AMES — Zach Petersen didn’t think much of it when he saw a handful of Iowa State football coaches in the stands at a high school wrestling tournament almost two years ago. Then a senior at North Scott, Petersen knew there was increased interest from the coaches, but he didn’t know to what degree.
As the early signing period neared in 2017, the Cyclones jumped on board with Petersen joining the class, but with a caveat. He would have to sign as a grayshirt, and not officially join the program until after the 2018 season.
“I think my mindset was more just, if I was going to go anywhere, it wouldn’t matter what it was, scholarship or grayshirt, I wanted to be the best guy I could,” Petersen said. “If I meant redshirting or grayshirting, it wasn’t the end of the world to me. I knew there was great guys here.”
That wrestling tournament in Waterloo changed everything and made ISU coach Matt Campbell re-evaluate his thoughts on Petersen.
“Bad coaching, let’s put that first and foremost,” Campbell said. “What a ding dong I was thinking we’d grayshirt Zach Petersen.”
Two quick pins in that tournament, a defection by an ISU commit and heavy pursuits by the likes of Kansas State and Iowa all helped turn Petersen from a grayshirt candidate into a bona fide starter on the defensive line in less than two years.
Petersen, a true sophomore, started his first game last week in place of the injured JaQuan Bailey, tallying six tackles, a half-tackle for loss and a forced fumble — he has 18 tackles through five games. What he’s brought to the defense is what Campbell and Co. saw back in 2017: relentless physicality.
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“One fabric I loved about him from the beginning is the consistency of attitude and effort,” Campbell said. “Let’s just think what that kid did in the game (versus TCU). He played every rep for us almost on defense, every critical play in the fourth quarter he made. He had a tackle for loss on the counter play, he batted down the ball and he’s the guy that forces the fumble. He played outstanding. He graded out at championship level for his performance.”
One of the other traits Petersen possesses is being unassuming and showing humility in his play, but balancing that with confidence that he can do his job effectively. As a true freshman, he used to get flustered at times when he had a missed assignment or didn’t execute the play exactly as it should be. Players like Bailey and Ray Lima taught him how to overcome those things.
“I’ve never been comfortable with where I’m at. I’ve always wanted to be the best. I don’t wanna be the guy that messes up, so just being able to go to work every day and get better,” Petersen said. “I’m really hard on myself, I always critique myself if I mess up in practice. You can usually tell because I get really mad and I kind of close off myself a little bit and focus in a little bit more.”
Part of his emergence as a true option on defense has been his added bulk. The 6-foot-4 defensive end added roughly 40 pounds to his frame in the offseason, and is up to 262. He matches up much better with tackles and can shed blocks quicker but hasn’t lost a step in his quickness or athleticism.
“A beast. He’s a freak,” senior linebacker Marcel Spears said of Petersen. “He’s big, fast, strong, he was another one this fall camp and spring ball, he was one of the most consistent guys, hard-working guys, dedicated guys, and everything that he’s getting right now, he’s deserving of it.”
Ironically, it was Petersen’s frame, which was almost “skinny” in 2017, that Campbell said made him a grayshirt candidate at the outset. Petersen wrestled at 220 pounds for North Scott — he weighed anywhere from 215 to 220 at the time — but looked much different than he does now.
“He wasn’t this WWE wrestler that he does now, but he was skinny and a little bit undersized,” Campbell said. “The thing I loved about Zach is the motor you saw and you’re seeing now. I said, ‘Man if this guy grows into his body, he’s going to have a chance to be a great player.’
“That all changed for me when I went and watched him wrestle in Waterloo.”