IOWA CITY, Iowa — Chris Doyle’s office and conference room overlooks a 23,000-square foot strength-and-conditioning center that forms the foundation of Iowa football.
One glance around his office tells you how Iowa has built itself as a hard-edged Big Ten contender. Next to a door is an enlarged Sports Illustrated cover of former Iowa defensive tackle and current Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels. NFL action photos of former Iowa players, such as Aaron Kampman, Dallas Clark and Micah Hyde, sit high on the walls.
Above his desk hangs a grouping of photos that tells you everything you need to know about his program. Nearly a decade ago in the old practice “Bubble,” Riley Reiff and Bryan Bulaga were photographed running sprints against one another. Reiff was a 240-pound defensive end recruit. Bulaga wasn’t much heavier as a high school tight end transitioning to offensive line. Both bulked up to 300 pounds, switched to tackle and garnered All-American honors. Both became first-round draft picks. Both have a combined 145 career starts for a pair of NFC North Division teams.
Reiff and Bulaga are part of Iowa’s legacy of building football players, not refining them.
The names of unheralded recruits who become Iowa’s NFL success stories are so recognizable it’s almost rare when it doesn’t happen. There’s Hyde, a 168-pound option quarterback in high school who became a the Big Ten’s best defensive back in 2012. He and Daniels led Green Bay to last month’s NFC title game. There’s Christian Kirksey, a 195-pound special teams arrival, who finished fourth in NFL tackles last year with the Cleveland Browns.
Soon that legacy may include cornerback Desmond King, who is in this year’s draft.
But the transformation process is far from easy. Players must buy into a grueling, no-nonsense approach to development. For every success story, there’s a flameout.
“Iowa football is not for everybody,” said Doyle, who enters his 19th year as Iowa’s strength-and-conditioning coach. “But the guys who come here and are successful are typically humble, hard-working, smart, hungry guys who understand there’s nothing more important than the team. Those are the kids that flourish here because that’s what flourishes everywhere. That’s how you win. If we’re going to win, we’re not going to win with a bunch of ‘me’ guys.”
The Hawkeyes don’t win the signing day publicity game. Since 2002, Iowa has accumulated just 38 players with a least a 4-star Rivals ranking. Only twice has its recruiting class slid inside the top 30, with a high of a No. 11 ranking back in 2005.
Yet the Hawkeyes under coach Kirk Ferentz have five top-10 finishes over the last 15 years. Only two Big Ten football programs — Ohio State (57) and Penn State (38) — have turned out more NFL draft picks the last 10 years than Iowa’s 36.
How do the Hawkeyes do it? It’s a mixture of science, schematics and intangibles.
Building the Iowa way
Matt Kroul arrived in Iowa City in 2004 as a 3-star linebacker from nearby Mount Vernon. He quickly discovered in summer workouts he didn’t match the athletic skills of starting linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. So Kroul and fellow oversized linebacker Mitch King were asked to switch to defensive tackle. Kroul did it immediately, and King moved a few months later.
“I was willing to do anything to have a chance to prove myself,” Kroul said. “And then I started eating.”
Kroul weighed 230 pounds entering his first summer and bulked up to 265 throughout his redshirt season. It was a difficult adjustment to his weight gain, but his speed and agility numbers actually improved.
“Obviously, when I got used to that weight, incrementally (the numbers) went up from sophomore through senior year,” Kroul said.
Over his final three seasons, Kroul added an additional 5-to-7 pounds a year. King, who gained about 40 pounds in his Iowa career, and Kroul formed one of the most prolific defensive tackle combinations in Iowa history. King became the Big Ten’s 2008 defensive lineman of the year. Kroul started a record 50 straight games. Each played about three seasons in the NFL as undrafted free agents.
Their stories mirror many of Iowa’s individual success stories. Karl Klug arrived at Iowa in 2006 as a 220-pound, 2-star linebacker and running back from Caledonia, Minn. He left as a 280-pound all-Big Ten defensive tackle and just finished his sixth NFL season.
On the 2016 team, Iowa’s bookend tackles consisted of former walk-on Cole Croston and former tight end Ike Boettger. They combined to gain about 150 pounds during their Hawkeyes careers. Freshman defensive end Anthony Nelson put on 33 pounds in one redshirt season.
