New Hawkeye Zach VanValkenburg wants to test himself in the classroom and on the football field

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Zach VanValkenburg came to Iowa to play football, to test himself against higher-caliber athletes in a higher-profile program.

The defensive end has never played a game witnessed by more than 5,000 fans. That will change in a hurry when he runs onto the Kinnick Stadium turf before 60,000-plus for the Aug. 31 season-opener.

VanValkenburg also came to Iowa after graduating in three years from Hillsdale College in his native Michigan to prepare for his future working with the U.S. Department of State. He sees his arrival on campus as primarily an academic move.

VanValkenburg knows exactly where he wants to be stationed. He’s fashioned a class load that is unique to him that will allow him to earn a master’s degree in Eastern European studies.

Iowa defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg runs to the sideline during a Hawkeyes football Kids Day scrimmage, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

At age 21, VanValkenburg has a firm grasp on what his future will look like.

For two years, it will include wearing No. 97 for the Hawkeyes and trying to get after opposing quarterbacks with the same amount of relentlessness he showed in two seasons at Division II Hillsdale. He had 13 sacks and four forced fumbles during that time.

“I think I’m high-effort, high-motor,” VanValkenburg said Friday, meeting with Iowa reporters for the first time since getting to campus in early June. “I feel that’s the underlying basis for all of football. You can’t be wrong as long as you’re going hard.”

VanValkenburg is 6-foot-4, 270 pounds. He was almost exclusively a defensive end at Hillsdale but has already shown enough versatility at Iowa to move to the interior of the line in passing situations, defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said.

That puts VanValkenburg precisely in the mold of athletes Bell is looking for these days.

“He’s a fastball right now,” Bell said of his junior newcomer. “I love his energy. I love his effort. And I love his attention to detail.”

The immediate detail for VanValkenburg is to adapt to a different defensive philosophy. Hillsdale ran a one-gap system, in which defensive linemen line up offset from their potential blockers, looking to use speed to find a quick seam to a ball-carrier.

The Hawkeyes employ a two-gap system, with linemen responsible for controlling two running lanes, putting them more directly in front of their would-be blockers.

“You’re a lot thicker on the offensive lineman. You’re more up in his face rather than playing on the side, so that takes a lot greater focus on things like footwork that I’m not used to paying attention to,” VanValkenburg explained.

He said he’s excited that he gets to hone his craft while studying an experienced group of Hawkeye linemen. Iowa is planning to start juniors A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston at the ends, seniors Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff inside.

VanValkenburg, who was named defensive lineman of the year in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference last fall, could tell right away that he’ll need to learn in a hurry.

“I really want to be the best college football player I can be,” he said. “Coming here, I figured out that the technique goes a little deeper than what I’ve been used to.”

Bell hesitated when asked if VanValkenburg was already in his top eight defensive linemen. He asked for more time to think about that question.

“He’s on my mind as a guy that will have to help us this year,” Bell said, possibly at end and tackle.

“We’re going to find a role where you can function in our defense.”

VanValkenburg won two Michigan state championships as a linebacker/defensive end at Zeeland West High School. The title games were contested at Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play, but didn’t draw nearly enough fans to fill that facility, he recalled.

Then, it was off to Hillsdale, where VanValkenburg was impressed by the quality of the coaching staff. After academics, that was a second important consideration when he entered the transfer portal this year in search of a major-college team.

“The facilities (at Iowa) are a lot better,” Van Valkenburg said. “I’ve got to say that in terms of coaching staff, culture, I can’t say that’s a big difference because that was one of the reasons I chose here, that they have similar cultures.

“I saw that in this program because I’ve seen it in my last one. And that’s how I kind of knew that this was the place for me.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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