The end of 2020 is now just hours away and while most of us are ready to move on to the next chapter as quickly as possible, it would seem a few Iowa Hawkeyes would have liked to keep this year rolling. Iowa, of course, had its season come to an early end after getting off to a late start.
The Hawkeyes finished the year 6-2 while riding a 6-game winning streak. That all came to a halt when Michigan was forced to back out of their Championship Week matchup with Iowa. A couple weeks later, COVID-19 forced Missouri to do the same with their Music City Bowl matchup with the Hawkeyes.
With the season now fully behind us, most Iowa fans have turned their attention to basketball (and wrestling, which is officially back in just over two weeks!) and the 2021 outlook. That outlook got a major boost over the last 24 hours as a pair of key contributors announced they’ll be returning to Iowa City for another year.
First came All-Big Ten defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, who announced his decision to take advantage of the NCAA’s free year of eligibility on Wednesday.
VanValkenburg, a grad transfer from Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan, came to Iowa in 2019 and played limited minutes behind superstar A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston. In 2020, ZVV emerged as the starter opposite Golston and took advantage of the opportunity.
At 6’4” and 270 lbs, VanValkenburg proved an invaluable piece along Iowa’s suffocating defensive line. He finished tied for 1st in the nation with four fumble recoveries while totaling 30 tackles. He was named second-team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and media.
As Iowa looks to replace the departed Golston, as well as All-American and Big Ten defensive player of the year Daviyon Nixon on the line, getting VanValkenburg back is a major boost for Phil Parker’s defense.
On the other side of the ball, Brian Ferentz got some tremendous news on New Year’s Eve as Rimington Award finalist and 2nd team All-American center Tyler Linderbaum announced he’ll forego the NFL draft and return for his redshirt junior season in 2021.
Excited for the future, Go Hawks! pic.twitter.com/O4nJ5lrlWv— Tyler Linderbaum (@TLinderbaum) December 31, 2020
Linderbaum, a converted defensive tackle from Solon, has developed into one of the most dominant centers Iowa has produced. Since taking on the starting job in 2019, Linderbaum has started every game for the Hawkeyes and been a complete stalwart.
As noted, the 6’3”, 290 pounder has been named a finalist for the Rimington Trophy awarded to the nation’s top center while being named second team All-Big Ten and All-America. Despite the voting, the numbers have shown Linderbaum to be the nation’s best center this season as graded by Pro Football Focus.
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
While Linderbaum grades out very well, Hawkeye fans will recall from the James Daniels experience that centers tend to slide a bit in the NFL draft due to the limited numbers needed. In addition, as just a redshirt junior, Linderbaum does have some things he can improve upon heading into 2021.
According to The Pants’ own NFL Draft analyst Rob Donaldson, Linderbaum is a “Hell of a player and has all the athleticism and technical ability you could want, but he’s 290 pounds. He needs to add more to his frame and he can definitely stand to improve his strength at the point of attack.”
Look for him to do just that during the offseason. He’ll return in 2021 as the clear front runner for the Rimington and the linchpin for what should be a stellar Iowa rushing attack.