What the Green Bay Packers are getting in Iowa edge rusher Lukas Van Ness

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register
Lukas Van Ness' pristine health track record and overwhelming power make him a tantalizing NFL prospect as a pass rusher.

With a nickname like “Hercules,” it goes without saying that Lukas Van Ness was a rare breed at Iowa.

He only played two seasons of college football after redshirting in 2020. He never started a game in those two seasons. Yet he was a dominant force on the field, with the raw power you’d expect to see from such a long, physically chiseled frame.

Van Ness took time to grow into the 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive end that he is today. He arrived at Iowa at 240 pounds and played as an undersized defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman, at 264 pounds. He played inside because that’s where Iowa needed depth. Yet despite giving up 40-plus pounds regularly to interior offensive linemen, Van Ness tied for the team lead in 2021 with seven sacks.

More:Iowa football's Lukas Van Ness selected by the Green Bay Packers with No. 13 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft

“I like to say I was the lightest tackle in the Big Ten,” Van Ness grinned going into his redshirt sophomore season.

His seventh and final sack of 2021 was eye-opening. It came in the final minutes of the Citrus Bowl with the Hawkeyes leading, 17-13. Van Ness made an athletic juke of Kentucky's left guard and used his strong hands to get separation and a free run on quarterback Will Levis. He sprung into Levis' midsection and slammed him down for a 7-yard sack to force a third-and-long.

Unfortunately, some desperation heroics from WanDale Robinson cost Iowa an 11th victory that season. But Van Ness showed then he was a gamer.

On that play, Van Ness got the best of one of the top quarterbacks in this year’s NFL Draft.

There are also highlight clips of Van Ness physically dominating the draft’s two top-rated left tackles. He blasted Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski onto his backside with a power move off the right edge in 2021; he bull-rushed Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. backward into this year's No. 2 overall pick, C.J. Stroud, in 2022. It’s that type of physical ability combined with limited football mileage (hockey was his primary sport as a high schooler) that has made Van Ness such a tantalizing NFL Draft prospect.

And it’s why the Green Bay Packers nabbed Van Ness with the No. 13 overall pick of the draft Thursday night.

Van Ness, who grew up rooting for the Chicago Bears, becomes just the third Hawkeye defensive lineman selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Alex Karras went No. 10 overall to the Detroit Lions in 1958. Adrian Clayborn went No. 20 overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011. And now Van Ness. That's it. That's the list. He's the highest-drafted pass rusher of the Kirk Ferentz era. Select company indeed.

The positives

Van Ness was supposed to be predominantly a defensive end during his redshirt sophomore year, but once again injury issues (to teammate Yahya Black) and robust defensive-end depth moved many of his snaps inside. In Week 4 at Rutgers, Van Ness played mostly inside but led the country with nine quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. In other words, Van Ness was productive no matter where he lined up. That’s a trait that will translate well at the next level, as teams can comfortably use him to find mismatches at any spot on the defensive line.

In addition to phenomenal testing (his 4.58-second 40-yard dash crushed the Iowa record for defensive linemen), Van Ness possesses another unique quality: He’s never been seriously injured. Only bumps and bruises over 21 years, according to his father, Jason, who is a chiropractor.

“I’ve taught Lukas how to manage small injuries on his own. I’ve trained him to assess his movements,” Jason said. “… By being proactive, Lukas has been able to avoid a lot of the injuries that I see other kids (have). … Little sprains and strains, if unmanaged, can end up leading to a tear.”

Van Ness also will be a willing special-teams contributor; he blocked two punts in one game earlier this year vs. Iowa State. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker describes a relentless motor in practice from Van Ness, and that has translated into consistent growth as a player and his ability to play sideline to sideline. Still just 21 years old, there's no doubt Van Ness' best football in front of him.

The concerns

Though he never started, Van Ness did play more snaps than any defensive end for the Hawkeyes. Yet his limited usage still downplays expectations for Van Ness’ immediate impact in the NFL. Some have said that he needs to develop more pass-rushing moves rather than relying on raw power. The hope is that those things come with coaching and continued good health. It does take some projection to see Van Ness as an NFL star at a premium position.

Chad Leistikow’s final thoughts

Van Ness’ trajectory at Iowa reminds me of T.J. Hockenson’s, who also redshirted in his first season then had a solid redshirt freshman year then exploded as a surprise, high-end NFL Draft prospect in his third year of college. Hockenson became the No. 8 overall pick of the Lions in 2019.

After a slow start as a rookie (32 receptions, 367 yards in 12 games), Hockenson began to emerge in his second season and now is considered one of the game’s top tight ends (86 catches for 914 yards and six TDs in 2022).

Van Ness could very well follow a similar trajectory in the NFL. His rookie year may not be dominant, but he’s got all the tools to be a long-term impact player at the next level.

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.