three learned something from their experience. It was either get better or get packing.
“Freshman year, there’s a lot of moments when I was down on myself,” Bazata said. “‘Oh, I’m not good enough. Oh, I’m not good enough, big enough, fast enough.’ But you get to a point where it’s awesome going against those guys because you know it’s going to be a challenge. You’re not going to win every rep, but it’s a great opportunity to get better.
“When I was younger ― being hungry to improve and learn from those guys ― and it helped me grow and improve along the way, and here I am right now.”
As for the players against whom they competed, many of them are among the NFL’s better players. Kirksey, a starting linebacker with Cleveland, ranks sixth in NFL tackles. Hitchens has become one of Dallas’ best defenders at middle linebacker. Davis has started seven games for Baltimore. Scherff won the 2014 Outland Trophy, given to the best college football interior lineman, and was a 2016 Pro Bowl selection with Washington. Their efforts rubbed off on this group of seniors, who have tried to do the same for their younger teammates.
“[Scherff] went hard no matter what, no matter what day it was,” Bazata said. “If it was Friday, a walkthrough, stuff like that, he was giving it 100 percent. In ’14 we didn’t finish the way we wanted to. He won the Outland, and it never went to his head. He came out to practice every day in bowl prep and got that much better in that month of practice. For me watching that is huge when he wins an award and doesn’t let it go to his head. That was cool to see.”
“They were as good as look as you’re ever going to get,” Welsh said. “For a young guy, they were a big mountain to climb, certainly.”