IOWA CITY — Zach Derby quietly has emerged from the shadows of his highly acclaimed younger brother and highly touted fellow tight ends to make his mark at Iowa.
Derby, a junior Iowa City native, has stuck to a familiar Hawkeye philosophy: he outworks everyone around him. Derby, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound tight end, walked on at Iowa in 2008 as a legacy. His father, John, was an all-Big Ten linebacker in the early 1990s, and Zach Derby didn't have any other scholarship offers coming out of Iowa City High. So Derby hit the weight room and focused on his position. He grew out and he grew up.
Three years later, Derby has built himself into a reliable, competitive player fighting for playing time and a starting position.
"The thing I would say there is Zach has just quietly, going back to last December, every time we're on the practice field, he's moving forward," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's not dramatic or anything like that. He continues to improve."
Derby remains a walk-on, but on Saturday against Pittsburgh, he was Iowa's most reliable tight end in the clutch. He played the entire fourth quarter in Iowa's 21-point comeback win. He caught two fourth-quarter passes for 25 yards, including a 20-yarder to propel the Hawkeyes on their second touchdown scoring drive.
Derby earned his playing time over designated senior starter Brad Herman and sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz. Ferentz said this week's practice will determine Saturday's starter against Louisiana Monroe.
"He was playing the best Saturday, so that's what we went with down the stretch," Ferentz said. "(Derby) made a beautiful play down there.
"But we'll see how this week goes with all three of those guys. (We) plan on playing all of them."
Derby has earned the confidence of Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg.
"I think everybody has respected Zach for a long time," Vandenberg said. "He's done a great job ever since he's been here. We've been really good friends. He got a chance in that fourth quarter, and I don't think anybody is really surprised by what he did. He did a really nice job for us."
Zach is the quiet, unassuming version of Iowa's Derby brothers. His younger brother, A.J., is a red-shirt freshman quarterback who was recruited by virtually every major college football program. A.J. Derby is less reserved and talkative of the two, Vandenberg said. But their personality differences aside, the two are close both on and off the field.
"I definitely feel like they have a connection because every time Zach's in there with A.J., A.J. is throwing it to Zach," Vandenberg said.
Zach Derby played 10 games last year on special teams and caught one pass for 17 yards. He said getting on the field felt natural and he believed he belonged with his play.
Derby has caught three passes for 30 yards this season. He admits Herman is faster and Fiedorowicz is stronger, but what he won't say is that his work ethic might have elevated him in the three-way competition. After his performance against Pittsburgh, Derby remains humble, yet confident, that he might be Iowa's best choice at tight end.
"I wouldn't say I'm established by any means, but I'm just trying to go in there and do my best," Derby said.
Derby was mentored in his early years by three NFL tight ends — Brandon Myers (Oakland), Tony Moeaki (Kansas City) and Allen Reisner (Minnesota). Derby emulated them on the practice field.
"Just watching them play throughout the years has really helped my game just trying to do the things they did because they're great players, and they're still doing well in the NFL now," Derby said. "Just watching them was a big help for me."
Derby's humility was put to the test last weekend. Multiple times television and radio broadcasters referred to him as "A.J." It might rile up many older brothers, but Zach Derby shook it off.
"I actually had heard that but it's not a big deal," he said. "Hopefully they'll figure it out sometime."Based on Derby's fourth-quarter performance against Pittsburgh, it looks like Ferentz already has.