Four years ago, Mike Daniels spent his senior year at Highland High School in South Jersey being overlooked by major college football programs that didn’t seem to think 6-foot-1 was an ideal height for playing on the defensive line.
But if you watch Iowa play Penn State on Saturday night, you will have no trouble finding Daniels. He’ll be the one trying to create havoc in the Nittany Lions’ backfield.
Daniels, a 275-pound redshirt junior tackle, has been a surprise contributor to a Hawkeyes defense that leads the nation in fewest yards allowed. His 7½ tackles for losses in four games is one more than the total for the remainder of the starting front four.
So why didn’t anyone know about this guy in high school?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Daniels said Wednesday, “but I’m just happy and blessed to be here at Iowa.”
Actually, Villanova was well ahead in the pursuit of Daniels, who wrestled at 215 pounds in high school and weighed 230 for football. During a visit to the campus, Daniels received his first scholarship offer, and he said he would have accepted.
But after he completed his visit and was driving home to Blackwood, he received a call from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz inviting him to Iowa City. Someone had sent Ferentz film of Daniels, and Ferentz liked what he saw.
“He wasn’t tall, but we’re not hung up on size too much,” Ferentz said. “We found him to be a great person from a great family. Mike is a hard-working guy, a very determined guy. He’s never going to be tall. He’s not going to be 6-4 or 6-5, but he’s an awfully good football player.”
Daniels visited Iowa and was sold. He gave the Hawkeyes coaching staff his commitment on the first night, saying Iowa football is “just hard-nosed, physical, tough people, and that’s exactly where I wanted to be.”
“When you get a call from someone like Coach Ferentz, he’s legend,” he said. “You can’t turn something like that down.”
Villanova linebackers coach/special-teams coordinator Clint Wiley was recruiting Daniels as a linebacker when the Iowa call came.
“He let us know Iowa called and asked him to come out for a visit,” Wiley said. “I think he was torn, maybe because he felt his parents wanted him to stay close. But he wanted to look at the place. As he was driving to the airport after his visit, he told us he accepted their offer because he wanted to play Big Ten football.
“We wished him the best of luck. We thought he had great intangibles, a phenomenal work ethic, and he was going to make himself a great football player.”
Daniels, who also competed in the shot put and discus in high school, sat out his first season and saw little action the next. He played in all 13 games last season, compiling 10 tackles and 1½ sacks.
Ferentz thought that Daniels made great strides last spring and, even though he was listed second on the depth chart at defensive tackle, said, “In our minds, he was a starter just like the other four guys.”
Daniels kept up the momentum in the preseason, using his strength — he bench-presses 470 pounds — and leverage to his advantage. His teammates have bestowed on him the nicknames “Mike Diesel” and “Monster.”
Iowa all-American defensive end Adrian Clayborn said Daniels “is stepping up the way he should and the way we need him to.
“It’s time for him to come up with big plays, and he’s making them,” he said. “I’m happy for him. He’s provided a spark for us.”
Daniels modestly deflects the credit for his play to his coaches and teammates.
“They don’t allow anybody on the team to let up on anything,” he said. “They keep pushing no matter what. There’s no change. We keep pushing and focus on the things we need to work on.”
On Saturday, Daniels will be across the field from the team that usually receives a great deal of interest from college football fans in South Jersey.
“I always thought of Penn State as the home team,” he said. “Temple and Rutgers are playing a lot better now, but when I was growing up, I followed Penn State. You didn’t pay any attention to Temple or Rutgers.”
Now the Lions, who didn’t pay any attention to Daniels in high school, must devote plenty of attention to him.
By Joe Juliano, The Philadelphia Inquirer