IOWA CITY, Iowa — Moments that follow bowl games often are like graduation ceremonies without the robes and tassels.
For the first time as collegians, they talk about their college careers in past tense. While their emotions are locked in the present, their focus quickly turns to the future. Iowa players were no different on Monday after a 30-3 loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl.
Both cornerback Desmond King and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson agreed to deals with agents later that night. King signed with renowned super agent Drew Rosenhaus. Johnson signed with SuperStars, which represents former Iowa players Mike Daniels, Christian Kirksey and Carl Davis as well as former Northern Iowa star David Johnson. Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard did not disclose his representation on Monday.
All three were invited to the Senior Bowl, which takes place Jan. 28 in Mobile, Ala., and the NFL scouting combine from Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis. Other Iowa players could earn combine invitations as well. Iowa’s Pro Day will follow in mid-March.
Beathard closed his Iowa career with his worst day, completing just 7 of 23 passes for 55 yards and three interceptions against Florida in the Outback Bowl. He also suffered a right hamstring injury that caused him to limp from mid-second quarter onward.
But Beathard (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) also has an impressive track record. He was 21-7 as a starting quarterback, the best winning percentage for any Iowa quarterback with at least 20 victories. He passed for 5,562 yards, 40 touchdowns, 19 interceptions and completed 58 percent of his passes. Injuries and graduation took a toll on his receiving corps this fall, which led to below-average passing numbers (1,929 yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs). But Beathard remains bullish on his future.
“There’s obviously places I can get better,” Beathard said. “I think if I go out there and do what I do and prove to these guys that I can be an NFL quarterback. I think I can. It’s a matter of whether guys see it or not. I’m just going to go out there and do the best that I can and try to impress people.”
Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout for Ourlads Scouting Services, still calls Beathard the top senior quarterback entering the draft despite his final-season woes.
“I think there are a lot of teams that would like him as a backup quarterback,” Shonka said. “I don’t know if he could start on a regular basis in the National Football League. I’d like to have him on my team because he’s smart, he knows where to go with the ball. He does a lot of good things. He’s a good leader, a good locker room guy. He’s got the arm. But I could see starting out as a third quarterback and work his way into the second.
“Honestly, this summer when I was looking at all the film of senior quarterbacks, I really believe he’s the top senior quarterback coming out. Taking into consideration his injuries and stuff last year, it also tells you what the rest of the country was like with senior quarterbacks. It was not good. But he was the best of the worst.”
Beathard’s injuries will give teams pause, Shonka said, but quarterbacks like Beathard often are overdrafted.
“You’re looking fourth and fifth round realistically,” Shonka said. “But quarterbacks always get drafted higher than where they’re graded.”
King ended his career as perhaps the most decorated defensive player in recent Iowa history. He was a unanimous All-American as a junior and earned the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. He earned multiple first- and second-team All-America honors this year and finished with 14 career interceptions, including one in the Outback Bowl.
“I think the four years I’ve been here were fantastic,” King said. “There’s nothing I can take back from that. I’m 100 percent with the decision I made to come back to the University of Iowa to get my degree and to lead this team the right way. I feel like I put that in it, and it came out positive. I put our team in a good position, and it helped me emerge as a leader. So it was a good thing that I came back.”
No player in Iowa history has as many starts (51) or games played (53) as King. He also was the first Jim Thorpe Award winner ever to return to school, and he earned his degree in 3 1/2 years. Now he’s projected as a first-round NFL draft pick.
King (5-11, 203) specifically worked on his speed while at Iowa, and Shonka said that’s the area that will determine King’s draft status.
“I’ve seen every corner in the country on probably four or five tapes, and he’s the best tackling corner out there,” Shonka said. “Secondary coaches and coordinators are all going to love that. They love his size, they love his toughness. I know he’s a little bit short; you’d love to have a 6-1, 6-2 guy out there but he’s not that. He can play press.
“Ultimately I think this kid is going to be a Pro Bowl safety. I really believe that. I think he’s going to be a great safety. He’s going to start out at corner because people need three corners on the field in your base package most of the time. You can play him however you want in your scheme. You can have him beat up somebody in the slot or if you’re playing press, get out to the corner and play press. He’s got that sturdy build to him. To me, he’s a first-rounder, no question about it.”
Johnson (6-4, 310) was a solid four-year defensive tackle who took his level of play upward late in his senior season. Against No. 3 Michigan, Johnson overpowered second-team All-America guard Kyle Kalis to record nine tackles, including six solo stops, a sack and a safety to pace the Hawkeyes to a 14-13 upset.
With 27 career starts and 47 games of action, Johnson was a force this year with 7.5 sacks. He was named first-team all-Big Ten. After the Outback Bowl, Johnson said he was moving to Pensacola, Fla., to train for the Senior Bowl and combine.
“The Michigan game is all you have to throw on for him,” Shonka said. “People would love that. I thought he was up and down this year. I would say more in the second- or third-round area. I don’t think he’ll get there in the first. You saw Alabama defensive linemen (A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed) last year. They ended up getting drafted in the second round, and it surprised a lot of people.”
Cole Croston, George Kittle, LeShun Daniels
Iowa has three other departing players who are potential draft picks in offensive lineman Cole Croston, tight end George Kittle and running back LeShun Daniels.
Croston (6-5, 307) started 18 games over the last two seasons at both tackle positions. A former walk-on, he was named third-team all-Big Ten this year. Croston dealt with a stress reaction in his foot that led to a stress fracture. He played only sparingly the last half of the season before starting at right tackle in the Outback Bowl.
Iowa’s pro-style offense could benefit Croston around draft time because he already understands proper zone-blocking techniques.
“He missed so much time this year, and he did have his problems when he did play,” Shonka said. “Because he played in the Iowa zone-blocking scheme and Kirk (Ferentz) will talk to them (team reps) and say, ‘Hey, he had this problem, but he could do this.’ I could see him getting drafted late.”
Opinions vary about Kittle, who also missed two games and missed plenty of time with his own foot injury. Entering the season, Kittle (6-4, 250) was considered the best returning all-around tight end in college football, according to Pro Football Focus. Injuries derailed a possible breakout senior year, but he finished his career with 48 catches for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s also one of the top blocking tight ends.
Kittle could get caught in a numbers game this year. Shonka has draftable grades on 32 tight ends, so it’s possible Kittle could slip through the cracks.
“This is a helluva year for tight ends, just like running backs,” Shonka said. “I’ve got him as my 21st tight end, so he’s probably in the free agent area. But all it takes is one team to like you and then they’ll draft you.”
Daniels (6-0 225) ran for 1,058 yards this year and rushed for 10 touchdowns. He ranks 16th in Iowa history with 1,895 yards. He’s a big, physical runner whose fit is style specific. Shonka grades Daniels currently as his 20th running back.
“Teams that run zone-blocking schemes like the Redskins, they may like him because they want big backs and they like that downhill running style,” Shonka said. “I see him more a first- or second-down back in a zone attack. I could see him getting drafted late.”