Iowa football: All-Big Ten defensive end Zach VanValkenburg will return for sixth season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Zach VanValkenburg enjoyed a big fifth-year senior season for the Hawkeyes, and now will return for a sixth.

The Iowa football program's 2021 hopes got a nice and somewhat unexpected boost Wednesday when it learned an all-Big Ten Conference defensive end will be returning for a sixth season.

Zach VanValkenburg, who had four fumble recoveries in eight games, announced on social media that he would take advantage of the free year of eligibility extended by the NCAA during the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Thank you to all of the people who have made playing at Iowa an incredibly rewarding experience for me thus far," VanValkenburg wrote. "Coach (Kirk) Ferentz and the rest of the staff took a huge chance on me two years ago, and I will never forget it. That being said, I would be foolish to turn down the unexpected opportunity to come back for a third year with my brothers in 2021!"

VanValkenburg arrived from Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan in 2019 as a graduate transfer. After playing in a reserve role that season, he emerged in 2020 as a reliable every-down starter opposite Chauncey Golston. The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder tied for the national lead with those four fumble recoveries and had 30 tackles (including 8½ for lost yardage) to earn second-team all-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches and media.

VanValkenburg is the first player who took part in Iowa's senior-day ceremonies Dec. 12 to opt to return for an extra year. Other top seniors Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Alaric Jackson, Shaun Beyer, Keith Duncan, Chauncey Golston, Nick Niemann and Mekhi Sargent have announced their plans to pursue an NFL career. Junior defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon also declared for the NFL Draft on Wednesday.

VanValkenburg, though, is staying. And he will likely be the anchor for a defensive line that now enters 2021 on more solid footing.