'He's the veteran guy': Zach VanValkenburg ready to lead Iowa football's defensive line in 2021

INDIANAPOLIS — Two years ago, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz made a rare dip into the transfer portal. Where the portal is mainly known for harboring high-level recruits and established names on the college landscape, Ferentz recruited a little-known defensive end from Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan.

"Somebody may get a marquee guy," Ferentz said. "We got Zach VanValkenburg, who I think is a marquee guy but he wasn't two years ago. It wasn't a big story." 

Today, VanValkenburg is an All-Big Ten selection and one of three players representing Iowa at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. He is a "super senior" who utilized his extra year of eligibility granted due to COVID-19. 

Despite last year's production — 30 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and a nation-leading four fumble recoveries — this will be VanValkenburg's first opportunity to be at the forefront of Iowa's defensive line. A lot of that has to do with his teammates in Iowa City.

Along the defensive line, Iowa has had three products drafted to the NFL over the past two years, including 2020 first-round pick A.J. Epenesa. VanValkenburg was a dominant player at the Division II level, but there were Power 5 growing pains during his reserve season in 2019, as well as when he was a starter in 2020. 

Jul 23, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end Zach VanValkenburg speaks to the media during Big Ten Conference media days at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

"Learning a new defense and playing behind really good guys," VanValkenburg said. "You get your time in there and you're just trying not to mess up and that's a hard way to play. Getting the opportunity to start, get a lot of reps, you get more comfortable, game speed slows down and you can focus on making plays and not just holding your own." 

After 19 career games, including eight starts (all last year), VanValkenburg has come into his own. The third-year graduate transfer was named to the preseason All-Big Ten first team and the LOTT Impact Trophy Watch list. 

"To see this happening is kind of surreal," VanValkenburg said. "I'm just hoping I can make my family proud, my team proud and be worthy of those things." 

More:What Iowa's Kirk Ferentz said during his early media session at Big Ten media days

VanValkenburg saw himself as "raw" entering Iowa in 2019, particularly in his hand techniques. Additionally, he had to adjust to playing within the scheme and recognizing the right time to play in his role versus doing extra to try and make a big play. 

The time spent playing behind and alongside future NFL talents gave him the chance to polish his game. 

"Watching guys like Chauncey Golston, A.J. Epenesa, Cedrick Lattimore," VanValkenburg said. "You see their arsenal of pass-rush moves, their techniques and you say, 'I can use that and that, maybe not that.' But you refine your own arsenal and it makes you a lot better.

"And furthermore, you go see them play in the NFL and you know where they were at so it kind of gives you a benchmark." 

With a full winter offseason, spring practice and summer conditioning period, Ferentz has recognized the significant strides VanValkenburg has made since the end of last season. 

"Fortunately Zach's got three years instead of two," Ferentz said. "He's comfortable now. What I saw this spring was a guy who's really playing fast and confident. He was OK in (2019), last year he played really well, this spring he played awesome." 

The strides VanValkenburg has made are not limited to his own performance. Unlike past years, Iowa's defensive line unit is young and inexperienced. VanValkenburg has used the offseason to fully step into the role of leader.  

"Not only is he playing better, he's playing like a senior," Ferentz said. "I think he realizes that in that room he's the veteran guy now and he's embraced that. He's been the total package. He's always had a great attitude but he's looking outward too and has been tremendous and we need that." 

Zach VanValkenburg (97)  was named to the preseason All-Big Ten first team and the LOTT Impact Trophy Watch list.

More:Big Ten Media Days: Iowa football trails rivals in COVID-19 vaccinations. Could it become a problem?

VanValkenburg's biggest advice to the younger players: Do what ultimately helped him — learn from everything around you, whether you're on the field or not.

"Obviously watch a lot of film," he said. "Pay attention and always get something out of somebody else's reps because mental reps are just as good as physical reps." 

At Iowa, where an emphasis is placed on play at the line of scrimmage, VanValkenburg is pleased with the group's progress thus far. He noted the class of 2019, which didn't experience a spring practice last year, has especially grown with a full offseason. 

"Adjusting to the speed and tempo is sometimes hard for young guys," VanValkenburg said. "I've seen a lot of eagerness to work and a lot of humility. They know they need to make strides and they've been pushing in that way, and I think that can only be a good thing." 

With VanValkenburg setting the pace, the expectation is that the defensive line will be ready when they play against projected top-15 Indiana on Sept. 4 in Kinnick Stadium. 

In his final year, VanValkenburg hopes he can showcase the progression in his game from what he was as a Division II transfer to now. 

"I'd say (I'm) a jack-of-all trades," VanValkenburg said. "I definitely focus on the run but I've been focusing on my pass rush game and hopefully I'll be better this fall." 

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Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com