Going it alone: Inside Noah Clayberg’s time as Iowa's lone grayshirt
IOWA CITY, Ia. – There is a Hawkeye football recruit hiding in plain sight on campus.
Noah Clayberg was leading Pella to a second straight state title this time last year, starring as a dual-threat quarterback, turning down scholarships for a shot at Iowa, and eventually claiming the Register’s All-Iowa and Gatorade player of the year honors.
Now, he’s a nobody. And that’s OK. Because according to Clayberg, life as a grayshirt isn’t for everybody.
“I knew it was going to be a long semester,” he said from a dim turf field inside the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex. “I’ve always been working towards a football season and a goal. When I figured I was going to have to go through as a grayshirt, it took a minute to realize the work couldn’t stop now.”
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound athlete has free time -- lots of it, actually -- to talk reflectively about his semester before a scheduled workout with former Iowa star Marvin McNutt.
The evening sessions are set up independently, like everything has been since Clayberg accepted Iowa’s offer and agreed to stay away from the program until January.
It’s one quarterback-turned-position player teaching another. The process is helpful for the Hawkeyes, even though Clayberg has had to develop unique patience and perspective.
He is the first recruit to grayshirt under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
“Physically, I have no doubts,” McNutt. “He has all the tools necessary to put himself in a position to be successful. It’s just about him getting the opportunity.”
Workouts. Meals. Classes. Games. Bible studies. Homework.
Name any organized activity for an Iowa football player, and Clayberg completes or schedules it solo, attempting to live like an elite athlete while fitting in as an average college freshman.
And the Hawkeyes hope he joins the team in 2017 stronger because of it.
“Of all people in the world, he’d be the one that can do this grayshirt season,” Pella head football coach Jay McKinstrey said.
Green shirt for a grayshirt
Most football fans are familiar with redshirts -- players sidelined for a season to develop and preserve four years of on-field eligibility -- but grayshirts are less common in the Midwest.
Iowa has used the technique to essentially delay Clayberg’s scholarship until next semester, which starts Jan. 17, 2017. It’s commonly used by programs that over-sign recruits and don’t have scholarships available, taking a signee but pushing their eligibility clock back.
Prospective players can’t take full-time classes or officially join the program if they want all four (or five) years of action, which is why Clayberg is acclimating to campus, but only taking 11 credit hours.
“Until I got here, it was hard to imagine what the free time would be like,” he said. “I’ve continually gotten better at staying busy, staying focused and finding things to improve.”
Historically, the Hawkeyes haven’t embraced the stash-and-grab approach of grayshirting. Ferentz’s staff has only had the offer accepted by two other players: offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde in 2006 and wide receiver Matt VandeBerg in 2013. Both benefited from open scholarship spots before fall camp began and joined the team immediately.
“It’s a real testament to our expertise as recruiters,” Ferentz said in September. “We thought (VandeBerg) would be a grayshirt guy.
“Julian ended up playing in the NFL. Matt certainly, I think, has that opportunity down the road.”
Their early success gives Clayberg optimism about the impact he can make in the team. Not much will be expected from a 2016 prospect pushed to 2017, without access to the practices, workouts, facilities, film, food and perks that true freshmen and redshirt players have. But that’s fine, too.
“He’s just that disciplined of a young man,” McKinstrey said. “He can stick to the workouts, stick to his classes, keep getting mentally and physically strong, and be raring to go by January.”
The plan is for Clayberg to make an impact like the would-be grayshirts before him.
“Matt played as a freshman, that’s how smart we were,” Ferentz said, jokingly. “But the guy is a ball of energy, works hard, got a great attitude. He’s a really good football player. He’s improve with every step along the way, too. He played really well for us last year.”
Wearing a green Pella hoody over a gray dry-fit shirt bearing the Dutch logo, Clayberg pushes himself like he’s in Iowa’s expansive Hansen Football Performance Center and not an empty, silent field off campus.
“This has definitely given him challenges, but he’s got a head-start on his schoolwork,” McNutt said. “Sure, there are guys his age getting in before him, but on the positive side, this gives him an edge, too. He’s a smart kid and a great football player, so he’ll be fine.”
‘Blessing and a curse’
Freshman year away from home is a notoriously massive adjustment.
Clayberg is trying to make it with only two regular classes and a Petersen Hall roommate who is already preoccupied by the football program.
“All my dorm buddies are football players, so the things you do with your roommate or friends when you first go to college, I’ve had to do by myself,” Clayberg said. “That’s been a blessing and a curse. It’s forced me to become super independent.”
Besides the days when he has 50 minutes of physical activity and health in the morning and 50 minutes of algebra in the afternoon, Clayberg has to work to fill his free time.
Weight-lifting and running plans passed along by the Hawkeyes soak up three hours each day. Meal times at Hillcrest and meeting new people are vital socially, as typical roommate activities with fellow freshman Joe Argo -- a dual-threat quarterback from Davenport Assumption who Clayberg’s Dutch beat in the 2015 playoffs -- are limited.
