When it comes to recognizing college football players past and present, there are so many ways to honor them and so many metrics upon which to measure them that if a player doesn't get recognized by anybody at all, he probably sucked.
And yet, there are players who--for whatever reason--play a far greater role in Iowa's success than ever gets reflected in their post-career perception, and hence end up being "underrated." That word's in scare quotes because it's all so insanely subjective that there's never going to be an objective way to answer this question. Does a successful pro career prove that a player was underappreciated as a Hawkeye (Benny Sapp), or unduly slant opinions toward the positive if he was eminently replaceable in the black and gold (Colin Cole)? Similarly, if the guy didn't do crap in the NFL, does that diminish the weight of his contributions as a Hawkeye (Kahlil Hill), or does it heighten their importance as a result of shortening the sample size (Brad Banks)?
For me, the above thought exercises prove that a pro career is nothing more than a logical confounder in this debate. I'm sure many people disagree with that interpretation. Anyway, when I think of guys who made a gigantic difference in their times as Hawkeyes, then never really got the recognition for it, my first inclination is to think of Jared Clauss and Matt Kroul. Stuffing gaps in a 4-3 is a largely thankless task, especially when it comes to freeing up your fellow DT or the linebackers on your side of the play, but I'm a former DT myself (difficulty rating: YOU DO NOT WANT TO TRY THIS) so I'm probably a little biased.
So for my most underrated Hawkeye, I'm choosing someone at a more high-profile position.
Jovon Johnson was never a high-profile member of Iowa's 2002 recruiting class. He was one of the last guys to verbal to Iowa, and as a two-star prospect with a sparse offer sheet, odds were slim that Johnson would do much in his first two or three years on campus.
Someone forgot to tell Johnson that two-star prospects aren't supposed to contribute right away, because he worked his way into the two-deeps as a true freshman, and he began starting games in Iowa's 2002 rout over Northwestern. He wouldn't relinquish that spot until graduation in 2005, and what transpired inbetween was an object lesson in busting ass.
Johnson was challenged pretty regularly by opposing quarterbacks, and as we've seen from Mssrs. Shada, Dodge, and Atkins, that's often a recipe for horrible screaming disaster. Instead, when opposing quarterbacks declined testing fellow 4-year wonder Antwan Allen, they went after Johnson, and good things for the Hawkeyes regularly ensued. Jovon Johnson ensnared 17 interceptions as a Hawkeye, which is just one off the record set by Devon Mitchell and some guy named Nile Kinnick, and he registered two touchdowns as a senior.
Johnson was honorable mention Big Ten as a junior, and he finally broke through to first-team All-Big 10 by the media (second-team by the coaches) his senior year as he continued to anchor the Hawkeye secondary. His senior year, Johnson returned a very badly conceived pooch punt 90 yards for a touchdown against Ball State, and he also took an interception 18 yards to the house on hapless Northern Iowa. All in all, Iowa was 31-10 in games Johnson started, and that wouldn't have been the case if Johnson were half as flammable as, say, Adam Shada.
And yet, Johnson seems like an afterthought, probably because he never got much more than a cursory practice squad glance from the Pittsburgh Steelers before the CFL became the most obvious rout to go.
And wouldn't you know it, Johnson's stayed in the league ever since, and he's been named an All-Star two years running. I didn't know about Johnson's all-star status when I started writing this article, but here he is and here we are, and that fact just seems to fit even better. Of course I didn't know he was tearing up the CFL. He's that underrated.
So who's your guy in the Ferentz era that never won an award better than the keys to your heart? Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Seriously.