Iowa Football

Iowa football recruiting 2019: Defensive linemen, punter en route and soon in competition for roles

Croot Loops: DL Zach VanValkenburg and punter Michael Sleep-Dalton are for the 'now'

The Iowa Hawkeyes swarm as they take the field before their NCAA football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sep. 15, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Iowa Hawkeyes swarm as they take the field before their NCAA football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sep. 15, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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We’ve been over the potential deficit of defensive linemen the Hawkeyes face in 2019.

Let’s slide "potential" in there, because it’s March and 1) that’s a long way from football and 2) maybe Iowa finds another defensive lineman in the “yard sale” portion of college football recruiting. You know, that time after the December and February signing days when graduate transfers, transfer portal hopefuls, first-year junior college players and whomever else is out there suddenly finds offers.

It’s an unconventional path right now, but there are players out there. Players like Zach VanValkenburg.

The 6-foot-4, 266-pound defensive end caught the Hawkeyes’ attention. He graduated from Division II Hillsdale (Mich.) College in three years and will transfer to Iowa with two years of eligibility remaining.

That might take care of defensive end for 2019. Defensive tackle could probably use a few more bodies. Are there any in the 2019 recruiting class?

Maybe.

The Hawkeyes signed five defensive linemen in the 2019 class, with Pensacola, Fla., defensive end Taajhir McCall singing on Feb. 6. Ends Chris Reames and Jake Karchinski and maybe end or maybe tackle Jalen Hunt signed in December.

Because this is about defense, let’s slide punter Michael Sleep-Dalton here. He’s also a graduate transfer, coming in from Arizona State where he averaged 43.8 yards a punt last season.

Ferentz is already on record saying the D-line probably won’t be able to support the eight-man rotation it had going the last three years.

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“Last year, we had the luxury of playing eight guys, I don’t foresee that right now,” Ferentz said. “I think we have four pretty good front line guys. Can we develop the depth to get a six-man rotation going? That’d be a great starting point as opposed to thinking we’re going to have eight. I don’t see that happening at this point.”

The odds of landing another D-linemen during yard-sale season aren’t great. Everyone is looking and the pool has been picked through.

“There’s a distinct possibility something could materialize in the next four months,” Ferentz said. “It might look different in May. We’ll just keep an open ear.

“ ... If we can fortify our overall roster, that’s great, but we can’t bank on a wish and a prayer right now.”

Let’s get to know the new D-linemen.

Chris Reames

Chris Reames is 6-7 and 220 pounds and with long, blond hair, he does kind of look like Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence.

Reames' mission in college football will be sacking the Trevor Lawrences the Hawkeyes face. At 6-7, 220, it will take some development.

The immediate comparison everyone (including me) makes with Reames is Anthony Nelson. Nelson had 23.0 sacks in three seasons for the Hawkeyes before announcing after this season that he’s leaving a year early for the NFL. Before he was NFL Anthony Nelson (he made the right decision, he’d done enough here), Nelson was a 6-6, 210-pounder from Waukee.

What launched Nelson’s career almost immediately was the 35 to 40 pounds he put on during his redshirt year. Yes, it was Miami (Ohio), but the first time Nelson stepped on the field for Iowa he had 2.5 sacks and a strip sack.

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Now, everyone is different and there are no guarantees, but a fun part of this game is figuring out what the Hawkeyes might have. It’s hard to argue with the Nelson comparison for Reames. And, who knows, maybe Reames eventually will be compared to Matt Nelson, a 6-8, 295-pound defensive tackle.

Either way, because of recency effect and the fact that he was a pretty great player for the Hawkeyes, 6-7 D-end recruits who walk into the Hansen for the next few years will be compared to Anthony Nelson.

That’s how this works.

“Not intentional, but we’ve obviously had success with those guys, and every time I get on an elevator with those guys I’m reminded how tall they are,” Ferentz said. “It’s not a deal breaker if you’re 6-1. Sometimes that can work for you, too, but I think either way if you’ve got the right guy, it can be helpful.”