Croston was a 225-pound walk-on. He now weighs 310 and is vying for a shot at the NFL this spring.
“Coach Doyle, I’d say, is the secret,” Croston said. “He implements a great plan, and I would say from my perspective, if you follow it, you’ll get to the point where you need to be in. He does a great job with that.”
Defensive end Matt Nelson weighed 283 pounds last season after arriving on campus at 248.
“I’ve actually increased my vertical since gaining that amount of weight,” said Nelson, who will be a junior this fall. “I’ve gotten faster, I’ve increased all my performance indicators, as coach Doyle would say. I guess I can put on some more weight without going down.”
Daniels remains one of Iowa’s best football ambassadors,. In 2007, Daniels arrived at Iowa standing 6 feet and weighing 230 pounds. He rushed for 1,000 yards as a running back and was a New Jersey state wrestling qualifier at 215 pounds. He was a 2-star prospect.
Daniels’ background provided a glimpse into his character. He came from a strong, hard-working family, and his grandfather was a judge, Doyle said. He was a multisport athlete. The intangibles were solid.
“He was very appreciative of the opportunities he had here because he was not heavily recruited,” Doyle said. “Mike Daniels was going to Villanova. He came in here, he had humility. He had a chip on his shoulder. I know that sounds cliche, but he felt like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to prove that I belong here.’ This is the only school that really recruited him, and he wanted to prove something. He had really incredible work ethic and discipline and developed the habits over time that led to positive results. I admire him.
“Quite frankly, you’re not surprised that this guy maximized. Whatever this guy’s ceiling of potential was, he got real close to it. It doesn’t surprise you because of the qualities he brings with him.”
Daniels started for two years at Iowa and was named second-team all-Big Ten as a senior. Green Bay drafted him in 2012, and Daniels has 22 sacks in five years.
Many Iowa players arrive with position flexibility. At his size, Daniels could have played inside linebacker, fullback or defensive tackle. Greenway, who just finished his 11th season with the Minnesota Vikings, stepped on campus as a safety and turned into an All-American linebacker. Dallas Clark was a linebacker who morphed into the Mackey Award winner as the nation’s best tight end.
Robert Gallery, Eric Steinbach and Bruce Nelson all began as tight ends before changing into All-American linemen. All three were chosen by NFL clubs in the first two rounds. Anthony Hitchens became a two-year starting linebacker but began as a running back/safety hybrid. Same with Kirksey.
Both Doyle and recruiting director Tyler Barnes credit Ferentz for projecting talent beyond the status quo.
“That’s one of the strongest qualities he has,” Doyle said. “Sometimes it’s the 6-1, 195-pound high school kid and he’ll see a 235-pound Mike linebacker because he believes in the character of the kid. (Ferentz) believes he’s going to come in here and work hard and gain muscle and get stronger and learn his position and he can see that. He has an unbelievable knack for seeing the best in people, and also I believe in seeing the finished product.”
“As a staff, everybody does a good job, but coach Ferentz has got a knack for watching (Iowa City High quarterback and incoming recruit) Nate Wieland and saying, ‘Hey, are you sure he isn’t a future Mike linebacker?” Barnes said. “Are you sure he can’t do something else? Or Micah Hyde? Or LeShun Daniels.”
But that transformation doesn’t occur in a fortnight. Or in two months. Or in a calendar year. All position switches are discussed in detail among the coaching staff, including Doyle. To bulk up a 240-pound tight end into a 300-pound tackle, it takes proper nutrition as well as development. Otherwise, the player gains weight and lose agility.
Doyle puts all players through a function movement analysis. He sets a battery of 10 tests to evaluate the player’s body. That’s from left side to right, front to back. He tries to identify any asymmetries or compensations. The staff looks at major areas: the shoulder girdle, the torso, posterior chain, the lower limbs, stability and mobility in the lower limbs.
“We’re trying to find out basically how this guy moves,” Doyle said. “How can we improve his ability to move. Also, we’re trying to find out what might break and let’s fix it before it happens. It channels them into their individualized program design, what we call corrective exercise.”
