Come January, when the Iowa football team again goes into hibernation for another nine months, what's a Hawkeye fan to do? Well, pay attention to our
preseason consensus cellar dweller up and coming basketball team... but you could also give a little time to the wrestling team and their quest for a fourth national championship in the last five years. It is the one sport we're really, really good at, after all. In the spirit of our Assume the Position series for football, we bring you A Winner is You!, a weight class-by-weight class breakdown of the Iowa wrestling team, counting down each Thursday (ish) from the weight class we have the most confidence in to the weight class we have absolutely no clue about.
THE KNOWN QUANTITY
Through the early part of Tom Brands' Iowa tenure, 157 had been one of the most troublesome weights in the lineup. Various guys had tried their hand at 157, including Ryan Morningstar, Jake Kerr, Aaron Janssen, and Matt Ballweg, to thoroughly unimpressive results: no one had finished better than 4th at the Big Ten Tournament or posted a better record than 2-2 in the NCAA Tournament. Enter: Derek St. John, a redshirt freshman and Iowa's most hyped newcomer since the killer class that included Brent Metcalf, Jay Borschel, and Joe Slaton made its debut (and got Iowa back into the business of winning national titles). The early results were less than stellar: he struggled to get past lesser competition, often gassing out and barely holding on at the end of matches. He hit rock bottom at Midlands, where he went 1-2 and got pinned by UNI's David Bonin in a match where he was too gassed to fight off the pin attempt. Things were not looking good.
And then a funny thing happened: DSJ started getting better. And kept getting better as the matches piled up and weeks rolled by. He put together impressive wins over nationally ranked wrestlers like Northwestern's Jason Welch and Indiana's Paul Taylor and steadily climbed the national rankings. After his flameout at Midlands, St. John lost only four more times all season: three times to Penn State's phenom, David Taylor (a series where DSJ narrowed the gap between them in every match), and once to American's Steve Fittery, a man who spent much of the year atop the national rankings at 157. He ultimately earned runner-up honors at the Big Ten Tournament and a 4th place finish at the NCAA Tournament, results that blew away anything Iowa's other 157ers had accomplished in recent years and established him as one of the pillars of the Iowa roster going forward.
Physically and stylistically, St. John is unlike some of the most renowned Iowa wrestlers, both historically and recently. Guys like the Brands brothers, Brent Metcalf, and (to a lesser extent) Matt McDonough all seem cut from similar cloth: short, squat powerhouses (obviously not the most apt description of McD, one of the lankiest guys around at 125, but work with me here) with indefatigable motors and a notion to attack, attack, attack. St. John isn't much like that -- he's a very tall and lean, with lanky limbs and a more languid style that emphasizes patience and sudden attacks from odd angles. More than anything, he bears a resemblance to former Iowa wrestlers like Mark Perry and Jay Borschel (or a more aggressive Ryan Morningstar, maybe). Perry and Borschel were quite successful at Iowa (Perry especially) and living proof that there's room for guys who aren't practitioners of the tried and true "Iowa style" on the Iowa team. St. John's stretched out physique and surprising strength has helped him develop very strong defense (he's already very skilled at hipping out of shots as well as a proficient scrambler), and his immense reach gives him an advantage when it comes to taking (and finishing) his own shots.
He still needs to work on some things (most notably his footwork, which is occasionally a little slow; Taylor was able to exlpoit that at times in their matches) and maintain his conditioning at the level it was at the end of the season last year, but based on the improvement he showed from December to March last year, it should be incredibly exciting to see how good he can become over the next three years. One other thing he can work on this year? Earning bonus points. He recorded bonus points in only eight wins last year (five major decisions, three pins). Considering how close the team races project to be in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments this year, every little point could be critical, so getting more bonus points would be very beneficial.
