Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to give readers greater insight into the Class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are traveling the country to meet the Iowa incoming freshman class. This week, we feature 2-star LB Nate Wieland from Iowa City, Iowa.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Every year there’s an unheralded player from this state who gets overlooked until the last minute.
Then the Hawkeyes scoop them up, and often they become starters, then NFL prospects, and the coaches look like geniuses. In 2004, that happened with small-town tight end Brandon Myers, who will enter his ninth season in the NFL. It happened with senior linebacker Josey Jewell, who nearly signed with Division III Luther College before getting a late offer from the Hawkeyes and becoming a Butkus Award finalist last fall.
Could it happen again with Iowa City High’s Nate Wieland? It’s possible.
Wieland, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 225 pounds, was a dual-threat quarterback for the Little Hawks but will play linebacker at Iowa. He passed for 1,671 yards and rushed for 741 yards while leading Iowa City High to the Class 4A state quarterfinals. He’s thick and can bench press 360 pounds. He ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash. He played for one of the state’s legacy programs and a coach in Dan Sabers, who has sent several players to Division I universities and the NFL.
So what kept Wieland from getting noticed by major programs, including Iowa? Perhaps it was a leg injury his junior year that sent recruiters looking in other places. At times it was frustrating, but Sabers and Wieland’s parents always stayed positive with him.
“I told Nate to hang in there,” Sabers said. “People are missing the boat. I think the longer they started looking at him they said, ‘Wait a minute, he’s right in our backyard. We’d better not be wrong here.’
“He’s a good kid, academics is good. Gee whiz, you’d better be sure if you turn away that kid and bring in somebody else.”
Wieland had multiple offers from Mid-American Conference schools and committed to Northern Illinois last June to play quarterback. But he always kept an eye on his hometown Hawkeyes, his favorite team. His father, Chet, is a project manager at the University of Iowa and handles the football coaches’ headphones in the press box on game day. His older brother, Mitchell, is a student at Iowa and he remains close to his 12-year-old brother, Ty.
“There’s no doubt I was hoping for Iowa,” Wieland said. “That would have been a huge accomplishment.”
Fighting through injuries
Wieland grew up competing in multiple sports in Iowa City. In junior high, he played basketball alongside all-state talents and top recruits Connor McCaffery and Devontae Lane. By eighth grade at Iowa City South East Junior High, Wieland realized football was his best sport. A coach told him he’d have a chance to start on varsity as a sophomore.
“When I started to hear these things, I got a lot more confidence,” said Wieland, whose nickname is “Gator.”
Wieland became the Little Hawks’ starting quarterback as a sophomore. He passed for 1,093 yards and rushed for 753. His all-purpose skills got him noticed by colleges entering his junior year in 2015, and he attended numerous camps. But just when his stock started to ascend, injuries prevented him from taking off.
In the 2015 season opener, Wieland suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of two games. He returned to the lineup and the Little Hawks faced Ottumwa in the fifth game. Early in the first quarter, Wieland took off running and was hit by several players. His right leg was caught in the pile. His season was history.
“I heard a pop in my leg, and that’s all I remember,” Wieland said. “It was bad.”
“I still remember riding in the ambulance, ‘Oh my gosh, how can this be happening?’ ” said Mindy Wieland, Nate’s mother. “Poor guy. I felt horrible for him.”
There were multiple issues with his leg, ranging from sprained knee ligaments and a stress fracture to nerve damage. It was both heartbreaking and demoralizing.
“That was really frustrating,” Wieland said. “All the doctors said, ‘Don’t get your head down. You’ll be able to come back next year.’ I couldn’t really run for a couple months. I couldn’t lift for quite some time. It just really took a toll on me mentally.”
But that’s when adversity affects athletes differently. Some persevere. Others recoil. Wieland had to battle through mentally as much as recover physically. His leadership responsibilities were just as important with the injury as they were when he was healthy.
“I think without question this helped Nate mature and do all the things that adversity does for us,” Sabers said. “He was very astute to take care of it.”
Wieland’s parents saw the injury produce the same result.
“If it really taught him anything, it was that perseverance,” Mindy said.
“It was almost a blessing because he was watching the games from the sideline and watching film more and he was able to learn a lot more that way in a different perspective,” Chet said.
Wieland bounced back in a big way as a senior. Not only did he combine for more than 2,400 yards through the air and on the ground, but he did so without a ton of Division I talent around him. The Little Hawks upset crosstown rival and eventual state finalist Iowa City West to win the Battle for the Boot.
The Little Hawks took their cue from Wieland and his work ethic, and it paid off during the season.
“You could just tell, it was humbling a little bit that, boy, the game can be taken away from you just like that,” Sabers said. “I think in the summer [before his senior year] he was focused, he was here for everything and did all the things that we could ever ask of him to do. In some games we asked him to play both sides of the ball and he was very willing to do that. I think he was a hungry football player coming back.”
Flipping to Iowa
Wieland stayed true to the Huskies throughout the fall of his senior year. There was tepid interest from other schools in the region — Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Missouri — but Wieland didn’t stray.
