Kirk Ferentz treats his walk-ons very well and often gets rewarded for it

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Bo Bower

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football program is expected to add at least 11 preferred walk-ons for next season.

Waukee defensive end Nathan Nelson is the latest walk-on to pledge for Iowa, and yes, he is the younger brother of current Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson and the son of former Iowa defensive lineman Jeff Nelson.

Nathan Nelson now joins an unheralded but distinguished group of Hawkeyes because you’d be hard-pressed to find a program that respects and utilizes its walk-ons better than Iowa does under Kirk Ferentz.

It was the same under Ferentz’s predecessor and former boss Hayden Fry, who also relied on walk-ons to play key roles during his 20 seasons as the Iowa coach.

A walk-on has everything when he arrives at Iowa except a scholarship. That is a big and expensive thing to be missing, but is also fuel for the fire.

“You definitely have a chip on your shoulder and you have to use it for good, though, because not every chip on your shoulder is a good thing because some people can’t handle themselves correctly in that sort of pressure situation,” said former Iowa defensive lineman Tyler Luebke, who started for Iowa’s 2004 Big Ten champion team after joining the program as a walk-on. “You do get a little bit, I don’t know if jealousy is the right word, but envious. You do the same work. You put in the same amount of time, and anybody is going to sort of feel like, aw man, that person has a scholarship; I want a scholarship.”

With a preferred walk-on, the Iowa coaches are basically saying that we believe in you as a player and person or we wouldn’t ask you to join us, but we need to see more from a performance and growth standpoint before offering a scholarship.

Most of the preferred walk-ons who come to Iowa have turned down scholarships offers from smaller schools in order to compete at the highest level and to chase a dream.

Former Iowa linebacker and West Branch native Bo Bower was committed to Northern Iowa when he accepted Iowa’s offer to be a preferred walk-on.

Bower would go on to earn a scholarship and started in each of the past three seasons.

Brandon Snyder also came to Iowa as a walk-on in 2014, and by his third year in the program, was starting at free safety. 

The keys for any player who makes the jump to the next level is having an opportunity to prove yourself and to feel as if you belong.

That’s where Ferentz excels with his walk-ons in that he is very inclusive and treats them with the same respect as the scholarship players and demands the same from them as the scholarships players.

“Kirk Ferentz is going to give you the chance to prove yourself,” Luebke said. “You know that if you deserve it, they’ll give you the time on the field and maybe even a scholarship down the road.”

Luebke transferred to Iowa after one semester at Ellsworth Junior College in Iowa Falls. The Iowa City native spent four years at Iowa, including the final two years on scholarship.

He never was made to feel inferior at Iowa while playing without a scholarship.

“We’re in the information age so everybody knows everything,” Luebke said. “But they don’t talk about it. You’re not treated differently.

“Me personally, I went into training camp and nobody knew I was a walk-on. Nobody treated me differently. Coach yelled at me just the same as anybody else. So they do a pretty good job here, and I think Kirk knows the importance of walk-ons with the Iowa program is paramount. He understands that, and I think the players who are on scholarship understand that.”

Luebke was put on scholarship heading into his redshirt junior year in 2003.

“It felt great,” Luebke said of earning a scholarship. “Obviously, it’s a pretty big sense of accomplishment when you put in that time and that effort to be rewarded with what you felt, I knew inside I had earned it.

“But it’s just reassuring to know that the coaches agreed with me and were happy with what I contributed and were optimistic with what I could contribute in the future.”

Luebke, like most of Iowa's walk-ons, grew up in Iowa and was familiar with Hawkeye football. It is rare for Iowa to have walk-ons from other parts of the country, due partly to the cost of paying tuition and room and board.

Some walk-ons also transfer out of the program or quit playing football when it becomes apparent that they will stay buried on the depth chart. Just like with players on scholarship, attrition goes with the territory.

But for the ones who stay and prove they belong, it is a source of pride that will last forever.

Iowa is a developmental program and probably will be forever due to a number of factors, including being in a low population state and not having the same prestige as the traditional powers.

Combine that with the 85-scholaship limit and you have an environment in which walk-ons are needed to survive.

And despite all the so-called recruiting experts and the advanced technology that is used to evaluate players these days, some still slip through the cracks or fly under the radar.

Iowa didn’t offer Josey Jewell a scholarship until very late in the recruiting process and he now ranks as the one of greatest linebackers in school history.

Dallas Clark came to Iowa as a walk-on linebacker under Fry and left as an All-America tight end under Ferentz in 2002.

Walk-ons need two primary things to excel; the first being opportunity and the second being respect.

Ferentz goes out of its way to provide both, and often gets rewarded for it on the field.

So take a close look at Iowa’s newest list of walk-ons because some of them will be key players in two or three years if history continues to repeat itself.

Marion receiver Blair Brooks is the grandson of the late, great Bob Brooks, who spent over a half century covering Hawkeye athletics and is a radio legend.

His grandson is a talented athlete who turned down other opportunities in athletics to walk-on the Iowa football team.

Blair Brooks just wants a chance to prove himself and will be given every opportunity to achieve his dream because walk-ons truly matter at Iowa.

Iowa 2018 preferred walk-ons

Colton Dinsdale, 6-0, 212, linebacker, Reinbeck, Iowa Western Community College

Nick Anderson, 6-3, 230, linebacker, Waukee, Iowa Western Community College

Matt Fagan, 6-5, 265, offensive lineman, Council Bluffs, St. Albert High School

Turner Pallissard, 6-0, 220, fullback, Frankfurt, Ill., Lincoln-Way East High School

Blair Brooks, 6-3, 190, receiver, Marion, Marion High School

Connor Ruth, 6-0, 215, fullback, Seward, Neb.

Kordell Stillmunkes, 5-9, 180, receiver, Cuba City, Wis.

Luke Empen, 6-7, 230, tight end, Goose Lake, Northeast

Mitchell Riggs, 6-2, 215, linebacker, West Des Moines, Dowling Catholic

Kyle Sorensen, 6-6, 250, offensive lineman, Waukee

Nathan Nelson, 6-4, 230, defensive end, Waukee

Source: Blair Sanderson, Rivals.com