Leistikow: Iowa football stalwarts to play in Music City Bowl, vow to 'lay it all out there'

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

Flash back 11 months, and there were three Iowa Hawkeyes weighing NFL Draft decisions who ultimately chose to return to college for one more year.

Those three players had legitimate NFL opportunities. And they made the most of their senior seasons at Iowa.

Jack Campbell came back and won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and was the Big Ten Conference’s defensive player of the year. Campbell has the potential to climb into the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft but is seen as a Day 2 pick at the latest. Yet he is choosing to play in Saturday’s Music City Bowl against Kentucky rather than join the growing trend in college football for top prospects to opt out of bowl games.

Riley Moss was the reigning Big Ten defensive back of the year and enjoyed a fully healthy 2022 season, his fifth at Iowa, and was again a first-team all-league pick. Maybe it would be viewed as risky to potentially damage his NFL potential by playing in Saturday’s 11 a.m. CT game (ABC television), but Moss is going to play.

Sam LaPorta hobbled to midfield on Iowa's senior day Nov. 25 against Nebraska after a meniscus surgery repair but the senior tight end plans to play in the Hawkeyes' Music City Bowl game on Saturday.

Sam LaPorta’s stay-or-go decision last January landed just before the NFL declaration deadline. It was a difficult choice after becoming the first Iowa tight end in 30 years to lead the team in receptions, but he ultimately returned and led Iowa in catches (53) and receiving yards (601). He became a Mackey Award finalist and was the Big Ten’s tight end of the year. He has nothing left to prove. And yet, he’s playing in Saturday’s game.

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The Hawkeyes’ only opt-out for the game for NFL purposes is safety Kaevon Merriweather, and with Cooper DeJean returning from a scary-looking knockout against Nebraska in the regular-season finale, Iowa feels good about its secondary even without Merriweather.

The motivation for three Iowa captains in Campbell, LaPorta and Moss to play one more time was easy to find, they said. Campbell made his comments after the Iowa-Nebraska game on Nov. 25; LaPorta and Moss spoke Thursday before departing for Nashville.

“Like I said last year when I stayed, you only get so many opportunities to put on the black and gold, and I get to put the black and gold down in Nashville,” Moss said. “It’s an exciting spot for us to be in. I’m excited to go out one last time with the boys, to hopefully cap off with a win and end my career on a W.”

Of anyone, LaPorta would have the most reason to bypass the game. He missed the final seven quarters of Iowa’s season with a torn meniscus and had surgery. In the days leading up to the bowl trip, LaPorta was back on the field and vowed that he would be 100%.

He meant physically. But as he spoke about the motivation for the game last Thursday, he also was talking about being 100% mentally ready to roll.

“One more opportunity to play with my boys,” LaPorta said. “I’ve been here four years. I’ve given this program a lot. And it’s given me more than I ever dreamed of since I’ve gotten here. It’s just really important to me to play one more time. Throw on the black and gold and lay it all out there.

“We were talking about it (Thursday) in the team meeting. If you’re not 100% invested, then we don’t want you out there. We want the guys out there going as hard as they can. If you’re here, you’re in and you’re invested. I’m here, and I want to be here.”

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Oftentimes when it comes to college football’s bowl season, the more motivated team has a gameday advantage.

Kentucky (7-5) will be missing star quarterback Will Levis and star running back Chris Rodriguez for this game due to the NFL Draft. That’s not to necessarily say Iowa (7-5) definitely wants this one more than the Wildcats. And it’ll be starting a third-string quarterback in Joe Labas who has never taken a college snap.

But there should at least be no question that the guys suiting up for the Hawkeyes want to be out there. That’s a mentality that starts at the top with head coach Kirk Ferentz, who has always stressed the importance of bowl games to his players. The team had its first Nashville practice Monday on a snowy field at Franklin Road Academy. Temperatures were in the high 20s and low 30s.

“The guys that have been training with us have been doing a great job,” Ferentz said. “Whether it's the strength and conditioning work or the times we've been on the field, the energy has been good, and I feel like we're making good progress.

“That's kind of where we're at right now. The good news, I just think you've got a bunch of guys that love football. They respect the opportunity in front of them. They respect what it takes to beat an opponent like Kentucky, and they work hard. So that part is all good.”

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How much has that mentality trickled to the younger guys on the team? Well, the feeling is that they are hoping to prove themselves. And there are more opportunities with notable transfer portal departures at wide receiver in Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson. Redshirt sophomore Diante Vines finds himself with plenty of motivation. A player who has struggled to stay healthy in his two years at Iowa, including a broken wrist that cost him the first six games of this season, has embraced the chance to get on the field.

Saturday is expected to mark his first bowl-game snap.

“For me it’s an exciting game, because you never know when this game can get taken away from you,” Vines said. “With the kind of injuries I’ve been through, every time I can step on the field, practice or game, I’m more than excited and ready to go.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.