IOWA CITY — Hit the rewind on Matt Tobin’s football career and you’ll see the senior move all over Iowa’s offensive line, take a swing at all-star defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn and shrink six inches into the 6-foot special teamer that rode the bench as a junior in high school.
Let’s start there with Tobin, who’ll make his 21st start for the Hawkeyes (4-6, 2-4 Big Ten) when they face off with No. 23 Michigan (7-3, 5-1) today in Ann Arbor. Yes, as a junior at Dyersville Beckman, Tobin was 6-foot, 205 and played head hunter on the kickoff team.
By the end of the season, he was 6-3, 196 pounds and his coaches didn’t recognize him.
“We were sitting in the gym during the playoffs and I asked my defensive coordinator, ‘Is that Tobin?’ ” said Bill Duffy, who then was Beckman’s coach and is now an assistant at Mason City. “Oh my gosh, I couldn’t believe how big he had gotten.”
Tobin didn’t stop there. By the time he graduated, he was a shade over 6-6 and 245. That’s such a wild growth spurt you wonder if it hurt.
“No, not at all,” Tobin said when asked if it did hurt. “I didn’t know what was going on. I would say I’m still growing into it, still trying to get strong enough.”
OK sure, Tobin was 6-6, 245 when he finished up at Beckman. That’s big, but what else did he have? Duffy showed Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan, who recruits the state of Iowa, tape of two plays.
In a game against Tipton, Tobin was the backside defensive end on a play where all-state running back Matt O’Donnell broke for a big run. Tobin ran all the way across the field and made the tackle 30 yards down the field. The other play was a little inglorious, but gave a pretty good glimpse into what Tobin is.
While blocking on a kick return against Maquoketa Valley, Tobin got two personal foul penalties and a late hit. The officiating crew thought it called the penalties on three different players.
“He just kept going down the field hitting people,” Duffy said. “I told the official, ‘You’re throwing flags on the same guy.’ He said, ‘Oh, that wasn’t the same guy.’ ”
You can make an argument that Iowa football is Matt Tobin, who went from walk-on to scholarship before last season, when he broke in as a starter at left guard. Let’s not go too crazy with that notion, but the numbers do back it up. The Hawkeyes went into this fall with a roster of 118. Forty six of those players were from Iowa and 26 of them were walk-ons.
Iowa will find and make more Matt Tobins than it will Percy Harvins. We’re talking the state of Iowa and the UI football program. Walk-ons from Iowa are sort of like lottery tickets for the Hawkeyes. They don’t cost a lot (don’t factor much in recruiting budget and not on scholarship), but you never know. You could hit it big.
Not all walk-ons develop nor do they stick around, but some do. Some become all-Americans (tight end Dallas Clark), some become dependable starters (Tobin).
“We are more apt to find a lineman than a running back,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He has worked his tail off to do it. He is a self made guy.”
Tobin started his career as a walk-on, but Iowa was extremely interested. He made his official visit on a chilly February night in the winter of ’08. It was one of those transition nights between winter and spring that left the Iowa roads icy. Tobin and Duffy made it to Iowa City. They knew Ferentz was in Des Moines at the time watching his son, James — senior center for Iowa — wrestle in the state tournament.
Tobin and Duffy were asked to wait for Ferentz and he eventually made it in and gave Tobin the full tour before turning around and driving back to Des Moines for the rest of the state tournament.
From there, it really was Tobin.
“At first, I was just excited to be on the team,” he said. “Then, I wanted to make it to the two deeps and keep working my way up and be the best I can be.”
He was thrown into the pit as a scout team O-lineman. That’s where he met Clayborn, a consensus all-American defensive end for the Hawkeyes and a future first-round NFL draft pick.
And, yes, they did fight.
“Just one day he started taking late cheap shots and stuff,” Tobin said. “I was like, ‘If you do that again, I’m going to fight you.’ He did it again and we fought. After that, he told me he had more respect for me.”
How did it go?
“Just a punch in the facemask and they broke us up. It wasn’t that big of a deal,” Tobin said.
Not a big deal, but something like that echoes to young players. And, no, the message isn’t that fighting is OK or even necessarily smart. The lesson is not backing down.
“He’s got a tenacious attitude. That’s something I want to have as a football player,” freshman guard Austin Blythe said. “It’s not something that everyone has. You have to be willing to kind of pick a fight sometimes. It’s going to happen. It shows your physical nature and that’s something you need on the offensive line. People aren’t going to back down on Saturday. They’re going to try to defeat your block, so that’s something you need to develop.”
Coach Ferentz: “I think the thing that stood out about Matt most during the early years was he was a tough, competitive guy. He worked really hard and he had some work to do, but he was a tough, competitive guy. He showed that all the time at practice.”
You can argue Iowa football is Tobin, but you can’t argue that Tobin is Iowa.
The Worthington native loves to hunt. He’s frequently worn coverall-type jackets with skeet shooting patches on them. He’s also handy with a bow and arrow.
“I lifted weights in high school, but nothing too crazy,” he said. “I was more interested in hunting.”
And then, Tobin went into exactly what hunting season is open right now in Iowa. There is a fall turkey season, but most everyone is deer hunting now.
Hit fast forward and you see all of this — the six-inch growth spurt, walking on at Iowa, throwing down with an all-American — and, who knows, maybe you’ll see an NFL player at some point. Duffy said he’s received letters from NFL teams asking what kind of kid Tobin was in high school.
This is an Iowa kid.