 
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Four-time member District all-academic team. (I wonder how many Patriots have that in their bio. Guessing quite a few.)

Noteworthy offers: 13 offers including Army, Air Force, North Dakota State and Eastern Michigan

Depth chart in 2019?: No. 6-7 is 6-7, but 220-pound defensive ends will get picked up and carried downfield by OTs. Reames will have fun next year on scout team looking across the line at tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Anthony Nelson

Here we are. I do wonder how much Jeff Nelson, Anthony’s dad, helped him get to where he is. Not only with the accidental and essential genetics, but Jeff Nelson played D-line at Iowa (early ’90s) and some of that had to distill with Anthony Nelson. Anyway, the tall, rangy DEs who can play the strong technique Iowa demands against the run are great to have around for Iowa.

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Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “Chris is a guy who had some MVC offers in the spring and ended up with a pretty decent offer list. We came across him in the spring. Coach (Reese) Morgan was familiar with him. He came to camp and did a great job. It’s hard not to notice Chris. He’s all of 6-7, a big kid with the long hair and a good kid. We wanted to see some more senior film. Coach (Kelvin) Bell had a chance to see him live this fall and felt really good about him (Bell coaches the DEs) and finally we pulled the trigger and had a chance to get him out here.”

“With Chris, if he’s not an Iowa kid, he probably has more (offers) going on. You can’t teach length. He’s going to put on weight. He’ll work with (strength) coach (Chris) Doyle and we’ll see what he looks like in three years, but he’ll help us carry on the tradition of having the tallest D-line in the country.”

ESPN rankings: 147th-ranked DE, 123rd-ranked in the region and No. 8 in Iowa.

My take: Reames is aggressive and disciplined. Love his awareness. Head is up and seems to have a knack for contain. He stacks up OLs and leaves his outside arm free. That is how it’s coached. Nice speed, too. Reames isn’t a gawky 6-7. His feet and speed helped him make plays from the weakside in a few shots of his Hudl highlight tape. He has the frame that also could transition to OT, but Iowa has a few of those in this class and needs D-linemen.

Jalen Hunt

The ride is just starting for Jalen Hunt. Right now, it looks like Hunt will jump in line at defensive line, but it might not be as simple as that.

He played some running back and linebacker at Belleville (Mich.) High School. You do see the 6-3 1/2, 260-pounder take some snaps. He might’ve only been around 240, but, yes, he had a 96-yard TD run as a sophomore.

Those days are over. Hunt is now listed as a defensive lineman. He could end up at end, but he also could put on weight and add power and play defensive tackle.

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This is probably a good problem for all involved. The running back thing shows, more than anything, the type of athleticism Hunt has.

Belleville assistant coach Thomas Desafernandes told HawkeyeReport.com: “He’s a big kid, he’s quiet and athletic as heck. For his size, he can run a 4.6 (40-yard dash). He’d fit in perfectly with what Iowa does at the running back position, so don’t be surprised, but they really love him playing defense because of his athleticism.

“He might get a couple of carries for us this year. He ran a little bit for Belleville last year. I think last year he had a 96-yard touchdown run against Dearborn.”

 
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Earned academic all-state with a 4.0 prep GPA.

Noteworthy offers: Michigan State, Minnesota, Kentucky

Depth chart in 2019?: Probably not. We are talking about a player who’s ticketed for the D-line and who weighed 245-ish last season. That’s going to take some time.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Did you know that Jonathan Babineaux, who played 12 seasons for the Atlanta Falcons, started his Iowa career as a fullback? Guys usually work their way down to fullback. The early Ferentz teams had a fullback named Jeremy Allen who did more than lead iso plays. In 2001, Allen had nearly 600 yards from scrimmage and eight TDs. So, maybe Iowa was going for that when it recruited Babineaux, a two-star recruit out of Port Arthur, Texas. What Iowa got was an all-Big Ten defensive tackle. The bodies are kind of the same. So, let’s start here.

Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “He’s a very well put together kid. He’s a very quiet kid. He is as tough as you’ll see. He plays running back, too, which is funny. He’s a guy coach Bell and coach Parker have known about for a long time now. We actually had Jalen, if memory serves me correctly, during his sophomore year. That was the first time he was here. From the get-go, he liked what he saw here, in terms of what our program was about and how we operated. He’s going to go to work and not talk about it a whole lot. He’s going to let his work on the field speak for what he does. You really like that about the kid. We’ve got him slotted at the D-end spot right now. We’ll see where his body takes him. He’s a good-looking body right now. He’s probably about 6-3, 265. He’s extremely explosive coming off the ball."

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Running back bodies: "He’s a big guy with some pretty good feet. You shouldn’t be able to move like that, not at 265 pounds."

ESPN rankings: 95th-ranked defensive end, 71st-ranked in the region and 18th in the state of Michigan.

My take: It’ll be defensive line and, as Barnes said, the explosion gets your attention. Size? Let’s see where that lands. Maybe after a redshirt year, it’s 6-3, 285 with the good feet and explosion of a running back. You would be interested in that.

First off, could Hunt be Iowa’s first D-lineman with a single-digit number? I love those guys. You know they’ll never need them, but if they’re athletic enough, let the fellas look good with the one number. It makes them look faster. OK, OK, kidding.

The first two minutes of Hunt’s Hudl video is short-yardage TDs. The first highlight might’ve been the 96-yarder. At two minutes, there’s a highlight of Hunt’s kickoff. The “big guy” stuff is there, too. Hunt keeps a good angle on his back and keeps his feet moving. He also plays with field sense. Any deception, his head is up and he’s reading the play. Hunt is in the middle and pushing the pile.

He’s very much a defensive linemen.

Jake Karchinski

Through nothing Jake Karchinski said or did, he might be your favorite 2019 recruit.

The intense dislike of Iowa State might come honestly here.

Karchinski, a 6-5, 245-pound defensive line prospect from DePere, Wis., committed to the Hawkeyes in May. About a week before that, former Iowa State senior offensive analyst Jim Hofher forgot how Twitter worked.

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Hofher let loose a tweet that criticized the Iowa recruit after Karchinski announced on Twitter that he had received a scholarship offer from the Hawkeyes.

Responding to the tweet, Hofher wrote, “Welp … that’s OK … have seen him competitively and was underwhelmed, as you know.”

The message was obviously supposed to be private. It wasn’t. It wasn’t a big deal and likely will be forgotten about. Hofher is in the AAF. Karchinski is a Hawkeye. If this comes up again, it’ll be because Karchinski hits the starting lineup and does something. So, it’s kind of a win-win. It’ll serve as motivation and now Iowa has a motivated D-line recruit.

 
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Finalist for Tim Krumrie Award as a senior (yeah, yeah, Badgers, but Google Tim Krumrie and then tell me you’re upset).

Noteworthy offers: Miami (Ohio), Ball State, Eastern Michigan, North Dakota State

Depth chart in 2019?: Probably not. If you’re thinking Drew Ott or Aaron Kampman, they took time, too.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Louis Trinca-Pasat. The big difference is LTP came in as more of an “athletic” type. The idea always was defensive line, but tight end and fullback weren’t out of the discussion. LTP hit and made defensive tackle his home. Karchinski is starting with a slightly bigger body and was named defensive lineman of the year in his conference or state (that is unclear from the bio). Karchinski has potential to play both D-line positions.

Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “He’s an extremely productive kid. You mentioned Karl Klug earlier, he fits the mold of guys we’ve had here before. He’s a blue-collar, hard-nosed, tough football player. He just kind of gets after it. He plays with a high motor. He’s extremely tough. His senior film, we weren’t surprised, but it was really good this year. It’ll be good to plug him in. He’s going to fit in really well here. He’s got those Midwest values. He knows what we’re about. It’s going to be good. Good family.”

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ESPN rankings: 149th-ranked guard, 125th-ranked in the region and 5th in the state of Wisconsin.

My take: This kid probably wears a “Defense wins championships” T-shirt. Teams couldn’t do anything against his side of the field. Excellent vision. Feet and hands work together. Quicker first step than you’d think. Seems to genuinely want to ruin your fun play. Power will take some time. But really, Karchinski is a big body and has excellent lateral movement. He’s 6-5, 245, but moves like a good linebacker.

Zach VanValkenburg

Last season, Zach VanValkenburg played against Ohio Dominican, Lake Erie and Alderson Broaddus. We’re talking about football. Really, we are.

VanValkenburg comes to the Hawkeyes from Hillsdale College, a Division II school in Michigan. Yeah, I don’t know, either. Maybe with transfer rules potentially loosening ... Nah, forget that. Iowa offered a running back who was going into his sophomore year (Mekhi Sargent) in junior college last summer. This winter, the Hawkeyes saw something in VanValkenburg who saw enough in himself to graduate from Hillsdale and transfer to Iowa City.

There’s risk/reward. Before VanValkenburg even gets here, the Hawkeyes need him. The depth at defensive end went into the transfer portal or the NFL during this offseason. Iowa needs VanValkenburg.

The 6-4, 266-pounder will be on scholarship and has two years to play two. He finished 2018 with 70 tackles, 14.5 TFL and 8.5 sacks, earning defensive lineman of the year honors in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.

At Iowa, VanValkenburg will be a defensive linemen, end or tackle.

“They see me primarily as a defensive end, but I am ready to play whatever position and fill whatever role that helps the team most,” VanValkenburg said.

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That attitude gets VanValkenburg, an international politics major, in the door. Let’s see where it goes.

 
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: VanValkenburg didn’t get one of these, but I already mentioned international politics.

Noteworthy offers: As a starting DII defensive lineman, Rivals didn’t have a profile for VanValkenburg. This just kind of happened. 1) When does the scouting end? 2) If this works, you know there are going to be a million of these.

Depth chart in 2019?: Yes. Once VanValkenberg gets the taste for the speed and the power of the game, he’ll be fighting for a rotational role. And that is totally there for him, teed up.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Dominic Alvis. Run-stopping potential as a DE. Let’s wait on pass rush. Iowa needs its DEs to play strong against the run. Setting an edge is a thing the whole defense needs. Alvis was a sneaky-good pass rusher. I think VanValkenburg has a shot at being at least that.

My take: VanValkenburg plays like success is his oxygen. He owned Hillsdale opponents. He celebrated like he needed to sack the QB. This is where “high motor” gets dropped in. He has that. That makes me think maybe he could play inside. I love the way he flattens to the line of scrimmage against the run and pursues with a purpose.

If he hits, VanValkenburg could be like former Wisconsin edge player Vince Biegel. Big on the edge, relentless and consistent pass rush. Can he disengage from Big Ten OTs? He’ll find that out when spring practice starts in March.

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Taajhir McCall

You have to be ready for everything all of the time in college football recruiting.

Taajhir McCall went nearly all of recruiting without hearing from a Power Five school. Army and Navy were his top offers and that seemed to be where he was headed.

Then, during the last week of January, Iowa called and offered. The clock was running. This was just a week before signing day. Two weeks after Army’s coaching staff visited McCall, Iowa offered. The Pensacola, Fla., native committed and here he comes.

A life-changing decision made in right around two weeks.

“This is the biggest decision of my life as of right now,” McCall told HawkeyeReport.com. “I had to make sure I was comfortable where I’m going to be for the next 4-5 years and also where it will take me for the next 40 years.

