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What makes Iowa football attractive destination for preferred walk-ons
‘If you’re in our program, you’re in our program,’ Kirk Ferentz says
IOWA CITY — After Rusty VanWetzinga IV accepted a football scholarship offer from Southern Illinois earlier this year, he had a couple hours of relief from the recruiting process.
“I thought I was done with it,” VanWetzinga said.
Then as his family was watching the NFL playoffs, his phone rang. Iowa tight ends coach Abdul Hodge was on the other end offering him a preferred walk-on spot with the Hawkeyes — his “dream school” — as a fullback.
After a few days of “mixed emotions” and “changing our minds quite a bit,” VanWetzinga passed up on the full ride at Southern Illinois to pay his own way at Iowa.
“I just knew I had to follow my heart, really,” VanWetzinga said. “It felt like home.”
VanWetzinga is not alone. Iowa’s ability to attract many scholarship-caliber recruits as walk-ons has resulted in a talented walk-on class.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said on Signing Day he has heard from two high school coaches who he has “a lot of respect for” who have told him their players walking on at Iowa in 2023 are “as good of players as they’ve ever had in their programs.”
“Things like that resonate with me,” Ferentz said. “I've just got a feeling we'll see that when the guys get here — probably not next year but in time if they've got the right attitude and take advantage of the resources that are here.”
Wide receiver Aidan McDermott from Cedar Rapids Xavier was previously committed to South Dakota State on scholarship before flipping to Iowa as a walk-on. Tight end Jalyn Thompson had offers from Northern Illinois and several FCS programs before choosing the Hawkeyes.
Cedar Rapids Washington’s Watts McBride even had an offer from Nebraska, albeit from the previous coaching staff there. Durant’s Nolan DeLong had offers from Northern Iowa and St. Thomas (Minn.).
Other high school recruits, like defensive lineman Ryan Kuennen of West Des Moines Valley, had interest from other Division I schools and scholarship offers from Division II schools before choosing the Hawkeyes.
“There are a lot of schools that kept up throughout the year,” Kuennen said. “When (Iowa) started talking to me, I put it in a whole separate category.”
Jackson Filer, the NJCAA Division I Defensive Player of the Year, highlights the list of walk-on transfers in the 2023 recruiting class as well.
As Iowa recruits walk-ons — more than a dozen have committed in the 2023 class — its track record with previous walk-ons plays a significant factor.
“One reason we’ve been able to attract good walk-ons is because they know they’re going to get a get a shot here and they’ll get treated fairly and coached,” Ferentz said.
McDermott has seen the opportunities afforded to Xavier grads Quinn Schulte and Jaxon Rexroth. Schulte is coming off his first season as Iowa’s starting free safety, and Rexroth has been a key special teams contributor.
Schulte and Rexroth have been “extremely helpful” in McDermott’s recruiting process.
“They’ve told me that I should bet on myself,” McDermott said. “They’re telling me to go in there and just work as hard as I can — outwork everybody else.”
VanWetzinga goes to Pleasant Valley, the same high school that former Iowa walk-on Brett Greenwood attended before arriving at Iowa in 2006. Greenwood finished his Iowa career with 12 interceptions, which still is the seventh-most in program history.
“My dad actually talked to (Greenwood’s) parents about the walk-on process,” VanWetzinga said. “He said, ‘Do the little things right, and things will play out.’”
Ferentz has advertised how Iowa football treats its walk-ons similarly to how it treats scholarship players.
“If you’re in our program, you’re in our program,” Ferentz said in his Signing Day news conference. “You eat the same food, same locker room and we coach everybody the same way, so it’s all about what you do with the opportunity.”
It starts with recruiting. Iowa recruits walk-ons “a little bit different than most places,” recruiting director Tyler Barnes said.
“We recruit walk-ons just as hard as we recruit scholarship guys, especially those guys that are giving up full rides to other places,” Barnes said.
When Ferentz, along with assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann, visited Kuennen at his high school, it left an impression on him and his family.
“Coaches obviously talk to me, but not really like the head coach coming in like that,” Kuennen said. “We probably talked for 20 minutes in the room, and half of it was not even about football.”
Iowa’s committed walk-ons
High school recruits:
DB Amare Bickham (Fulshear, Texas)
LB Nolan DeLong (Durant, Iowa)
DL Ryan Kuennen (West Des Moines, Iowa)
LB Jack Laughlin (Carlisle, Iowa)
WR C.J. Leonard (Prairie Village, Kan.)
WR Judah Mallette (Chicago)
DB Watts McBride (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
WR Aidan McDermott (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
QB Tommy Poholsky (Evergreen, Colo.)
WR Luke Pollack (Deerfield, Ill.)
WR Ayden Price (West Des Moines, Iowa)
TE Jalyn Thompson (West Des Moines, Iowa)
FB Rusty VanWetzinga IV (Bettendorf, Iowa)
OL Cael Winter (Waukee, Iowa)
WR Austin Kutscher (from Ohio State)
DL Jackson Filer (from Iowa Western Community College)
TE Hayden Large (from Dordt College)