IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa football is known as a developmental program, and wears that reputation as a badge of honor.
But there’s a new trend in town. Tackle Daviyon Nixon, the Big Ten’s Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, is the 10th Iowa player since 2018 to pass on his senior season and chase his NFL dreams.
That sounds like a crippling number for a developmental program. And yet the Hawkeyes have won 25 of 34 games since 2018, and should open the 2021 season ranked in the Top 25. How has that happened?
Adjusting and adapting are two words Coach Kirk Ferentz used when asked why Iowa hasn’t missed a beat. And you don’t have to be shy about using the developmental tag within earshot of the coach.
“That’s what we’re based on,” Ferentz said.
Having a keen eye for under-recruited talent, and coaching them into Big Ten players on the field and in the weight room, has played a big part in Iowa’s consistent success despite the talent drain.
“We try to pride ourselves on that,” Ferentz said of finding diamonds on the rough. “It isn’t an exact science. The whole trick is finding people that you feel are going to mesh with what you’re trying to do whether it’s schematically or more so just the general program, how we run the program, how we do things. So that’s the trick.”
Nixon is a perfect example of that development. He went from a reserve to a consensus all-American and the Big Ten’s best defensive player in one pandemic-shortened eight-game season.
“I don’t think anybody would have gone into the season saying, “Hey, this guy is going to emerge’ like he did,” Ferentz said. “So it’s a real credit to Daviyon, the effort he played with and the energy he played with. So the reality is when those things happen, guys might have decisions to make. And if they do, then it’s next man in, next man up. That’s how the program is built. The pace has picked up a little bit.”
This trend started in 2018, when center James Daniels and cornerback Josh Jackson left after their junior seasons and got drafted in the second round.
Four more left after the 2019 season - tight ends and first-round picks T.J. Hockenson, the Mackey Award winner, and Noah Fant as well as defensive end Anthony Nelson and Amani Hooker, both fourth-round picks. Hooker played both safety and the cash position for the Hawkeyes.
Three more went in 2020 - first-round pick Tristan Wirfs at offensive tackle, second-round pick A.J. Epenesa at defensive end and seventh-round pick Geno Stone at safety. Now you can add Nixon to that list.
The recruiting stars after a player’s name hasn’t been Iowa’s path to success under Ferentz. Seeing something in often lightly-recruited players that other programs miss has been a vital ingredient.
Iowa had nine players on active rosters for the NFC/AFC championship games on Jan. 27. That was more than any other college program in the country. LSU, Michigan and Mississippi State had seven each.
Kansas City’s AFC Championship team included former Hawkeye linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann. They defeated a Buffalo team that had Iowa alums Micah Hyde, Ike Boettger and A.J. Epenesa.
And Tampa Bay’s NFC Championship team included Wirfs and Nelson. They beat a Green Bay team that had Christian Kirksey and Jackson.
And here’s another nod to Iowa’s developmental reputation. According to Rivals, Epenesa was a five-star recruit with more than 20 Power Five offers out of high school. Wirfs a was a four-star prospect.
But Niemann was a two-star recruit who originally committed to Northern Illinois as a wide receiver and signed with the Chiefs as a free agent after starting his last 40 games at Iowa. Jackson was also a two-star prospect at Lake Dallas High School in Corinth, Texas. Hyde, a dual-threat quarterback as a prep in Fostoria, Ohio, was also a two-star prospect. So was Hitchens, who came to Iowa from Lorain, Ohio, as a running back and left as an outstanding linebacker.
“”When he came here we weren’t sure if he was a defensive back, a running back, and he’s really carved out quite a niche and had an unbelievable NFL career,” Ferentz said. “When he got here, he had a lot to learn but he was a very willing learner, a hard worker and obviously a very good football player and first-class person. I’m just so very happy for him.” Nelson, Kirksey and Boettger were three-star recruits. Iowa was the only Power Five school to offer Hyde, Boettger, Jackson and Niemann.
Now Niemann is after a second straight Super Bowl ring.
“He may have been a little underappreciated by the NFL,” Ferentz said. “I don’t mean that in a critical way, but he was a four-year player, not a fifth-year guy. He still had a lot of maturation ahead in my mind. That’s one thing I learned about coaching in the NFL. Those guys, they grow and develop, too, especially in their first three or four years.”
Wirfs, who had a tremendous rookie season at right tackle protecting quarterback Tom Brady, has been a fixture in the lineup. And Nelson has played an important role on the Buccaneers’ defensive side of the ball.
Ferentz recalled getting a text message from former Iowa quarterback and longtime NFL assistant Tom Moore during training camp.
“He just said what a great job Tristan was doing,” Ferentz said. “He did the same thing a year ago when Anthony got there, just as young rookies, how well they were doing and just impressing everybody there.”
Nixon is the program’s sixth consensus all-American selection since 2014.He was preceded by offensive tackle Brandon Scherff in 2014, cornerback Desmond King in 2015, Jackson and linebacker Josey Jewell in 2017 and placekicker Keith Duncan in 2019.
Those six players are also a testimony to Iowa’s developmental success. Jewell, who was headed to Northern Iowa until Iowa gave him a late offer, and Jackson were two-star recruits. Duncan, who accepted a walk-on offer from Iowa, had considered the Citadel, Coastal Carolina, Elon and Furman.
Scherff, King and Nixon were three-star recruits. King committed to Central Michigan, then Ball State, before taking Iowa’s late offer. Nixon started his career at Iowa Western Community College. He was already committed to Iowa when he made it to Council Bluffs, and remained true to his word despite an offer from Alabama.
“Everyone was like, “You’ll go to the NFL if you go to Bama!,’ ” he told the Des Moines Register after he got the offer from the Crimson Tide.
But he’ll get there through Iowa after a terrific junior season that saw him become a dominant force at the line of scrimmage.
“I would not be in the position to chase my NFL dreams without the leadership of Kirk Ferentz,” Nixon said when he announced his NFL intentions Dec. 30.
Scherff won the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best interior lineman, in 2014. King won the Jim Thorpe Award, presented to the nation’s top defensive back, in 2015. In the Big Ten, the Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year went to Jewell in 2017 as well as Nixon this past season. Nixon was also named the 2020 Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year.
The Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year went to Scherff in 2014 and Wirfs in 2019. The Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award was presented to King in 2015, Jackson in 2017 and Hooker in 2018.
Jewell was named the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year in 2017 and Duncan was presented the Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year in 2019.
Nixon got his opportunity to shine after playing behind Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff in 2019.
Now there’s an opportunity for someone else to step in and replace him in 2021. A chance to write their own story, and be the next man in.