There have been a lot of departures announced by Iowa players over the last week (and there are probably a few more to come), but not everyone is moving on from Iowa City. The Zach Attack is returning to terrorize Big Ten offenses next fall.
Zach VanValkenburg is heading back to Iowa for a third season (which will be his fifth season of college football overall... any more and we're going to have to start calling him Zach VanSettles), which is excellent news for a team that might otherwise be without any of this year's starting defensive linemen. We already know that Chauncey Golston and Daviyon Nixon are moving on from Iowa in pursuit of NFL futures and while nothing has been made official yet, it's certainly very possible that Jack Heflin, Iowa's non-Nixon starting defensive tackle, will also be moving on. But at least with ZVV back for one more year, it won't be a complete reset on the defensive line for Iowa.
VanValkenburg arrived at Iowa a season ago, but played limited minutes in 2019. He appeared in 11 games, but racked up just six total tackles. Of course, in 2019 the defensive end depth chart was headlined by Golston and A.J. Epenesa, both of whom played heavy minutes across the season. Joe Evans also emerged as a pass rush specialist and saw effective minutes as Iowa's third defensive end in several games. We didn't know what to expect from ZVV entering the 2020 season; Epenesa's departure for the NFL certainly opened up ample opportunity for playing time opposite Golston, but would VanValkenburg be the one to seize that opportunity, or would it be one of Iowa's younger, less-experienced defensive ends who rose up?
As we know now, VanValkenburg took that opportunity and ran with it. He emerged as a regular starter at defensive end, and while his numbers weren't as stunning as those produced by Golston or Nixon, he was still a very effective player. He ended the eight-game season with 30 tackles, and 8.5 tackles for loss (TFL), including 3.5 sacks. He also had a pair of QB hurries, a forced fumble, and a few fumble recoveries. VanValkenburg's development from bit player to indispensable player on the defensive line was one of the very best storylines of Iowa's 2020 season, and a remarkable achievement for a guy who arrived at Iowa from Division II Hillsdale College. He went from dominating players in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference to holding his own in the Big Ten. He believed he could play -- and produce -- in the Big Ten... and he was absolutely right. VanValkenburg will be one of Iowa's key defensive leaders in 2021 and we're excited to see how he can build on this year's performance.
As encouraging as VanValkenburg's return is, though, there's little doubt that the biggest returning player news for Iowa is the fact that Tyler Linderbaum is returning to Iowa for another season.
Excited for the future, Go Hawks! pic.twitter.com/O4nJ5lrlWv— Tyler Linderbaum (@TLinderbaum) December 31, 2020
Linderbaum's return is an enormous boost for the prospects of Iowa's offense next season. There's a lot that Iowa's offense needs to do for next year -- get consistently stronger play from Spencer Petras, replace four-year starter Alaric Jackson at left tackle, replace Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith at wide receiver, find a new tag team partner for Tyler Goodson at running back -- but at least they'll now be able to do all of those things with the fulcrum of their offensive line back.
Tyler Linderbaum arrived at Iowa from just up the road at Solon as a promising defensive line prospect. Kirk Ferentz & Co. believed he had tremendous potential on the offensive line, though, and given the team's positional needs, encouraged him to transition from defense to offense. I think it's safe to say that decision has worked out extremely well for everyone involved. Linderbaum redshirted in 2018 but entered 2019 as Iowa's starting center -- and he's never looked back, starting every game since then.
Linderbaum earned All-Big Ten honorable mention plaudits as a redshirt freshman last year and some preseason All-America buzz entering 2020. His 2020 efforts exceeded even those lofty expectations, though; he earned All-Big Ten first team distinction (from the media) as well as several All-America honors. He's also a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's top center. And if numbers are more your thing...
Tyler Linderbaum is returning to Iowa for another season.— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 31, 2020
Linderbaum was the highest-graded (91.5) and top-ranked center in the 2021 Draft class pic.twitter.com/skAGYAmK8F
So yeah: Linderbaum was very very very good in 2020. He was receiving significant NFL Draft buzz already, but that is likely to only ramp up in 2021. He should enter next fall as a preseason first team All-American and will likely be widely considered the top center in college football. Iowa will need to replace at least two starting offensive linemen in Alaric Jackson and Cole Banwart -- but not having to replace Linderbaum too is a tremendous coup for Kirk Ferentz & Co. Linderbaum's return will make things easier on the rest of Iowa's offensive linemen, as well as on players like Petras and Goodson who rely on Linderbaum to snap the ball, open holes, and keep defenders away from them.
Welcome back, Zach and Tyler -- we're very excited to see you in black and gold for another season.