Zach VanValkenburg Adjusting to Life at Iowa

August 19, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa is known for unconventional additions to its roster.

Starting running back Mekhi Sargent arrived last summer from Iowa Western without much fanfare. Starting receiver Nico Ragaini came from a post-graduate school after looking like he’d play college lacrosse. No. 1 safety Kaevon Merriweather hardly played high school football, focusing instead on basketball.

New Hawkeye defensive end Zach VanValkenburg may have them all beat. He’s a graduate transfer from Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan. He was named its conference’s defensive lineman of the year.

The former Zeeland (MI) High standout appreciate his time at Hillsdale, but he desired more. He was looking to challenge himself at the highest level, and the Hawkeyes liked what they saw. They had a need at his position with the losses of starters Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse to the NFL.

VanValkenburg (6-4, 270) red shirted and then played two seasons at Hillsdale. He retained two years of eligibility for Iowa.

“At the end of the day, football is football, here or anywhere,” he said. “But the facilities we have (at Iowa), the coaches, the support that we have is really good here. It’s really nice to be a part of something like that.

“But I try not to live too much in the past. Right now, I’m here and this is what I’m doing.”

A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston have moved from backup roles into the starting lineup at defensive end. The staff has been searching for depth behind them with the idea of having at least two more guys for the rotation.

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At the open Kids Day practice on Aug. 10, VanValkenburg worked on the second team along with Amani Jones, John Waggoner and Joe Evans. The graduate transfer hasn’t been concerning himself with playing time.

“I just go out and play because at the end of the day if it’s not me it’s someone that’s better than me. That’s how it works and that’s what’s going to help the team the most. If that’s me, so be it,” VanValkenburg said.

Right now, he’s trying to fit in as a newcomer. He’s not in the freshman class and enjoy bonds there, and he’s not part of the veteran group of players that’s grown up together in the program.

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“It’s kind of a unique scenario but I think the guys have been really cool about letting me in and we’re building a really good unit,” VanValkenburg said.

Hillsdale received 14.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks from him last fall. He also forced three fumbles.

While VanValkenburg possesses experience beyond high school, he’s stepping up a couple of levels to Big Ten football. He’s leaning on guys like Epenesa and Golston for help in transition.

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“From those guys you learn more about the good things than the bad things. It’s really good to have those kind of guys to look up to,” he said.

VanValkenburg is a high-energy guy, defensive line coach Kelvin Bell says. His non-stop motor can wear down offensive linemen.

A four-year letter winner on his high school wrestling team, VanValkenburg plays with good leverage and knows how to use his hands. He also owns four letters from track and field at Zeeland.

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