Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle welcomes back former Hawkeyes in the NFL on a daily basis in the offseason. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — An 8-year-old pair of red and grey Nikes is as emblematic of the Iowa football program as any of the trophies you’ll find at the Hansen Performance Center.
The well-worn shoes belong to Marshal Yanda, a 34-year-old star guard for the Baltimore Ravens. The former Hawkeye has made it to seven Pro Bowls. The shoes were a gift from his first, in 2011. They sit in his locker here year-round. He wears them every time he works out alongside the current crop of Iowa players, which is all the time in the offseason.
Yanda signed a contract extension Thursday to play through the 2020 season. He is a millionaire who could certainly afford some new kicks.
So why does he wear the same old shoes?
Longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle has asked Yanda the same question. He relayed the answer to reporters Friday.
“He said it’s because it’s a reminder of that first Pro Bowl, what it took,” Doyle said of Yanda, who told him: “’It reminds me of what I did to achieve that level of success and what I need to continue to do on a daily basis to play at the highest level.’”
Doyle said Yanda is the kind of role model the Hawkeyes need. He doesn’t come into the training center with his own workout regimen in mind. He does exactly the same things that the players 12-15 years younger than him are doing.
And he’s not alone. Doyle said as many as 15 former Hawkeyes currently playing in the NFL were in the building at one time this winter.
Iowa built a locker room just for its alumni, something Doyle believes is unique. Those include tight end George Kittle, cornerbacks Josh Jackson and Desmond King, linebacker Ben Niemann and, of course, Yanda.
“They believe that the training that we’re doing will help them retain their jobs,” Doyle said.
“It’s absolutely awesome to have those guys come back, be around our current players and to have an opportunity to work with some of the best guys that have ever played here. I think that’s one of the special things about Iowa football is the stability of it, the family of it. And we cater to them.”
The catering doesn’t include new shoes apparently. But for Yanda, that’s the point.
Tristan Wirfs' feat of strength ripples through weight room
Doyle was present when current Hawkeye offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs snapped off four hang-cleans of 450 pounds this spring. The video of it was a viral sensation.
The sensation in the room was also something Doyle won’t forget.
“I couldn’t hear myself think, it was that loud,” Doyle said of the roar that went up from Wirfs’ teammates. “In that 20-yard box, it would have been like standing in Kinnick on third down.”
Wirfs is a 6-foot-5, 320-pound junior from Mount Vernon, a physical specimen rarely seen. But his accomplishment wasn’t just about his athletic gifts, Doyle said. It also served as inspiration for everyone crowded into the weight room.
“They say the lead dog sets the pace for the pack. When you see that going on in the weight room … it elevates everybody’s performance,” Doyle said.
“Everybody in the room looks over and says, ‘If he can do that, maybe I can hang-clean 300 for four for the first time. Maybe I can do something I’ve never done before.’”
Smith-Marsette will try punt return duty as well; who else may get a look?
Ihmir Smith-Marsette averaged 29.5 yards on 24 kickoff returns as a Hawkeye sophomore last year. Now the speedy New Jersey native is also being looked at for punt returns, special teams coordinator LeVar Woods said Friday.
Not that the job is his. Or that coaches don’t want to see improvement.
“I think we all see the electric speed he has, the electric ability he has,” Woods said. “He needs to field the ball more cleanly. That will help out the rest of the unit to block for him and help him get to the next gear he wants to get in and get in the end zone.”
Beyond Smith-Marsette, Woods said redshirt wide receiver Nico Ragaini and junior safety Geno Stone have shown “sneaky ability” in the punt return game.
Then there’s the wild card: redshirt freshman defensive back Terry Roberts.
Roberts is “not the most graceful fielding the ball,” Woods cautioned. But “he’s pretty electric with the ball in his hands.”
Devonte Young is a do-it-all special-teamer; can he be captain?
Senior Devonte Young, a veteran of all four special-teams units, also is involved as a returner, Woods said.
“He’s sort of like the security blanket back there for Ihmir,” Woods said of kickoff returns. “He’s the eyes for Ihmir. He’s the one to tell him whether to return it or not to return it.”
But Woods is looking for much more out of Young in his final season. He would love to see him become the captain of the special teams unit.
Young arrived at Iowa as a wide receiver and switched to safety last season. His biggest value has been on special teams
“He can return. He can tackle. He can cover. He can hold guys up. You can put him in different spots,” Woods said.
“He’s been here long enough. It’s time for him to step up.”
Amani Jones making his presence felt
Another special-teams stalwart who could become the leader of that group is Amani Jones. The senior has moved from linebacker to defensive end this spring. Woods was impressed by the passion Jones brought to special teams a year ago after losing his starting middle linebacker spot in the opening game of the season.
“He is physical. He’s fast. He’s explosive,” Woods said of the 5-11, 242-pound Jones. “He can really turn the game in special teams. He’s a guy that truly bought into it. Even after he kind of got knocked off his pedestal a little bit and was no longer a starter at linebacker.”
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.