IOWA CITY, Iowa — For many Division I athletes, walking on to a football program is like receiving a five-year sentence for hard labor.
Non-scholarship athletes at some programs are nothing more than tackling dummies who sometimes work their way onto a special teams unit as an upperclassman. At Iowa, walk-ons are treated differently.
The list of non-scholarship success stories at Iowa is almost as long as Kirk Ferentz’s coaching tenure. In his Ferentz’s early days, there was Bruce Nelson, who walked on as a tight end and became a second-team All-America center. Sean Considine walked on and joined Bob Sanders as perhaps the most lethal safety tandem in school history. Dallas Clark sat out his first semester on campus and shifted from linebacker to become a consensus All-America tight end.
In the middle portion of Ferentz’s career, there was walk-on safety Brett Greenwood, who mastered former defensive coordinator Norm Parker’s defense so well that he started for four seasons and led the Big Ten in interceptions. There also was center Rob Bruggeman, who powered Iowa’s 2008 running game to new heights with running back Shonn Greene.
In recent years there have been players such as running back Mark Weisman, who rushed for 33 touchdowns in three seasons. Or three-year starters such as linebacker Bo Bower, safety Brandon Snyder or offensive linemen Cole Croston and Boone Myers. Last season, walk-on wide receiver Nick Easley led the Hawkeyes in receptions.
Myers was a high school tight end who converted to offensive tackle. By his third year, he soared past multiple scholarship players to become a starter at left tackle. If he didn’t suffer a season-ending ankle injury, Myers likely would have gained all-conference honors last fall.
“I was tiny,” Myers said about how he looked when he came to Iowa. “I came in undersized and I had to put on a lot of weight. It would have been really hard if I had gotten thrown in there.”
Iowa has plenty of walk-ons in the Class of 2018. Linebacker Nick Anderson and defensive back Colton Dinsdale already are enrolled after competing at Iowa Western Community College, the same school that produced Easley. In the last week or so, linebacker John Carlson, linebacker Mitchell Riggs, linebacker Mike Timm, linebacker Joe Evans, defensive end Nathan Nelson and offensive lineman Kyle Sorensen all have opted to join Iowa without scholarships. There’s a chance a few might earn scholarships later in their careers and perhaps even start.
Check out my highlight – https://t.co/JgFSQDHzYY
— Mitchell Riggs (@riggs_mitchell) November 21, 2017
The reason why walk-ons are so successful at Iowa? Because they’re treated like every other player once they step into the complex. Star status means nothing in strength coach Chris Doyle’s weight center. Same with the practice field. It’s about work ethic and discipline.
In an interview last year, Doyle explained what he does with all players when they arrive on campus. It’s the same process for walk-ons and those for whom Iowa battled to recruited.
“We put the guys through a battery of 10 tests and we evaluate how their body moves,” Doyle said. “We’re looking at the body from left to right, front to back, we’re looking for any asymmetries or compensations. We’re looking at major areas. For example: the shoulders, 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. 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. We may take a guy and he’s on a very individualized approach improving his function. That’s part of it. Along with that, we’re going to do body composition testing. We’re testing what we call the performance indicators, which is your ability to run linear — straight ahead — change direction and jump. Those three numbers give us an understanding of where a guy’s at from an explosive, change-of-direction and acceleration perspective.
“So we start to pull all of this information together and we can start to develop a picture of where this kid can go and what we can do with this guy.”
Among Doyle’s goals are to have his players build weight incrementally with healthy foods, not gain 40 pounds of fat in their first six months.
“We continue to monitor body composition regularly throughout the process, so five years,” Doyle said. “We’ll continue to monitor his body performance indicators. For example, Robert Gallery ran a 1.85 10-yard dash at 246 pounds. He ran a 1.67 when he was at the NFL combine at 323. As he put weight on, he put on lean body mass, muscle weight. 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.”
Gallery was a scholarship tight end who shifted to tackle at Iowa. In similar fashion, Croston was a 225-pound freshman walk-on whose father, Dave, was an all-time Iowa great. Croston had opportunities to play small-school basketball but opted instead to join Iowa’s football program. Through daily weight and strength gains, Croston became a starter as a junior. He’s now a rookie with the New England Patriots and could play in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“I got here and I was 225 pounds and it was like I was a million miles down the road,” Croston said. “Being able to gain 90 pounds, being 315 now, at that point the goal was to become a starter and I was able to do that.”
The NCAA deregulating meals in 2014 has provided a major benefit for a developmental program such as Iowa. The athletics department spends about $2 million on food for its athletes. Before deregulation, schools weren’t allowed to provide meals for walk-ons except in training camp and on trips. Now, walk-ons can eat the same food as scholarship players.
Through better nutrition and training, Easley gained a few pounds and increased his explosiveness his first two months on campus last winter. He moved into the starting lineup early in spring practice and stayed there all season.
“I was a little bit surprised with how much better they got,” Easley said of his numbers. “I was only here for eight or nine weeks, and they got drastically better. I think that’s just a testament to Doyle and the training staff and the nutrition that we have here that I didn’t have access to in the past that really helped me.”
“For us to be successful, there has to be these incredible stories every year,” Doyle said. “There’s like 19 years of these stories.
“To me, it really comes down to the character and the grit of the kid.”