Brown: Behind the 8-ball: Iowa's defensive line
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Nathan Bazata was a high school freshman the first time he met Drew Ott. He introduced himself with a tackle, not a handshake.
Bazata's Howells-Dodge team beat Ott's Giltner team 68-28 in the 2009 Nebraska 8-player championship game.
"I tackled him a couple of times," Bazata said.
Now they're starting, side-by-side, on the right side of Iowa's defensive line. Ott is the end, Bazata the tackle. And they're joined by another 8-player product, Nate Meier, from Fremont-Mills High School. He starts at left end.
"We're shooting to be the best defensive line in the Big Ten," Meier said.
All three were recruited by Reese Morgan, an Iowa defensive coach, who has shown a knack for finding talent off the beaten path. Or, in this case, finding players behind the 8-ball.
"We've had great success with those guys," said Morgan, who also found Chad Greenway playing 9-man football in Mt. Vernon, S.D. "It doesn't matter if you're playing 8-man, 9-man or 11-man, the characteristics and traits they displayed were unique, and they were multisport athletes. They were guys that fit our profile."
All three have worked their way up the ranks as prototypical developmental players. They've made themselves Big Ten football players in the weight room under the watch of strength coach Chris Doyle, who said they all came with a chip on their collective shoulders.
"They certainly showed that, 'Hey, we belong,'" Doyle said. "That's human nature. These guys are very competitive people or they wouldn't be doing what they're doing. That's definitely part of their makeup."
A chip on the shoulder? No question.
"I'm very confident they came here with an attitude," Morgan said. "I know that."
Ferentz has learned to take Morgan's opinion as gospel when it comes to recruiting players. No matter where they're from.
"Good people, exceptional people, come from all backgrounds and all places," Ferentz said.
Ott was lifting weights one morning in his high school gym when Morgan walked in and introduced himself.
"That's how I got introduced to Iowa," said Ott, who played quarterback, tight end, the offensive line, linebacker and defensive end in high school and made the Parade all-American team as a senior.
When he got to Iowa for his freshman year, Meier was Ott's roommate at the Hillcrest dorm. Meier also played both sides of the ball at Fremont-Mills, but gained his fame as a running back and was named Iowa's 8-man player of the year as a senior.
After playing running back and linebacker earlier in his Iowa career, Meier was moved to end in the spring of 2013.
"I was like, 'Wow, I've got to go against 6-6, 300-pound dudes now,'" said Meier, who weighs 252 pounds. "It was definitely an eye-opener. Now I'm settled down and comfortable there."
The first 11-man game Bazata ever played in was at the 2013 Nebraska Shrine Bowl.
"I was hearing from teammates and from the other side, '8-man is not real football,'" Bazata said. "In that game, I had to prove something."
Bazata was named the game's defensive MVP. And now he's worked his way up Iowa's depth chart, using his past as motivation.
"It doesn't matter what size of school you went to, or anything like that," Ott said. "It's just a matter of what you want to do with it."
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.