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IOWA CITY — Zach VanValkenburg came to Iowa in 2019 after three years at Hillsdale College, and two years later was one of the coveted three Hawkeyes on the podium at the 2021 Big Ten Media Days.
“You're learning a new defense, you have new coaches that know nothing about you, you're fighting against people that the coaches know, it's tough,” VanValkenburg said. “But having played already three years of college football, I knew the importance of surrounding yourself with coaches, good people, to model yourself after.”
VanValkenburg was the Defensive Lineman of the Year in the NCAA Division-II Great Midwest Athletic Conference in 2018 after tallying 70 tackles, including 14.5 tackles for loss, a league-leading 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
He saw playing time at Iowa in 2019, but his breakout season was last year when he led the nation with four fumble recoveries. He also had 30 total tackles, including 8.5 for loss, and 3.5 sacks, earning second team all-Big Ten honors by coaches and media.
When asked about how he viewed the transfer portal at Big Ten Media Days, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz noted he’s seen more success in the past from experienced players at lower levels, like VanValkenburg and Mekhi Sargent (Iowa Western Community College).
VanValkenburg’s three years of experience before coming to Iowa, he said, played a role in his quick transition. This spring, Ferentz felt VanValkenburg looked more confident than ever on the field.
“Some call (VanValkenburg) a marquee guy, but he wasn't two years ago, not a big story, but he turned out to be a really good fit,” Ferentz said.
Now a leader of a young defensive line group, VanValkenburg said the difference between Day 1 and Day 15 of spring practice was staggering for him and his teammates, which was needed for a unit that lost three key veterans last season. Redshirt freshmen tackle Yahya Black and right end Deontae Craig made their way on the pre-fall depth chart.
“Yahya surprises me every day, I just walked by him like this guy is as big as offensive tackles, and he’s super athletic and really smart,” VanValkenburg said. “I think the strength is, everyone is selfless, ready to play their role. It’s not an NFL locker room where you're just grabbing people and throwing them together — we're a tight-knit group. We've been together for a while, even the freshmen have been here a couple years.”
That selflessness transfers into his off-the-field branding. Recently, VanValkenburg joined teammates Jack Koerner and Tommy Kujawa to launch an apparel line called “The Walk-On Mentality,” where 50 percent of the money made off the apparel or company partnerships will benefit a scholarship fund for walk-on athletes across the country. While not a walk-on himself, VanValkenburg believes the message can resonate with Division II transfers like him.
“Technically, I’m not a walk-on, I’m a Division II transfer, but I do understand the power of that mentality,” VanValkenburg said in an interview with KGGO radio station on Monday. “My two roommates are walk-ons, so I’ve seen the work they’ve had to go through to be successful. You don't get the same preferred privileges or scholarships, but you still do all the work, obviously school as well.”
VanValkenburg completed his undergraduate degree in history, master’s degree in Eastern European Studies and will focus on continuing his education in Russian language this fall. While football may be his immediate future, VanValkenburg said he sees himself working in government or running for public office someday.
Part of that will come from the leadership skills he’s building while being an Iowa Hawkeye.
“I think that's really the chance you have to make the most impact on guys because at some point you realize it's not all about you,” he said. “It's about the team and who can I help along the way.”
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