“All the big universities were telling me the same thing: ‘We’ll wait to see how you play your senior year,’ ” Wieland said. “After the last game this year, a ton of letters started coming in. But they had blown me off for so long that I really didn’t want to go there. I had my mind set on Northern Illinois at the time.”
His parents felt the same way. The family had established good relationships with the NIU coaching staff, which strengthened their bond to the MAC school.
“There’s a point where I was very much … we’re done,” Mindy said. “We’re done. You’re going to NIU. They’ve been good to you now for a whole year. Let’s not even look any further.”
“When it came down to it, I told Gator both are good programs and you can’t make a bad choice either way,” Chet said. “Being close to home is always nice. Northern Illinois is only two hours away.”
After the season, Wieland’s eyes wandered toward the Hawkeyes. He said he was “probably 95 percent committed” to Northern Illinois, but he was more open to considering other schools. Mostly, he wanted to be a Hawkeye.
Iowa targeted Alabama prep linebacker Thomas Johnston, who listed the Hawkeyes among his finalists. That kept Wieland at an arm’s length from his favorite school, but he always garnered interest from the Hawkeyes’ coaching staff. His 3-touchdown, 267-yard performance in an overtime loss to Ames forced the Iowa coaching staff to pay close attention.
“They were playing Ames High School the night before we were playing Iowa State,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We had a night game and our coaches were out on the road, and I remember when Seth [Wallace, linebackers coach] got back to the hotel. He was very enthusiastic about Nate, so we kind of made up our mind right then. We just had to figure out how to pay for it.”
Wallace and defensive line coach Reese Morgan kept in contact with Wieland even without extending a scholarship offer.
“They were always straight-up honest with me,” Wieland said. “They were just going to see how things played out because they were going to see how many guys transferred at semester, how many guys didn’t commit or de-committed.”
Sabers has sent several players to Iowa over the years, including his son, Michael. All three of Ferentz’s sons played at Iowa City High before competing for the Hawkeyes. Perhaps Sabers’ best prospect was quarterback A.J. Derby, the state’s top player in the Class of 2010. Derby picked Iowa, then transferred twice before switching to tight end at Arkansas and now plays for the Denver Broncos.
Perhaps a better comparison for Wieland is former Iowa linebacker James Morris (2010-2013), a four-year starter from nearby Solon, Iowa. That’s why Sabers was emphatic that Wieland could play for the Hawkeyes.
“That’s certainly the one little comparison I made,” Sabers said. “I think he can make plays, study and prepare. All the things that Iowa has been about: good kids, come in and work hard, love it in the weight room and then do the things they need to. There’s enough athleticism there.”
Eventually, it all worked out. Johnston surprised most observers by picking UAB over Iowa, Arkansas and Ole Miss, which opened a spot at Iowa for Wieland. Iowa’s staff offered him a scholarship, and he took the official visit. Any reluctance on the family’s part to switch from Northern Illinois to Iowa evaporated that weekend. They were as impressed by the academic tour as they were with the football facilities.
“I wasn’t convinced until the time when we went on the visit for the weekend because NIU had treated him so well,” Mindy said. “I know how the game is played; I get all that. I felt a connection with them. I felt as a mom they treated him so well and I knew that would continue when he left [home].
“On Saturday [of the visit to Iowa] we went to the academic center; that sold me. How could you not give your kid that kind of opportunity for that kind of education? Then we had our meeting with Kirk Ferentz. We went in first and he introduced us to Rita [Foley], his secretary. We sat and talked with her for quite some time. Kirk was such a gentleman. He never rushed us or rushed her. Then we met with him. He was awesome.”
Before Wieland could accept Iowa’s scholarship offer, his parents and the coaching staff required him to call Northern Illinois’ coaches and officially de-commit. He then announced he was joining the Hawkeyes.
“This is a dream come true for him,” Mindy said. “He’s going to make it work. We’re just thrilled that he’s given the opportunity.”
— Nate Wieland (@NateWieland) January 30, 2017
Coming to Iowa
Northern Illinois’ coaching staff planned to use Wieland as a dual-threat quarterback. He has a similar build and playmaking ability as former Huskies star Jordan Lynch, who guided Northern Illinois to the 2013 Orange Bowl.
At Iowa, quarterback was off the table. Wieland will play defense and open his career at outside linebacker. Some players might bristle at such a move. Wieland embraces it.
Switching from quarterback to defense isn’t foreign for the Hawkeyes. The most recent example is junior Parker Hesse, who played quarterback in high school and has started the last two seasons at defensive end at Iowa.
“Nate was a guy that we liked for a lot of reasons,” Ferentz said. “A high school quarterback, we’ve had good luck with guys from that position. Typically you put your best guy at quarterback or running back.”
Wieland’s toughness, perseverance, willingness to learn and athletic skills embody the Iowa program, which regularly churns 2-star prospects into NFL prospects. It might take time, but Sabers is confident it will pay off for both the Hawkeyes and Wieland.
“He’s a perfect fit for them, really,” Sabers said.
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