NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa — Josh Volk fired out of his stance after the snap, ready to dominate Griffin Liddle.
Volk took a few short steps and extended his arms, hoping to swat away the defender. It was too late. Liddle already had extended his own arms and delivered a vicious blow to the chest.
In a quick, fluid motion, Liddle shot his left hand under Volk’s right armpit, separating from the blocker and winning the pass-rush drill.
“He won because when his hands were out, I should have knocked them down,” Volk said. “This is why I’m here. I’m trying to get better.”
Volk, the 2020 Cedar Rapids Xavier offensive lineman, and Griffin, the 2021 Bettendorf defensive tackle, are among nine Eastern Iowa linemen who trained for an hour every Sunday the last three months at The Strength U, a sports performance facility in North Liberty.
The hour sessions are about preparing them for the recruiting combines and serve as a vehicle to help ensure they impress programs and earn scholarship offers, including from the closest one to all of them, Iowa.
“It’s very important going to these camps to show off and put yourself out there to get colleges recognizing you and looking at you,” Volk said.
JC Moreau, a former Iowa trainer, runs The Strength U, where he works with young athletes to maximize their athletic potential. He started in 2011, and one of his past clients was 4-star Iowa City West wide receiver Oliver Martin, whose recruiting profile skyrocketed following a successful string of camps. Ultimately, Martin picked Michigan over Iowa in 2017.
After watching Martin, Moreau had a notion. He could help athletes train specifically for the recruiting camp’s drills and physical tests.
He still trains skill position players for combines three times a week, but branching out to the lines made sense after talking with 2021 Clear Creek Amana defensive end T.J. Bollers and his father, Trevor Bollers, a former Iowa running back. They were looking for ways to help develop T.J.’s 1-on-1 pass rush skills.
It’s arguably the most important part of recruiting camps for linemen and the hardest to practice. Moreau didn’t know of anyone else doing this kind of work with linemen. So he looked to fill a training void.
He doesn’t charge for the Sunday sessions because he wants the focus to be on top players working with each other.
“It’s really the best thing for them,” Moreau said. “At the same time, it’s hard for them to find someone as big as they are to work with at most of their schools. This lets them work with fellow athletes chasing the same goal as them.”
Moreau reached out via social media to the top linemen in the area.
The initial direct message to Volk surprised him. The 3-star prospect researched Moreau and decided the sessions made sense. Volk needed to refine his pass-blocking skills because most of Xavier’s passing plays are rollouts. Williamsburg offensive lineman Clayton Thurm, whose team focuses primarily on running, was in the same situation.
The Sunday afternoon sessions began Jan. 21 with T.J. Bollers, Volk, Williams and Thurm. The group eventually grew to include 2019 Cedar Falls offensive lineman Jackson Leistikow, 2019 Iowa City offensive lineman Cole Mabry, 2021 Clear Creak Amana lineman Arron Feinberg and Liddle.
“This is exactly what we need,” Thurm said.
The goal for each player is to land the best offers possible to find the ideal college fit. Each is naturally intrigued by Iowa, wanting an offer from the in-state program a short 15-minute drive from the training center.
Volk hopes an impressive camp performance will further his relationship with the staff and produce an offer.
For Thurm, Iowa is his Holy Grail. He is hearing mostly from lower-level programs, but aspires to get the Hawkeyes’ attention during a camp.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play there,” Thurm said. “I’m hoping it can happen.”
Volk, Liddle and T.J. Bollers were the lucky ones. Volk picked up an Iowa State offer in December. Liddle holds offers from Iowa, Iowa State and Nebraska. Iowa State offered T.J. Bollers in January. Iowa offered him May 4 as he was about to start his camp tour.
Bollers and Liddle are two of Iowa’s top in-state recruiting targets in 2021. Both will take part in a Rivals camp in Chicago on Sunday. Both will head to other team camps, including Iowa’s, across the Midwest this summer, looking to build bonds with programs and see how they stack up with other top-level recruits.
Volk has started his camp circuit, taking part part in a Rivals camp in Nashville, Tenn., last weekend. The early returns were positive. Volk’s family told Moreau he won nine of his 10 1-on-1 pass drill reps.
‘The training is working,” Volk said. “I’m getting better, and it’s showing. I know it’s the same with the others.”
Ziggy Stardust blasts from speakers on a late-April Sunday as the players loosen up at the facility tucked into an industrial park. There are 20 minutes of stretches, running-form drills and agility work. The stretching primarily works the hips and core. Moreau implores the athletes to take this work as seriously as the 1-on-1 drills coming later.
Better flexibility and hip movement can improve quickness for blockers and pass rushers.
“You got to be able to hold that position of being down low and flexible with your hips to block,” Thurm said. “If you can’t do that, you won’t be able to block anyone, not anyone that is the caliber of player you would see here or at a camp.”
Trevor Bollers leads position-specific drills for his son and the seven others. Moreau appreciates the help.
The linemen run figure-eight patterns around four cones placed in a rectangle. The players try to keep their hips low and heads high while punching medicine balls thrown at them. The drill simulates offensive line blocking movements.
“All of this is ultra dynamic work,” Trevor Bollers hollers at the linemen. “That’s what the game is about and what you need to show.”
A defensive line drill follows. Each player lines up in a three-point stance, takes four or five steps, uses his outside hand to swat at a blocking dummy, then turns upfield. This helps with change of direction movement.
On Liddle’s first rep, he executes it beautifully.
“Best one yet,” Trevor Bollers says.
The main event
Everything builds to the 1-on-1 pass-rush drills.
“This is where they can really impress someone,” Moreau said. “People value it because it shows the change of direction, athleticism and specific traits they want to see at the positions.”
T.J. Bollers certainly impresses, winning most of his reps with a combination of quickness, solid fundamentals and a new pass rush technique.
“It’s a bull rush, but it’s a speed rush at the same time,” he said. “I’ll be coming up and bull rushing, and right when they push back against me, I’ll swipe my arms and move around them. It’s one of the big skills we have been doing.”
Thurm uses the form he practiced during the figure-eight drill to stop Liddle on a later rep. It serves as a valuable learning moment on the importance of separation.
“You can’t do anything when you are locked up and tight with some guys because he will get you in there,” Liddle said. “Once you get arm extension, you can hit your moves like swim moves and rips.”
The mood is serious, with players trying to dominate each other, but T.J. Bollers lifts the tension when he rips Volk’s shirt during a rep.
Everyone can’t help but laugh.
“It happens every week,” Moreau said, “but usually Josh is the one who destroys someone else’s shirt.”
Everyone seems encouraged with some aspect of his performance. Volk, who fixated on his hand placement after Liddle had beaten him, has solved his problem by the end of the workout.
“We are seeing progress,” Volk said. “Going against the best players in the area is helping all of us.”
Everyone gathers around Moreau and Trevor Bollers. They chat for a few minutes about the importance of the upcoming May camps.
“Everyone has learned something,” Trevor Bollers says. “This is the start, though. Now, we have to show who we are.”