Why Lukas Van Ness, Iowa football's 'Hercules,' is a dream prospect at this week's NFL Combine
“Hercules” has arrived at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. And as you might imagine with such a nickname, there’s plenty of tantalizing intrigue surrounding Lukas Van Ness.
Hockey was Van Ness’ primary sport in high school. He never started a football game in three seasons at Iowa. Yet the chiseled, 6-foot-5¼, 270-pound defensive lineman is viewed as an instant NFL starter by people in the know.
No wonder the sudden influx of attention as a potential first-round draft pick has been such a surprise to Van Ness and his family. They didn’t expect to be here, either, after just 2½ years of college.
His father, Jason Van Ness, remembers initially thinking when Lukas signed with Iowa, “Wow, if he stays five years, he could get a master's (degree).”
The possibility of an impressive Combine performance and Van Ness becoming the Hawkeyes’ 12th first-round pick in the 24-year Kirk Ferentz era – and certainly the first with zero college starts – is very real.
“I’ve worked with four first-round picks in the last four drafts, and I’ve seen nothing but first-round film on Lukas,” said Eddy McGilvra, a Los Angeles-based trainer who is working pre-draft with Van Ness as he did with No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson a year ago. “He’s a Day 1 starter in the NFL with the work ethic and traits to be a Pro Bowler over the years. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t go in the first 20 to 25 picks of this year’s draft.”
How Van Ness made his NFL decision and why Iowa doesn't see starting as a big deal
Just six days after Iowa’s 21-0 win against Kentucky in the Dec. 31 Music City Bowl, Van Ness arrived at a premier training facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to begin preparations for the Combine and NFL Draft. The story of how he ended up there and signed with the successful Athletes First agency is an interesting one.
Van Ness’ girlfriend is Iowa student Frankie Kmet, whose brother, Cole, is a tight end for the Chicago Bears. Van Ness was back in his hometown of Barrington, Ill., a northwest Chicago suburb, during Iowa’s bye week last season and attended a Thursday night Bears game at Soldier Field with the Kmet family. There, Van Ness met Cole Kmet’s agent, Kyle McCarthy, and didn’t think much of it. But a seed had been planted.
About a month later, Van Ness was listed as the No. 25 overall prospect in the 2023 draft by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler.
“After that came out, I would say everything accelerated,” said Jason Van Ness, who all the while had been doing the responsible Dad thing and gathering as much information as he could from potential agents while allowing Lukas to focus on Iowa's 8-5 season. Eventually, Van Ness and the family settled on McCarthy and Athletes First, which could have as many as six first-round picks in April.
What Van Ness’ father realized through all the feedback was that NFL scouts loved Lukas’ somewhat limited film. Some even apologized for not having done a full evaluation sooner. He just wasn’t on their radar as a college backup. But once the word got out on Van Ness, his stock began to rise. And the hype has continued to grow. He was recently pegged as the No. 12 overall pick by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. CBS Sports on Sunday had Van Ness going No. 17. Brugler most recently had Van Ness at No. 18 in a mock draft. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has him at No. 22.
And though the "no college starts" thing is interesting, it’s not deflating his draft stock. One of the reasons Iowa had the No. 1-ranked defense in FBS last season was because of Van Ness’ versatility and how he was used by defensive line coaches Kelvin Bell and Jay Niemann. He played inside and outside, something he could do against bigger offensive linemen because of his explosive burst at the snap and a motor that doesn’t quit. In a Week 4 game against Rutgers, Van Ness led the nation (according to Pro Football Focus) that weekend with nine quarterback pressures. He blocked two punts in a Week 2 game vs. Iowa State.
Iowa strategized ways to find mismatches and turn Van Ness' raw power loose.
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“To me, he just goes. He’s full go,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker told the Register. “He’s got his foot on the gas, 100 mph. That’s what I see.
“And I’ve never really seen him in a bad mood. He’s such a positive guy, such a positive player.”
Iowa likes to rotate eight or nine defensive linemen a game. Despite not starting, only one Hawkeye defensive lineman (Logan Lee) played more snaps than Van Ness last fall.
