The biggest hole in Iowa's lineup just got filled by a very intriguing option. After five years of having an NCAA finalist (including two champions in Tony Ramos and Cory Clark), Iowa took a big step backward at 133 lbs last season. Senior Phillip Laux and sophomore Paul Glynn combined to go 16-15 overall, but just 3-6 in Big Ten duals and 0-2 at the Big Ten Tournament, failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Enter: Drexel's Austin DeSanto.
— Trackwrestling (@trackwrestling) April 30, 2018
Drexel gave DeSanto a full release from his scholarship in early April and Iowa was immediately one of the first teams to pursue him. He selected Iowa over Penn State and Rutgers. DeSanto visited Iowa City during the Freestyle World Cup last month and was inseparable from Spencer Lee, a former Pennsylvania high school rival turned close friend. Iowa fans made an impression on DeSanto during that visit, as he noted in an interview with Andy Hamilton at TrackWrestling:
“The fans were really cool," DeSanto said. "They didn’t let Spencer walk five steps without someone wanting an autograph or a picture."
In that same interview, DeSanto cited the presence of Lee (as well as Iowa's other good lightweight training partners) and Iowa's overall reputation as being the deciding factors in choosing to transfer to Iowa:
“I thought about it for a while,” DeSanto said. “This whole week I thought about what I’m about and this opportunity and what I want to do with them and how hard they wrestle and how hard they train. That’s what I’m about. That’s what I want to become and I think they can get me to the point where I can become a national champ. That’s why I chose them.”
As Chad Leistikow noted over at The Des Moines Register, Spencer Lee's presence (and success) in the Iowa lineup as a true freshman almost certainly played a huge role in swaying DeSanto to Iowa. Does DeSanto still choose to transfer to Iowa if Lee had spent the year in redshirt and was just an exciting prospect heading in 2018-19 rather than a national champion and full-blown phenomenon? Maybe, given his friendship with Lee and Iowa's excellent reputation for developing lightweights. But if Lee doesn't wrestle this year, there's a good chance that Nick Suriano wins a national title at 125 lbs, which would have made Rutgers (one of DeSanto's finalists) an even more enticing option for DeSanto (one much closer to home than Iowa City, too). Instead Lee was fresh off one of the best true freshmen seasons in recent memory and providing a huge jolt of positive energy and excitement to his teammates and Iowa fans. Without Lee, Iowa would have stumbled to a finish outside the Top-5 at the NCAA Tournament; with him, they surged to third place and led all teams in bonus points. He helped create a buzz around Iowa wrestling again and while Iowa would have had a lot to offer DeSanto without that buzz, it's hard to argue that it didn't help quite a bit as well.
DeSanto became famous for handing Lee the only loss of his high school career with a last-second takedown in the 126 lb finals at the Pennsylvania State Championships in 2017 (a match you can watch here), but there's no bad blood between the two. Lee and DeSanto have become friends since then and Lee was in DeSanto's corner at the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic just two weeks after DeSanto defeated Lee at the state tournament. DeSanto went 28-7 as a true freshman at Drexel, with bonus points in 18 of those wins, including three pins and 11 technical falls. Six of those technical falls came in the first period. He went 2-2 at the NCAA Tournament, just missing out on All-America status, and 4-1 at the EIWA Tournament, where he finished third.
The NCAA and EIWA tournaments were also where DeSanto gained notoriety as a result of some unsportsmanlike actions. In the quarterfinals at the NCAA Tournament DeSanto lost 13-1 to Michigan's Stevan Micic (the eventual national runner-up), and (deservedly) received heavy criticism for putting Micic in an illegal arm bar hold at the end of the match. (Kimuras: OK in MMA and pro wrestling, not OK in amateur wrestling.) Nor was that the first time DeSanto did something on the mat that skirted the edges of legality, as The Des Moines Register's Cody Goodwin noted here. There was also an awkward incident between DeSanto and the Drexel coaches after his final match at the NCAA Tournament.
DeSanto certainly arrives at Iowa with some baggage and a reputation for some unseemly behavior. I don't think Iowa would have added him to the team if they didn't think those issues could be resolved; I'm guessing that Tom and Terry Brands are banking on the influence of teammates like Spencer Lee, Michael Kemerer, and Alex Marinelli to help, as well as their own experiences. DeSanto comes across like an extremely driven kid who lives and breathes wrestling. There have been no shortage of guys like that who have come through Iowa and thrived, so hopefully DeSanto will be the latest example. In addition to having some of the best lightweight coaches in the world, he'll be in a wrestling-mad environment and have some of the best lightweight training partners to work with -- in addition to Spencer Lee, he'll also be able to grapple with Hawkeye Wrestling Club members like Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark, and former Illinois wrestler Jesse Delgado. Gilman might be a particularly good model for DeSanto, as he was another guy with a laser-focus on wrestling who could be hot-headed on the mat, although he was able to mature in that department over time.
Wrestling-wise, there's a lot of Gilman's approach in the way DeSanto wrestles as well. DeSanto is likely to become a fan favorite among the Iowa faithful quickly because he wrestles an exciting, fast-paced, high-tempo style that places an emphasis on scoring points, points, and more points. Like Gilman, DeSanto is a terror from neutral. Again, he had 11 technical falls last year, with over half of them (six) coming in the first period. That's a dude who likes to score -- and score quickly. He scored over 20 points in a match 12 times. Even his decision wins could be high-scoring thrillers -- he won matches 11-9, 13-6, 10-8, and 12-10. DeSanto is a guy who likes to put points on the board and he isn't too afraid about letting opponents score, either, because he trusts in his ability to score even more points. He needs to work on his mat game, especially on the bottom position, where he got rode hard by several opponents last year. As Cody Goodwin noted in his excellent analysis of DeSanto for The Des Moines Register, he'll need to show more variety in his attacks from neutral and adjust to opponents gameplanning to slow him down. But his raw tools are already very good and he's going to have some tremendous coaches and training partners to work with, so it's not hard to be awfully excited about how DeSanto might be able to develop in the Iowa room.
As exciting as DeSanto's arrival is, though, it's a good idea to temper expectations somewhat because 133 lbs figures to be an absolutely loaded weight next year. Seven of eight All-Americans will return in 2018-19, including both finalists, Micic and South Dakota State's Seth Gross, the national champion. That doesn't factor in guys moving up from 125 lbs, either; Minnesota's Ethan Lizak is expected to make that move and Suriano, the runner-up to Lee at 125 lbs, has hinted at it as well. Oklahoma State phenom Daton Fix might debut at 133 lbs as well. 133 lbs figures to be an absolute bear trap of a weight next season, so it's not like DeSanto will be able to walk in and dominate. But he will give Iowa a fighting chance at the weight, which is far more than they could say before his arrival, and given Iowa's lightweight magic under Tom and Terry Brands, well, we're not going to rule anything out for next March.
The full release that DeSanto received from Drexel means that he's eligible to compete immediately for Iowa in the 2018-19 season. He has three years of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt year if necessary.