“Iowa found me,” he continued. “It wasn’t an initial option, but after weighing them all, I think Iowa is the best fit. I’m glad they came around in the end.

“It’s a place where I feel comfortable playing football as well as receiving the education I need to be successful,” said McCall.

 
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: The February signees didn’t get bios. Iowa will have to work on that. Seems like a loose end.

Noteworthy offers: Army, Navy, South Alabama

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Depth chart in 2019?: Probably not. McCall could come in and blow everyone away and need to play, but more likely, it will take some time for him to fill out his 6-4 frame. The important part is the 6-4 frame. Let’s see where it takes McCall.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Kenny Iwebema. Let’s go to the part where Iwebema wasn’t an NFL player and was a high school recruit coming out of Arlington, Texas, in 2003. He was 6-4, 223 pounds. He had more quality offers, Iowa, Michigan State and Kansas State, but there’s more similar here than dissimilar.

My take: McCall’s Hudl video shows a player thriving on natural ability. His hands are quick and he made that work for him. You’d like to see quicker disengagement. That’s something that can still happen after the high-level technical coaching happens with the Hawkeyes. McCall flies off the ball. He doesn’t look like he was asked to read and diagnose, but more just be himself on the edge and make stuff happen. This is all about getting McCall’s frame and athleticism into Iowa’s system. Intriguing prospect given the measurables.

Michael Sleep-Dalton

At the end of October, things were going really good for Colten Rastetter. He was Iowa’s second-most improved element, behind the pass blocking by the O-line.

In 2017, he averaged 37.8 yards per punt. Iowa finished 13th in the Big Ten with a 38.6 average in ‘17. The was the lowest since 2013 (37.8).

Then, the first half of last season was a smash hit. Rastetter averaged 43.6 per punt through the end of October. That would’ve been No. 2 in the Big Ten at the time, but Rastetter didn’t have enough punts to make it into the league’s official stats.

And then in November things changed. Teams didn’t allow Rastetter’s rugby punts (in some cases) to land and roll.

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In four November games, Rastetter averaged 35.9 yards per punt, and Iowa was in the market for a graduate-transfer punter.

And so now here’s Michael Sleep-Dalton.

You have to like and maybe love Sleep-Dalton’s chance in this. First, you don’t scholarship a graduate transfer to come in and watch. Second, at Arizona State last season, Sleep-Dalton averaged 43.8 yards per punt (59 punts), that was good enough for fourth in the Pac-12. Also last year, Sleep-Dalton had 10 punts of 50-plus yards. Rastetter had four.

This is the business of competition.

 
Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: No bio.

Noteworthy offers: Arizona State

Depth chart in 2019?: Yes. Sleep-Dalton is a “one year to play one.” He’s on campus and in competition. If he doesn’t win the job, it’s an upset and Iowa will have two punters on scholarship in 2019.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Going to hold off on this one. The punts will either be effective (I’m using the word “effective” because the definition of a good punt has changed from “Reggie Roby” to directional and hang time and all of those things that make a punt effective and don’t include the obvious word “far”) or they won’t be.

ESPN scouting report: “Solid frame, long levers. ... Sleep-Dalton shows good leg strength and hit multiple 4.8 hang-times at his JC. He has good levers and a quick leg. He has the leg strength to hit long punts with great hang time. The ball jumps off his foot and he has great potential in punting.” Bottom Line: “Dalton Sleep is a very talented and coordinated athlete. He has a good frame and is an older athlete. He has confidence in his ability to strike the ball on multiple types of punts and can be a weapon on roll out punts as well. He should be able to compete immediately and he provides good versatility in the punt game.”

My take: The job is there for the taking, and I think Sleep-Dalton takes it. There’s some pressure. It’s only one year, but that’s punting, isn’t it? You don’t get two chances. Sleep-Dalton has made it this far. He understands the stakes and he probably knows why he’s here.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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