IOWA CITY, Iowa – It never gets old writing about an Iowa football player who excels after joining the program as a walk-on.
This is my second article this week on that very subject, with offensive lineman Cole Croston the focus of this column.
I also wrote about senior fullback and Wisconsin native Macon Plewa on Tuesday, curious how he felt about returning to his home state to face the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday.
With Croston, it was more a case of wanting to know what would possess a kid who barely weighed 235 pounds to join the Iowa football team as an undersized offensive lineman without a scholarship. That’s how much Croston weighed when he joined the Iowa program in 2012. To put that in perspective, former Iowa running back Mark Weisman was listed at 240 pounds as a senior last season.
“I never considered anywhere else and I didn’t get talked about anywhere else,” said Croston, who is from the town of Sergeant Bluff in northwest Iowa.
Part of the reason he didn’t consider anywhere else is that Croston was born with a connection to the Iowa program and then raised to be a Hawkeye. He is the son of former Iowa all-America offensive lineman Dave Croston, who played at Iowa during the glory years under Hayden Fry from 1982-86.
Cole Croston’s size, or lack of it, was another reason he went mostly unnoticed during the recruiting process.
“My whole life I was one of the lighter guys in high school, too,” Cole Croston said. “But I’ve always tried to rely on fundamentals. That’s what my dad taught me in high school. So that’s what I’ve tried to fall back on.”
Croston stood 6-foot-5 when he came to college, so there was plenty of room for him to gain weight under the supervision of Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle. Mission accomplished, considering Croston now weighs 305 pounds and seems to carry the added girth effortlessly.
“I can’t put a number on the thousands of calories, but we have food in the weight room and we have food here,” Croston said of the Iowa Football Complex. “And it’s just constant eating, hard work in the weight room and it’s all accumulating.”
It’s actually more than that.
So much has gone in to making Cole Croston a key member of the Iowa offensive line at left tackle. The fourth-year junior saw his first extensive action in last Saturday’s 62-16 victory over North Texas after replacing injured starter Boone Myers in the second quarter.
“We have the next-man in motto around here," Croston said. "I wasn’t sure what the problem with Boone was, but Brian (Ferentz) told me to get in there and I had prepared and Brian had prepared me well and I knew what to do in that circumstance. And I didn’t do, too, bad.”
It’s obvious from talking to Croston that he idolizes his father and wants to make him proud. But Cole also is determined to carve his own path.
“If I could even be half as good as my dad was I’d be ecstatic,” Cole Croston said. “He was a great player. I don’t want to think I’m in his shadow. I just want to be my own man.”
The man he is now looks way different than the Cole Croston who joined the Iowa team in 2012. His body wasn’t as big as his dreams were back then.
“He looked like a little kid,” said Iowa senior center Austin Blythe, who weighed 285 pounds when he joined the program in 2011 as a four-star recruit from Williamsburg. “He’s done a great job of putting weight on and I think it’s showing on the football field.
“Last week when he stepped up he did a really good job.”
Trust has been a key factor in Croston’s ascent as a player. He first had to trust himself that he could do it. He also had to trust the Iowa coaches that they could help him defy the odds.
Croston liked his chances to succeed, largely because of Doyle’s influence and expertise. Doyle has been Iowa’s strength and conditioning coach throughout Kirk Ferentz’s 17-year coaching reign. Croston also credits Brian Ferentz for helping him reach his potential.
“I had heard only great things about coach Doyle and coach Brain Ferentz does a great job as well,” Croston said. “Coach Doyle just instilled in me that he’d get me to where I needed to be in order to get on the field and be a relevant football player. And he’s gotten me there.”
Even though he makes it look easy, Croston said weighing 305 pounds at times can be a challenge.
“Running is a little more difficult,” Croston said. “We’re doing sprints out there and you can feel 300 pounds a little different than 235. But it feels good. You feel stronger.”
Croston also feels tremendous pride from just being a Hawkeye. I’m sure all the players on the Iowa roster respect and admire the opportunity that was given to them. But there is just something special about a walk-on who checks his ego at the door and then just starts competing and grinding one day at a time.
Croston achieved a milestone in August when he was placed on scholarship. But there was no ceremony to mark the occasion, only appreciation for a job well done.
“These other schools are making it all dramatic, but I’m glad they handled it the way they did here,” Croston said of the Iowa coaches. “I was definitely excited to be put on scholarship. But it’s just another step in the process.”
With that kind of mature outlook, Croston seems to have gained as much wisdom as he has weight in college.