116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — All-Big Ten defensive ends come from Michigan, they just don’t come from Division II schools in Michigan.
They typically don’t own master’s degrees when they’re still playing, aren’t taking a class in Russian, and aren’t hoping to perhaps one day work in the U.S. Department of State or run for political office.
Meet Iowa’s Zach VanValkenburg, a player and person without self-limitations.
Three years ago, VanValkenburg was the Great Midwest Athletic Conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Year for Hillsdale College’s league-championship team as a third-year sophomore. (He redshirted his first year after an early-season injury.) He was a college graduate after that third year, with a degree in history.
After he found his new home for what he thought would be his final two years of football — he got a third when the NCAA gave a free year to everyone last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic — he made this statement on Twitter:
“I have reached the end of the road here educationally and my goals are uncompromising.”
“I figured I might as well go get my master’s and see if I can compete at this level,” VanValkenburg said Tuesday. “I emailed every coach in the country.”
He got two replies, from San Jose State and Iowa.
“I first saw Zach’s email in the fall of 2018.,” Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said. “I just so happened to open it because it said my name specifically. I get thousands of emails that say, ‘Dear Coach.’ They get deleted. Too many to go through.”
VanValkenburg’s email included an attachment with game tape at Hillsdale.
“What I saw,” said Bell, “was a guy who played hard, and really overwhelmed the people he played against. I coached Division II football at Wayne State College, and he just played faster and harder than others on the field.
“Not having seen him in person, and not knowing what our roster situation was going to look like in 2019, I didn’t feel compelled to offer him a scholarship. Instead I offered him a walk-on opportunity because I did feel that he would add to our room and our team.”
Then Bell’s defensive line room emptied. The losses of Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks to graduation were no surprise. But Anthony Nelson entered the NFL draft early and three backups transferred out during the winter break. A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston were established talents, but things were thin after that.
“We needed not only players, but bodies,” Bell said.
Bell traveled to Hillsdale in January 2019 and met VanValkenburg at Jilly Beans Coffee House.
“When he walked in, he clearly passed the eyeball test,” Bell said. “I explained to him how that walk-on opportunity I extended to him had changed due to the unexpected roster moves after the bowl game.”
VanValkenburg went on to visit Michigan State, then committed to the Hawkeyes. Tuesday, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said the player has “gotten better with every opportunity.”
He backed up future NFL players Epenesa and Golston in 2019. “He handled it all the right way,” Bell said. “He soaked up the defense, noting how much different our scheme was to his previous one. He adapted.”
John Waggoner, a 2021 starter, was vying for a starting spot at defensive end last year. He was hit with illness and injury. VanValkenburg started in Week 1 and has started each game since.
Last year, he had 3.5 quarterback sacks, and tied for the national lead in fumble recoveries with four. He has been terrific again this year, with team-highs in tackles for loss (5, for 26 yards) and quarterback hurries (5) to go with 1.5 sacks.
“There’s a little more time-demand here,” VanValkenburg said. “In my first two years I was working on my master’s (in Eastern European Studies), so that was pretty challenging, along with the uptick in competition. Everyone’s a little bigger, a little faster.”
Now, though? “I found out I can compete at this level.”
"It was the first time I had recruited a grad transfer,“ Bell said. ”I liked it. The conversations are different. No graphics. No hashtags. No glitz or glam. He wanted an opportunity to play. That’s really what recruiting should be about in my opinion.
“He’s never looked back. A pleasure to coach. … Glad he’s a Hawkeye.”
VanValkenburg wants to play NFL ball, no question. But his sights go beyond that.
“He’s my roommate,” Iowa safety Jack Koerner said. “Once, me and my roommates were talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said maybe I’d eventually get into coaching. Another roommate said, ‘Oh, get a sales job.’
“Zach said, ‘I might maybe run for office or something,’ and he kind of blew our minds with that, how different he thinks. … He’s a deep thinker. When he speaks, it’s worth your while to listen.
“He’s the hardest-working guy. His dedication not only to football, but just to working hard in his entire life, is inspiring and it’s made me a better person and a better football player just to see him work.”
VanValkenburg said “Obviously, I want to take football as far as I can go. I love this game. But life goes on for a long time after football. I’d love to work in the State Department, something of that nature. That’s kind of what got me down the Russian track.”
He said he’s starting to be able to speak Russian, which he calls “a difficult language in terms of how long it takes to master it as opposed to Spanish or some other Romance language.”
He’ll probably be fluent in it sooner than later. He has, after all, gone from Division II to becoming a stalwart on one of major-college football’s most-disruptive defenses.
His goals, as he told us they were, are uncompromising.
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