Kirk Ferentz believes the longer NFL teams look at Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse, the more they will like about the two Hawkeyes who are attempting to transition to the next level on the other side of the ball.
"They both have the ability to make it work," the Iowa football coach said Wednesday prior to an appearance at the Hawkeye Fan Event at the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf.
Ferentz joined women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder, wrestling coach Tom Brands, current men’s basketball player Michael Baer and recent Hawkeye senior men’s basketball player Nicholas Baer at an event emceed by Gary Dolphin.
Nelson and Hesse, both three-year starters and two of the four seniors to start on the Hawkeyes’ defensive line last season, went unselected last month as NFL teams made their 2019 draft picks.
Both have joined a number of Iowa players in finding free-agent opportunities at the next level.
Nelson signed with the Detroit Lions shortly after the draft ended, agreeing to a contract as a developmental player.
The Cedar Rapids native, who started all 13 games at defensive tackle last fall for Iowa, will begin his pro career working as an offensive tackle.
It took Hesse a little longer to work things out.
He signed a free-agent contract Sunday with the Tennessee after participating in a weekend rookie mini-camp with the Titans.
There, the player who arrived at Iowa as a linebacker but spent the last three seasons in the lineup at defensive end became a tight end.
Ferentz can see what NFL teams saw in both players.
In Nelson, there is more to like than the 6-foot-8, 295-pound size that allowed him to shift from an end to a tackle spot on the Iowa defensive front.
"Thinking back a few years and looking into a crystal ball, offensive tackle is a spot he could have played for us as well," Ferentz said. "Offensive tackles are a hard thing for NFL teams to find, and with work and time, Matt has a chance. He’s sharp, he’s smart and he’s a good football player."
Nelson spent last summer preparing for and taking Medical College Acceptance Tests, plans that have been delayed as he works to see where his NFL opportunity may lead.
Hesse, like Nelson a four-time academic all-Big Ten selection, earned his undergraduate degree prior to taking the first snap of his junior season at Iowa.
A high school quarterback, the 6-3, 261-pound Waukon, Iowa, native was repeatedly praised by coaches for the attention to detail he displayed while developing into one of the most consistent players on the Hawkeye defensive front.
Ferentz said in many respects, Hesse grew to become the leader of the defense from both how technically sound he was at his position and from how he interacted and led teammates.
"His value to our team went well beyond the numbers he recorded," Ferentz said. "Parker stepped up at competed at a very high level at end for us. He’s a bright guy, very detail oriented, and there is a value to that."
For both Nelson and Hesse, Ferentz said their approach to the game, their willingness to adapt and learn as well as work, position them to have an opportunity.
"In talking with NFL people as they came through, I talked a lot about how people would like having those guys around. I think the key for both of them is time. The longer they are in somebody’s camp, the more coaches are going to appreciate what they bring to the organization," Ferentz said.
"It might start on a practice squad, but keep working. They are both players who bring more to it than what takes place on the field."
Ferentz compares them to New England Patriots fullback James Develin, a defensive end at the collegiate level for Brown.
"He plays for the greatest team in the world, and found a role with that team on the other side of the ball. It can work, and I’m hoping for our two guys it does," Ferentz said.
Nelson and Hesse are among 10 players from last season’s 9-4 Hawkeye team to secure opportunities with NFL teams.
The most recent is defensive back Jake Gervase, a Davenport Assumption graduate who signed a free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Rams on Monday following a weekend tryout.
"I’m happy for Jake. He’s a tremendous young man, and I know he’ll give this everything he has," Ferentz said. "He’s put in the work and like all of our guys, he’s pretty motivated."