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
While the working belief is that DSJ will be the man at 157, it's also not 100% locked in. There was persistent chatter last year that the cut to 157 was difficult for him, leading to speculation that he'd be moving to 165 sooner rather than later. There's been a little of that talk again this offseason, but it's been countered by talk that he's a certainty to go at 157 and may even be able to stay at 157 for his entire career. Whether or not that's true, it does seem very likely that he'll be manning 157 for this year, at least. There's an interesting cast of contenders sitting behind him on the depth chart, though. The most notable names are Mike Kelly and Nick Moore, a pair of redshirt freshmen whose careers have been intertwined since arriving at Iowa. Both were excellent while wrestling unattached at both 157 and 165 last year and fairly evenly matched against one another: Kelly beat Moore at 157, while Moore beat Kelly twice at 165. Of course, with St. John having 157 locked up for now, there's a good chance that they'll be testing the waters at another weight (165 is the most obvious option, although there's been talk of Kelly dropping down to 149 to contend for that spot) and won't be providing depth here.
If Kelly and Moore do move to other weights (and rest assured, I'll talk them up a lot more when we get to 165 and 149), there are other faces waiting in the wings, though none so talented. Jeret Chiri and Ethen Sebert are both listed at 157 on the official roster, though both wrestled exclusively at 149 last year; Chiri was Iowa's main wrestler at that weight early on and compiled a 4-4 record, while Sebert went 2-4 in limited action. There are also a pair of incoming freshmen, Patrick Rhoads and walk-on Joey Trizzino. Depending on what St. John does, Rhoads could be the future at this weight for Iowa. He was the top recruit in Iowa's 2011 class and he arrives with impressive prep credentials: 101-3 as a junior and senior, two-time state champion, state record 113 pins. He seems like a very worthy addition to an area of the roster where Iowa already has a host of exciting options.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
A definite good news/bad news situation for St. John (and Iowa) at this weight. The good news is that former Big Ten champion and NCAA runner-up David Taylor (Penn State) is gone, having moved up to 165. The bad news is that while one phenom is gone, another is moving in -- Cornell's Kyle Dake, a two-time national champion going for his third national title at his third different weight. Taylor beat St. John three times last year, and while St. John narrowed the gap between them in every match (they went from a 12-4 major decision loss to an 8-3 decision loss to a 6-3 decision loss), there's no doubt that getting past Taylor would have been a tall order for DSJ. Then again, it's not clear that getting by Dake will be any easier, since he basically ran roughsod over the competition at 141 and 149. On the bright side, Dake's physical advantages should be somewhat negated at 157. He was noticeably bigger (and stronger) than virtually all of his opponents at 141 and 149, but that probably won't be as true for him at 157. In fact, St. John's physical attributes -- particularly his blend of length and strength -- could make him an interesting threat to Dake.
Outside of Dake, the field at 157 doesn't look terribly threatening. With Taylor's move up to 165, there are only two other returning All-Americans at 157 (not counting DSJ), Northwestern's Jason Welch and Harvard's Walter Peppelman. DSJ went 3-0 against Welch last year and increased his margin of victory with each subsequent win (4-2, 5-2, 6-1). He beat Peppelman in the NCAA Tournament, 8-2. Among non-All Americans, the most notable names are Virginia Tech's sublimely named Jesse Dong, Clarion's Jason Fleming, and American's Ganbayar Sanjaa (a 6th place finisher at 149 last year). There is expected to be an influx of much-hyped new faces at 157, including Minnesota's Jake Deitchler, and possibly Penn State's Dylan Alton, but this looks like a very manageable weight for DSJ to navigate.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
A year ago, I ignored the underwhelming recent returns at this weight and gave into the DSJ hype, pegging him for a top-8 finish at the NCAA Tournament and a top-3 finish at the Big Ten Tournament. He met -- and exceeded -- those fairly lofty expectations with a 4th place NCAA finish and a 2nd place Big Ten finish. So it will come as no surprise that based on his excellent results last year and the state of the rest of this weight, I'm aiming a little higher this year. With Taylor's bump up, St. John should be the clear favorite at this weight in the Big Ten, so anything less than a finals appearance would be a letdown. And barring the emergence of a dark horse challenger, St. John's biggest threat nationally appears to be the very formidable Dake. Matching his 4th place finish last year is the floor of my expectation -- and exceeding that to be a runner-up or even a national champion -- is a reasonable expectation for DSJ. He came on very strong at the end of last season and he's evidently looked solid in practices since then; if he has the weight cut under control and isn't dealing with the injury or stamina issues that plagued the first half of his season last year, he seems well-positioned to become one of the top wrestlers on the Iowa team.