How Coy Cronk went from Indiana mainstay to newest offensive tackle for Iowa Hawkeyes
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Coy Cronk had plenty of time to contemplate his future while recovering from ankle surgery last winter.
More time than he would have liked, actually. Cronk had played baseball and football and wrestled his entire childhood without being injured, so hanging out with doctors and rehab specialists wasn’t how he wanted to spend his senior season at Indiana.
Cronk’s down time produced some upside for the Iowa football team. Because the captain on the Hoosier football team, with 40 starts at left offensive tackle to his credit, realized he had been given one shot to prove himself elsewhere, to show NFL scouts that he could quickly learn a new system and thrive in an offense known for producing NFL talent.
Meanwhile, longtime Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz, who made his name grooming offensive linemen, was trying to figure out how to replace Tristan Wirfs, the No. 13 pick in April's NFL Draft, as his right tackle. He looked into the transfer portal and one name caught his eye. One phone call was all it took.
“That got wild,” Cronk’s father, Nick, said Wednesday, describing the days after his son made it known that he was going to leave Indiana. “But when coach Ferentz called, that was the end. It was just like all the stars lined up.”
As fate would have it, Iowa’s football schedule includes a season-opener at Purdue, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Cronk grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, a bike ride away from Ross-Ade Stadium. And that is where Cronk will debut his new ankle and his new Hawkeye No. 51 jersey.
The coronavirus pandemic will limit attendance, leaving many of Cronk’s relatives and friends to watch on TV. But Nick and Karla Cronk will be there, along with their older son, Hayes, and one lucky nephew who snagged the final ticket.
Nick Cronk, who was once a graduate assistant football coach at Indiana under Bill Mallory, has watched his son play hundreds of times.
“This will feel different because of his comeback from an injury,” Nick Cronk said. “As a parent, you know the road that he went to get there. I think it took some maturity at that stage of his career to make that decision that he made to graduate transfer. To give up the comfort.”
Choosing football over baseball, and becoming a Hoosier starter from the get-go
Coy Cronk never seemed destined to play on the offensive line in the Big Ten. In his boyhood summers, he was a catcher talented enough to play on a baseball team that traveled the country in search of top competition. In the fall, he was a middle linebacker on the football team. In the winter, he wrestled.
But he just kept growing, and so did the questions about where he would best fit in as an athlete.
In Cronk’s sophomore year at tiny Lafayette Central Catholic High School, Don Coller came on board as assistant athletic director. Coller had been Joe Tiller’s director of football operations at Purdue. He knew a few things about that sport, and the conditioning it took to play it at a high level.
Coller saw the potential in Cronk and put him on a new diet and workout regimen, designed to build muscle.
Cronk stopped playing baseball in the summers to concentrate on football, started playing offensive line in addition to middle linebacker, and grew to 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds. There was no longer any doubt that his goal was the NFL.
Cronk wasn’t offered a scholarship to play at Purdue. Illinois extended one. So did Vanderbilt and Iowa State. But Indiana, then under coach Kevin Wilson, became the clear choice. Wilson, like Ferentz, had a past as an offensive line coach.
Nick Cronk said Hoosier coaches were telling his son that he could play as a true freshman. Privately, Nick thought they were just feeding him a line. For one, 270 pounds was light for a Big Ten tackle, a position Coy was still getting used to.
In addition, Cronk missed some valuable practice time because his high school baseball team made it to the state championship game. He didn’t want to leave his old teammates behind in order to join his new ones.
Coy Cronk caught in that game on a June Saturday in Indianapolis, and was in Bloomington that evening to begin his football career.
By September, he was Indiana’s starting left tackle.
How did he do it?
“Bubble gum and Band-Aids,” Nick Cronk recalled with a laugh. “He didn’t know what the hell was going on out there half the time. It was just compete and fight.”
It was enough to earn Cronk 40 consecutive starts for Indiana, with his weight increasing to 305 pounds and his confidence growing at a similar pace. He was hoping to go straight from Indiana to the NFL after his final season there.
The injury that led Cronk to Iowa, where he's starting again
In the fourth game of the 2019 season, Cronk’s life was put on a different path when a Connecticut player rolled onto his ankle and sent him twisting to the turf in pain. It was immediately obvious the injury was serious. His teammates huddled around him while a cart came to bring Cronk to the locker room.
The Indianapolis Star reported that Cronk had a message for coach Tom Allen first: “It’s way too far from my heart to kill me.”
Thirteen months have elapsed since Cronk last played in a college football game. He couldn’t have known that then, or that when he finally did re-emerge he would be in Iowa black and gold.
Cronk said Purdue, under coach Jeff Brohm, did reach out to him about transferring when word got out last winter. But Cronk said he thought that would be a betrayal of the friends he made at Indiana, to suddenly show up on the roster of their in-state rival. He said Brohm understood. The Hawkeyes are not on the Hoosiers’ schedule this season.
“It was already a tough decision,” Cronk said of transferring. “I didn’t want to throw oil on the fire.”
At Iowa, Cronk is not only adjusting to moving from the left to right side of the offensive line, no longer tasked with protecting his quarterback’s blind side. He’s had to learn a new technique for getting off the ball, some slight differences in the zone blocking scheme.
But mainly it’s about the tempo that a Hawkeye offensive lineman is required to possess. That was something Cronk had always admired when looking at film of Iowa games. He wanted the challenge of proving he could master that.
Cronk also appreciated that he wasn’t guaranteed a starting spot with the Hawkeyes, who could have turned to junior Mark Kallenberger at right tackle.
“Nothing’s worth having if you don’t have to earn it,” Nick Cronk said approvingly. “That’s part of that game and that’s part of life is competing.”
Iowa’s initial depth chart this fall showed Cronk behind Kallenberger. On Monday, with the game at Purdue looming, Cronk’s name was on the top line. He’ll get his chance to make his mark as a Hawkeye lineman.
Cronk spoke to the Iowa media for the first time Tuesday. The first inquiry was simply, “How are you doing?”
“I’m phenomenal,” Cronk answered.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.