Leistikow: Walk-ons help re-establish 'The Iowa Edge'

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — “The Iowa Edge” was always there, ingrained within the players on the 2016 Hawkeye roster.

But it took going against college football’s best defense, with two starting walk-on tight ends and two walk-on fullbacks, to help it rise to the surface.

And Iowa’s up-front blockers knew it was happening after one possession in Saturday’s stunning 14-13 win against Michigan.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has relied upon walk-ons throughout his career. That was especially true against Michigan.

After gaining two first downs — progress, the way the Hawkeye offense had struggled against good defenses — before punting, they were greeted on the sideline with words of reassurance from offensive line coach Brian Ferentz.

“He was, like, ‘You know, these guys are just guys. They’ll move.’ So we just focused on one play after another,” sophomore left guard Keegan Render said. “As an O-line, we knew that we were all in, (that) we could move these guys — just based on our culture. And we believed that it would carry us through.”

The team that rushed for 34 yards against North Dakota State and 30 against Penn State was suddenly pushing around a defense of four- and five-star recruits. Like their “Break the Rock” philosophy, the Hawkeyes just kept chipping away until the boulder was reduced to gravel.

Among the guys doing the chipping? Those whose families are paying five figures annually for their tuition and housing.

Iowa takeaways: Wadley's weight, missing helmets, roughing the center

Keith Duncan, even in victory, is low-key Hawkeye hero

Croston, Mabin, Kittle likely out for Iowa against Illinois

Junior walk-on fullback Drake Kulick of Muscatine.

Freshman walk-on fullback Brady Ross of Humboldt.

Junior walk-on tight end Peter Pekar of Greendale, Wis.

Freshman walk-on tight end Nate Wieting of Rockford, Ill.

Kulick, Pekar and Wieting were on the field for Iowa’s first play Saturday — a handoff to LeShun Daniels Jr. that went for 8 yards.

How many other college programs not only start three walk-ons against an elite Big Ten defense, but win the battles in the trenches and the game?

It comes as no surprise to anyone who follows Iowa football closely, but Saturday was one heck of a reminder that walk-ons are not only a nice story at Iowa, they’re often THE story.

“It’s part of our fabric,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said.

It’s not like these guys — plus former walk-ons that played starring roles Saturday, like left tackle Boone Myers and free safety Brandon Snyder — just stumbled onto campus. Iowa coaches recruited them. And once they arrived, they got to work.

“The one common denominator is they all worked extremely hard and all had great attitudes,” Ferentz said. “Certainly, they played a really prominent role the other night. It’d be hard to find a year where we don’t have walk-ons playing key roles for us.”

This week, Wieting is the perfect example.

He had no scholarship offers anywhere. Maybe could’ve gone to an FCS program, he said, and two other Big Ten schools showed light interest in his services.

But one day, Wieting was surprised to receive an e-mail from Brian Ferentz.

“I didn’t know if he was recruiting my area or what, but we got in contact,” he said. “(I) came down here and took a visit — and decided to come here to Iowa.”

His first weigh-in in June 2015 was at 217 pounds. Not exactly Tight End U.-ready.

But he's since bulked up to 247. And on the Wednesday of Michigan week, he got word that senior starter George Kittle was too injured to play. He was in.

He was ready.

“If they told me to go hit a defensive lineman, I’ll hit a defensive lineman,” Wieting said. “If they told me to go hit a defensive end, I’ll hit a defensive end. That’s how the attitude is around here.”

So against Michigan on national TV, Wieting played a career-high 33 offensive snaps, mostly as a blocking tight end in heavy run-game packages. Iowa carved out 164 rushing yards on 49 attempts.

"If you have good fundamentals on every play," sophomore center James Daniels said, "it’s pretty much impossible to get beat."

And that brings us to the game's final play.

Wieting plays left wing on Iowa’s field goal team, too.

So there he was, as walk-on kicker (of course) Keith Duncan’s winning 33-yard field goal soared through the uprights, flat on his back on Kinnick Stadium’s turf after protecting the edge rush, raising his arms with joy. He had finished the job.

He and his teammates, fueled by a walk-on-friendly culture, had finished Michigan.

“It says a lot about hard work,” Wieting said, “that even if you are a walk-on here, you have a chance.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.