“The defensive line, remember, every play they’re hitting someone. And you’ve got the leaders of the D-line,” Parker said. “He’s got to develop that leadership ability in the future. … And he played a lot more than the other guys, even though he didn’t start. To us, starting – it’s not like that’s your goal.”
As it has unfolded, Van Ness’ low mileage and high ceiling have become selling points for teams. Five years of college wear-and-tear is increasingly becoming a negative. NFL teams are trying to get younger; and the younger players jump into the NFL, the closer they are to their second (potentially more lucrative) contract.
That was one thing he learned from Kmet’s father on that Thursday night in Chicago. If you get an opportunity, take your shot. After getting a first-round grade from the NFL Draft College Advisory Committee, taking the pro plunge was the most sensible choice for Van Ness, who had two years of college eligibility left.
“Lukas went into this 100% realizing he could be a first-round draft pick or he could be a fourth-rounder,” Jason Van Ness said. “He said, ‘Dad, if I do everything I can and I’m a third- or fourth-round draft pick, I’m OK with that.’ You have to go in not just listening to the glossy stuff. But I’m proud of him, because he’s believing in himself.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in Van Ness' rise? A pure health history
How did “Hercules” − as he was first publicly dubbed by defensive-line teammate Noah Shannon last April − reach this almost mythical point? Genetics certainly played a part. Mom Leanna’s father is 6-foot-6 and so are her brothers. Like Lukas, they were long, late bloomers. Jason Van Ness is physically fit as well, working out six to seven times a week. He is a chiropractor in Barrington and stresses natural foods and proper nutrition.
“All of our (four) kids are very athletic … and very fit,” Jason said. “That’s an important part of their lifestyle, is eating right and exercising.”
From August:Meet Lukas Van Ness, the 'Hercules' of Iowa football's defense
And get this: Despite a history of playing physical sports like hockey and football, Lukas has never experienced a significant injury. Nothing more than “bumps and bruises,” Dad said, over 21 years.
How is that possible?
“I’ve taught Lukas how to manage small injuries on his own. I’ve trained him to assess his movements,” Jason said. “They’ve all been adjusted since they were born. By being proactive, Lukas has been able to avoid a lot of the injuries that I see other kids (have). Maybe they don’t manage it and kick the can down the road and it becomes a bigger deal. Little sprains and strains, if unmanaged, can end up leading to a tear.
“Limits of motion can lead to a tear. Lack of hip mobility and flexibility leads into knee injuries and ankle injuries. A hundred percent, Lukas is in touch with his body.”
That clean injury history is a huge factor in Van Ness’ draft-board ascent. A big piece of the NFL Combine is a deep medical evaluation on every player. Every past injury is assessed and scrutinized. Van Ness’ Combine experience in that category was expected to be a breeze.
As is often said in football, the best ability is availability. Van Ness is almost seen as a unicorn in that sense, a pure, unharmed physical specimen at a premium NFL position – a five-technique edge rusher – which any team would love to develop and mold into a pass-rushing machine.
“He’s still young, and that’s the thing,” Parker said. “He hasn’t reached his full potential. There’s a lot more upside.”
While training at Proactive Sports in California, Van Ness has access to a private chef and elite facilities. His father set him up with a chiropractor, too, to deliver adjustments as needed. After the Combine, he’ll return to Thousand Oaks. McGilvra, the private defensive line trainer whose recent first-rounders include Quinnen Williams (No. 3 overall in 2019), Jalen Phillips (No. 18 in 2021), Kwity Paye (No. 21 in 2021) and Hutchinson (No. 2 in 2022), said Van Ness’ post-Combine focus will be on developing counter rushes, hand placement and body control off the edge.
“He has a great understanding of his power moves and what counters to work in order to disengage from the blocker,” McGilvra said. “He has long arms and understands leverage. That (combination) is very transferable into NFL play.”
What can be expected at the Combine? For starters, Jason expects his son will deliver a “spectacular” run in the spectacle's most anticipated event, the 40-yard dash, on Thursday.
No doubt, for good reasons, a lot of eyes will be on Iowa’s “Hercules” in Indianapolis.
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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.