The staff tests the player’s body composition and focuses on what Doyle identifies as “performance indicators.” Those include straight-ahead running, directional changes and jumping ability. Those measurements help analyze the player’s explosiveness, agility and acceleration. They test those numbers over the player’s career.
For example, Gallery weighed 246 pounds and ran a 10-yard dash in 1.85 seconds early in his career, Doyle said. As the 2003 Outland Trophy winner, Gallery weighed 323 and ran the same drill in 1.67 seconds at the 2004 NFL Scouting Combine. He was the No. 2 pick in the draft by the Oakland Raiders that year.
“As he put weight on, he put on lean body mass, muscle weight,” Doyle said. “So it’s like taking a six-cylinder engine out of pickup truck and putting an eight-cylinder engine in. It’s heavier, but it went faster. We have to continue to monitor these prime indicators to make sure as we put weight on it’s functional weight.”
Doyle also uses force plate technology to gain more information in a player’s development. It can measure how a player leaves and returns to the ground, as well as identify body movement inconsistencies.
Patience and development
Hitchens and Kirksey are 235-pound starting linebackers for the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns, respectively. But both arrived at Iowa around 195 pounds. They initially played on special teams before growing into the starting lineup.
As seniors, they joined James Morris to form one of the Big Ten’s top linebacking trios and perhaps the best in school history. But their development took time.
Ferentz envisions some positional growth, like Kirksey’s, before the player signs a letter of intent. Others, like Hitchens’ move, happen while on campus.
“It’s a team approach,” Doyle said. “Everybody is going to sit around a table and say, ‘What do we see?’ We all have input. Everybody has input, then we start heading in that direction. We have to be realistic, and we have to have a diligent patience to what we do, because that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Incoming senior linebacker Josey Jewell was a 2-star 205-pound running back in Decorah, located on the Iowa-Minnesota border. Jewell nearly chose to play at nearby Division III Luther College before Iowa offered a late scholarship. Like Hitchens before him, Jewell was viewed as a possible safety, linebacker or fullback. He was considered a step slow by many evaluators, which led to his lack of offers.
“If you get into a position where you’re playing linebacker and you can move and do all that, you’re probably going to stay at linebacker,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said last fall. “I think the less reaction and change of direction you have, you’d probably move back over to fullback. ‘Hey, we know you’re tough. Go out and block people and understand the game.'”
Jewell became a middle linebacker and was named a Butkus Award finalist last year. He grew into a 240-pound sledgehammer and increased his ground-based power and speed to neutralize or eliminate any initial shortcomings.
Iowa’s coaching staff identified Jewell’s intangibles and potential as worth the wait. Once he matured, he was on par with the nation’s best, despite lacking a couple of stars on his recruiting profile.
“We’re in a spot where we know we’re a developmental program,” Barnes said. “We can build guys. A lot of schools want instant-impact guys. Realistically, we’re not going to get a lot of instant-impact guys. So a lot of those guys, like the Joseys or the late bloomers, they’re going to get passed over because they’re not going to be able to play freshman year.
“We’ve got the best strength coach in the country in coach Doyle. We can put them down there with him for a year or two, and we’re going to have the same guy, just two years later, as the 4-star (player). It’s going to be right there. We’ve just got the luxury of being able to wait for a couple of years. Being at other places where you don’t have that luxury, you do reach a little bit.”
A hard edge
When that player develops into a finished product at Iowa and becomes into an NFL-caliber prospect, the intangibles stand out as much as the coaching. The personal investment goes beyond natural ability.
The weight gain. The growth. The discipline. The toughness. The development. The maturity. The success. All of it culminates on the field.
“The more you invest in a process and the harder you have to work at something, often times the more investment and the more commitment leads to the stronger purpose,” Doyle said. “Our guys that have to earn everything … typically you’d hope that when the game’s on the line, you’d hope those guys have a lot more conviction. They have fortitude and confidence because it hasn’t been handed to them.”
“You know how hard you worked,” Kroul said. “For me, I force-fed myself to maintain the weight and keep putting it on. You develop that confidence that I’ve put in more work that this guy lined up across from me, and I’m going to do anything to beat him.”