As Argo learns the student-athlete system, Clayberg is navigating life as a normal, unemployed student. Iowa’s first-year football players are not allowed to speak with media.
“Sometimes Joe will wake up super early and get ready and ask me what I have,” Clayberg said.
“It’s like, ‘Sorry man, I don’t have a single class today.’ He’s looking at me like, ‘Wow, that sounds nice.’ But I think his busy schedule sounds good.”
Getting good grades, relearning how to play the guitar and immersing himself in books have been the Pella native’s outlets. The Bible is the bulk of that reading, with Athletes in Action, a freshmen football Bible study and the Christian ministry, the Salt Company, becoming a bigger part of his schedule.
“He’s got a great perspective and faith in God,” McKinstrey said. “Maybe this is going to teach him something and make him learn. You look at situations like this and God is in ultimate control. He believes that and I believe that, for his life and the choices he’s made. The opportunity is there.”
Clayberg says his spiritual growth has helped him handle the odd semester on campus. It’s a rare experience: The usual undergrad dorm life for five months, then taking on student-athlete responsibilities for the new few years.
“I’ve gotten accustomed to college without all the obligations,” he said. “Because I haven’t had football for the first time in a long time, it’s allowed me to take a step back and look at my life and appreciate the development.”
Hawkeyes who have gone before him think he’ll be better for it.
“College has new freedom,” McNutt said. “What you do with it and who you start hanging out with is almost as important as getting to every workout and doing what coaches tell you to do. Noah is already handling that.”
Getting back to work
Here’s where Clayberg’s quiet recruitment and hidden workouts at campus rec centers and the Field House come in handy.
A high school quarterback, linebacker, punter and occasional return specialist, Clayberg received offers from FCS schools South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois. According to Rivals and Scout, he was a two- or three-star safety prospect.
Clayberg held out and committed to Iowa 10 days before National Signing Day. So, now he’s training to be ... a running back?
“A coach asked me, ‘When you picture yourself playing football and having the most fun, what do you see yourself doing?’” Clayberg said. “Blocking? Running? Tackling? And I think about running with the ball. When it boils down, you’re supposed to be having fun.
“I didn’t play running back in high school, but I did run quite a bit. It will be a different level and it will be faster, but I think I want to give it a shot.”
McNutt knows better than most how to transition from the quarterback spot, and the freshly minted Cedar Rapids Titans head coach is teaching the future Hawkeye a multitude of skills. Sometimes friends drop by to help – Derrell Johnson-Koulianos offered slot receiver concepts – and other evenings, Clayberg runs drill after drill through cones and yard lines.
“On the field he reminds me a lot of a buddy I played with, Tyler Sash,” McNutt said, referring to the late Iowa safety standout. “He can be put everywhere. When Sash came in as a freshman, he had the opportunity to play offense or defense, and I think that’s what Iowa sees where this kid is.
“For sure, they will see very quickly that this kid has ability that not a lot of people have.”
Like converted Dowling Catholic quarterback Ryan Boyle a year before him, Clayberg just wants to contribute. Several evaluators have told the Register he could likely see the field faster for Iowa with a move to safety, but after scoring 114 career touchdowns in Class 3A, it’s hard to blame Clayberg for trying his hand on offense.
“The deciding factor is where they need more personnel,” he said. “This is definitely a starting point. (Ferentz) said during evaluations, if they just don’t see a fit, they’ll move me back to defense. Regardless, I think I’ll probably being the field first on special teams.”
Fellow Pella grads Garret Jansen and Austin Schulte are already on scholarship on the defensive side of the ball. Argo and other freshmen dorm-mates can offer daily advice on what the Iowa football experience is like. But no one will know if Clayberg is actually ready to play until he joins the team.
“He’s a coachable guy and always has his eyes and ears open to correction,” McNutt said. “That’s what was impressive to me. He came in and said running back and he really hadn’t practiced it, but he was a natural. I started putting him through drills and I have to try to make sure he can’t make it all look easy.”
Former Hawkeye defensive end and current director of player development Broderick Binns is Clayberg’s contact in the program. But Iowa hasn’t had to provide a babysitter. Clayberg is increasingly confident going through the grayshirt process on his own.
“It’s rough sometimes,” he said. “But things will come soon enough.”
Noah Clayberg’s key offensive statistics from his final three varsity seasons at Pella, which included back-to-back Class 3A championships. He also played defense and punted for the Dutch.
Year Class Record Pass Comp. Att. Yards TD INT Rush Att. Yards TD
2013 Soph. 11-1 51 97 703 5 3 165 1,271 21
2014 Junior 14-0 86 130 1,256 14 6 172 1,637 21
2015 Senior 14-0 105 149 1,695 21 3 186 1,846 30