Iowa coach Tom Brands reacts after the Hawkeyes clinched third place in the team race at the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
Here is what we know about Austin DeSanto, the Drexel University wrestler who announced on Sunday that he’s transferring to Iowa:
He’s talented. DeSanto went 30-7 overall and was one victory shy of becoming an All-American as a true freshman this past season. He immediately fills a hole for Iowa at 133 pounds — the only weight at which the Hawkeyes didn't qualify for the 2018 NCAA Championships.
He wrestles at an incredible pace, often charging in headfirst and racking up takedowns and points in bunches against opponents who are often not prepared for what he brings.
But he also brings some unfavorable baggage, having shown a pattern of unsportsmanlike behavior when things don’t go his way.
The Exeter Township, Pennsylvania product became quasi-famous when he defeated Iowa star Spencer Lee in the Pennsylvania state finals in 2017, then parlayed that into a strong true-freshman season at the Division I level.
The following is an attempt to break down DeSanto’s wrestling.
This assessment will look specifically at what makes him so dangerous from neutral, what perhaps he might still be able to work on and a few of his different unsportsmanlike actions. Then, it'll take a peek at the 2018-19 Iowa starting lineup with him in the mix.
Breaking down DeSanto’s incredibly fast pace
DeSanto’s torrid pace became his calling card this past season. Of his 30 victories, 11 were by technical fall and another four were by major decision. Of his technical-fall total, six came in the first period — including four in less than two minutes and one in 58 seconds.
In short, DeSanto does a lot of things well in the neutral position. He moves his feet like a boxer, and his first step is very fast when he commits to a shot. He keeps his hands moving, and isn’t afraid to tie up on an opponent’s head and arms. He wears on the neck, which puts pressure on the opponent’s back and tires them out quickly.
When DeSanto attacks on his feet, he favors his fireman’s carry. He’s strong when he gets to an opponent’s elbow, then sucks that in when he shoots at the nearside leg. He almost always takes his opponents to their hips, then hangs onto that elbow and tries to take them to their back for nearfall points. More often than not, he scores them.
Against Virginia’s Jack Mueller in the second round of the NCAA tournament, DeSanto gets that exact sequence. He grabs hold of Mueller’s left elbow, shoots in on Mueller’s left leg and dumps Mueller to his hip. DeSanto then clings onto the elbow, and when he pops his head out onto Mueller’s chest, DeSanto holds him on his back for a four-count.
The other thing that stands out is DeSanto’s ability and willingness to wrestle through positions. When he attempts that dump, opponents will sometimes try to scramble in the hopes of a stalemate. DeSanto will counter by balancing on his head and hipping his way through to complete the takedown. Often times, he’ll just overpower his opponent.
Against Mueller, DeSanto shoots in immediately. Mueller attempts a knee tap to clear space for a go-behind. DeSanto instead sits out, then plants his head and runs toward the leg for his dump. Mueller follows but loses control, and DeSanto pops his head out for two points.
On the off-chance his opponent wiggles their elbow free to avoid the fireman’s, DeSanto is quick enough to change off to a head-outside double-leg. He adjusts his hands and can run his opponent over in the other direction, or dump them in the same direction he was trying beforehand and shift his hips up over the top.
Against Michigan’s Stevan Micic at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in December, three quick fireman carries led to a 13-4 DeSanto lead in the first period. Micic stayed away from the elbow ties after, but DeSanto still attempted the same shot. When Micic countered, DeSanto cut across and muscled his way to a takedown on the edge.
DeSanto led that match 15-5 after the first period, 20-8 after the second and eventually won 22-10 over Micic, who ultimately reached the NCAA finals this past season. That victory really put the rest of the country on notice that DeSanto is both explosive and dangerous.
Iowa coach Tom Brands reacts to the 125-pound national champ’s title run.
Areas to improve on
For all the fireworks that DeSanto can produce, there are still plenty of things he can work on to improve his game.
When in neutral, if DeSanto can’t get to that tie that leads to his fireman’s, he sometimes struggles to open up offensively. His quick hips and ability to change angles is a strength, but a lot of that usually occurs when he’s able to get to that head-outside shot.
Against Cornell’s Chaz Tucker, in the semifinals of the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) conference tournament, DeSanto hardly attacked. He continued to dictate the pace throughout the match, but Tucker dropped his left knee to the mat, which kind of flustered DeSanto because it almost completely eliminated his shot.
