Iowa DT Nathan Bazata grew up in Howells, Neb., and will be back Friday for a game at Memorial Stadium. Chad Leistikow/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nathan Bazata’s senior class at Howells-Dodge High School in rural Nebraska was 21 deep.
And it was only 12 or 13 strong as a junior, before Bazata’s native Howells (population 547) consolidated with nearby Dodge (population 598).
No wonder, he says now, as a three-year starting football player in the Big Ten Conference, that Iowa defensive line coach Reese Morgan “found me under a rock.”
“I don’t know how he found out where I was,” Bazata says. “It’s just kind of cool just the way it all happened.”
Morgan is known for uncovering recruiting gems — Chad Greenway is the quintessential example, although there are dozens upon dozens of others — in remote places and helps build them into Hawkeye mainstays.
“I don't know how many miles he puts on his car during the course of recruiting season,” head coach Kirk Ferentz says of Morgan, now 67 and in his 18th year at Iowa. “But he gets his eyes on guys and … whether it's at a track meet, wrestling, whatever, he just sees things in players and athletes that maybe other people don't see as clearly.”
Add Bazata to the list.
Morgan was actually scouting two older players at a camp at Chadron (Neb.) State College when Bazata caught his attention — but certainly not because of his size.
“There are some guys that are just freaks and get noticed,” Bazata says. “That wasn’t me.”
What stood out for Morgan was the way Bazata would get knocked down and bounce back up. That’s the kind of fight it takes to be a gritty defensive tackle at Iowa, which Bazata has since turned into after becoming the first player from his high school to earn an FBS football scholarship.
He is an undersized, underappreciated third-year starter along the Hawkeyes’ defensive line. Even when NFL draft pick Jaleel Johnson was here, Bazata would grade out as the most effective Iowa defensive tackle.
And now his journey has come full circle. Once a Cornhusker fan, Bazata will return to his home state to make his final regular-season start as Iowa (6-5) visits Nebraska (4-7) in a 3 p.m. Friday game at Memorial Stadium.
This will be career start No. 36, career game No. 48.
Impressive durability for a guy who, at a stocky 6-foot-2 and 287 pounds, is giving up a good 3 inches and 20-30 pounds to almost any offensive lineman he faces 40-some times a game.
And he often gobbles up two of them at once. It’s a thankless position, but one of extreme importance that allows Hawkeye linebackers — such as Josey Jewell — to roam free and make plays.
When Jewell, from a family farm in Decorah and another of Morgan’s legendary finds, describes what he sees in Bazata, it’s almost like he’s talking about himself.
“A tough guy. A farm kid that just works his butt off every day,” Jewell says of his fellow under-recruited classmate. “He should get a little more recognition maybe. He’s just a tough dude that not a lot of people talk about or think about. While we’re getting tackles in the back end as linebackers, he’s really the guy making it happen up front.”
Bazata is a workhorse, cut from the same cloth as undersized Louis Trinca-Pasat on Iowa’s 2013 and 2014 teams. And even though Bazata is often giving himself up so others can make tackles, he's been statistically productive.
Bazata leads all Iowa defensive linemen this season with 39 tackles. He has 5½ tackles for lost yardage, and his sack for a safety against Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar on Saturday was one of the highlight moments in an otherwise disappointing day for the Hawkeyes.
Bazata will have several family and friends in attendance Friday in Lincoln — about 80 miles south of Howells. Most of them will still be rooting for the Cornhuskers.
That's OK. Bazata is used to it; Nebraska didn't recruit him. As teammate Brandon Snyder told the university's website earlier this year, "No one loves Iowa football more than Bazata. He literally bleeds black and gold."
An Iowa win Friday would make him 3-for-3 against his home state as a Hawkeye starter.
It would be a neat story if Bazata has a tremendous performance in front of the Husker faithful.
But even if he does, a lot of us might not notice. And he’s just fine with that.
He’s happy to be a thankless grinder who makes the Hawkeyes better.
“Obviously, the journey’s not over," he says. "So just got to keep on working.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.