Another thing to watch: Counter wrestling. DeSanto is quick with his first step, but when an opponent knows it’s coming, it allows them to set up their counter offense, which has gotten the best of DeSanto in some of his seven losses.
This is exactly what Micic did when they wrestled again in the NCAA quarterfinals. DeSanto went in for a shot early, and Micic countered with head-and-arm defense, which helped set up a pass-by when they stood back up. That setup helped Micic get to DeSanto’s legs and ultimately led to a takedown after some work.
The same thing happened in the bloodround later that day at the national tournament. Against Rutgers’ Scott Delvecchio, in overtime, DeSanto took a shot from too far, but Delvecchio caught DeSanto’s arm and tried for a go-behind, but when DeSanto came to his feet, Delvecchio shot in and finished a double leg for a takedown and the win.
Finally: Bottom wrestling. DeSanto’s willingness to wrestle in the neutral position doesn’t give him a lot of time on the mat. In multiple matches viewed for this story, DeSanto showed some small signs of struggling to get out from underneath.
Sometimes he ran into good top wrestlers, like Mueller and Micic, which happens. On other occasions, it looked as though he wasn’t even trying.
Against Delvecchio, DeSanto led 6-2 in the third period but got hit for stalling four times — including three times in the final 51 seconds. That made it 6-5, then Delvecchio secured riding time to tie it 6-6, which forced overtime and ultimately led to Delvecchio winning.
Iowa’s Spencer Lee won the 125-pound NCAA title on Saturday night in Cleveland.
DeSanto’s attitude has led to some unfavorable calls over the past year. His most infamous showing came at the NCAA tournament against Micic, when, trailing late, he attempted an illegal arm bar to try and score late in what ultimately ended as a 13-1 Micic victory.
It wasn’t the first time DeSanto's tried something like that, either. He had two other instances at the EIWA conference tournament.
Against Cornell’s Tucker, DeSanto went in for a shot after giving up a takedown in the third period. After a scramble, Tucker ended up on DeSanto’s legs, and DeSanto defended by grabbing at one of Tucker’s legs. Instead of just hanging on for the stalemate, DeSanto twisted Tucker’s knee like a lever, which could have torn if he had tried harder.
Prior to that match, against Binghamton’s Jacob Nicholson, DeSanto scored on a fireman’s and took Nicholson to his back. DeSanto went for the pin with a cross-face hold, but as Nicholson fought off, DeSanto held Nicholson’s elbow, then stood up and put his foot on Nicholson’s back. The referee stopped it immediately for being potentially dangerous.
It remains to be seen if these issues might still persist once he’s in the Iowa practice room. Iowa believes it can shake that nonsense out of him and focus more on his high-upside wrestling ability.
And — to be fair — it’s not like DeSanto is a bad guy. In that same match against Tucker, DeSanto kept wrestling after the whistle, ultimately taking Tucker down after time had expired. DeSanto helped Tucker back to his feet and looked like he mouthed an apology while doing so.
Iowa’s 2018-19 lineup:
With DeSanto in the fold, here’s roughly what Iowa’s lineup might look like next season:
- 125: Spencer Lee — a returning national champion
- 133: Austin DeSanto — an All-American candidate
- 141: Vince Turk/Max Murin/Carter Happel — I see Murin emerging here
- 149: Pat Lugo — an All-American candidate
- 157: Michael Kemerer — a two-time returning All-American
- 165: Alex Marinelli — a returning All-American and nationals semifinalist
- 174: Joey Gunther/Kaleb Young — Iowa scored no points at this weight at the NCAAs
- 184: Cash Wilcke/Mitch Bowman/Myles Wilson — another intriguing three-way battle
- 197: Jacob Warner/Cash Wilcke — Warner figures to be an immediate high-end contributor
- 285: Sam Stoll — a returning All-American
That’s a strong lineup. It remains to be seen if that Iowa team can knock off Penn State, who only really loses three-time NCAA Champion Zain Retherford next season. Oklahoma State also has the potential for a strong year, as does Ohio State, Michigan and even Minnesota.
But with DeSanto in the mix, the 2018-19 season became much more interesting for the Hawkeyes. March is still 11 months away. That’s when we’ll know for sure how much this addition helped.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.