By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The league.
Say those two words to a college football player from a Power 5 conference and he immediately knows to what you’re referring.
The league is the National Football League, the place where practically every player from a Power 5 conference hopes to be some day, the place where lives are forever changed, where financial security is gained, and where the best compete against the best at the highest level.
Junior defensive back Dane Belton is on a journey that he hopes will reach the NFL, and his effort to make that come true is a big reason why he signed with the University of Iowa.
Iowa isn’t a traditional power or a blue blood program, but is a place where defensive backs have thrived under Phil Parker, who is an original member of Kirk Ferentz’s staff, and for nearly a decade has had the dual role of defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach for the Hawkeyes.
“He was one of the biggest factors,” Belton said of why he picked Iowa over more than two dozen other scholarship offers, including at least 12 from Power 5 schools. “I had a few offers coming out high school, so it was doing the due diligence of doing the research of different schools in my best interest, and coach Parker was one of the biggest factors, having that repertoire of sending people to the league, and having that resume of taking low-star recruits, or maybe from a different position like receiver, and adding tools to the tool box and becoming a top Big Ten defensive back, and end up being a top defensive back in the league.
“That is one of the biggest things, knowing that if he can do that with them, the way I approach football, and I love to learn, I felt like he could do it with me as well.”
Belton is now part of a deep and experienced Iowa secondary, a unit that could be the strength to Iowa’s defense this season.
He played extensively in all eight games last season and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by both the league’s coaches and the media.
A former three-star recruit, Belton came a long way from his home in Tampa, Fla., to be a Hawkeye. And while his decision didn’t just come down to one factor, Belton’s trust in Parker, and his belief that playing under Parker would be his best shot of making the NFL was by far the biggest factor.
Belton hopes to become part of a long and distinguished list of Hawkeye defensive backs who would go on to play in the NFL, and in some cases, star in the NFL.
From Bob Sanders to Bradley Fletcher to Charles Godfrey to Micah Hyde to Desmond King to Amani Hooker, Parker’s pipeline has been flowing for two decades.
“Football is a challenging sport in and of itself, so coming to the high platform in college and knowing what it takes to be a collegiate athlete, you’ve got to have that motivation you want to go beyond,” said the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Belton. “For me personally, and I know for a lot of my peers, the league is our goal.”
The problem with the league is that so few actually make it there.
That makes what Parker has accomplished at Iowa even more impressive.
The odds are stacked against most players making the league, and yet, Iowa has had 16 defensive backs selected in the NFL draft under Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker.
Sanders went from having one Power 5 scholarship offer to being named NFL Defensive Player of the year in 2007 as a safety for the Indianapolis Colts. He also made first-team All-Big Ten three times as a Hawkeye.
Most of the defensive backs who have flourished under Parker before playing in the NFL were lightly recruited in high school.
Belton, with more than two dozen scholarship offers, actually stands out compared to most other Iowa defensive backs.
And with two years of playing experience already under his belt, and with a key role coming this season, Belton is on the right track in his quest to make the league.
But Belton also knows that the best way to plan for his future is to live in the moment.
While making it to the NFL is clearly his top priority, Belton hasn’t let it be a distraction.
In addition to earning Academic All-Big Ten accolades, Belton was also part of Iowa’s 2020 Leadership Group.
“I would say the competition level is really high right now,” Belton said of the Iowa secondary. “We only expect it to go even higher.”
Kirk Ferentz has a long list of accomplishments as the Iowa head coach, including being the all-time winningest coach in program history.
But Ferentz’s NFL pipeline could arguably be his greatest achievement, and that is certainly something to sell to recruits.
“If they’re not bringing it up, they’re thinking about it,” Ferentz said of making it to the NFL. “Basically, every young high school football player has that dream. I don’t want to speak for them all, but that’s pretty common. And a lot of parents do, too.”
But with that being said, Ferentz as a college head coach, has bigger priorities than keeping his NFL pipeline flowing.
“I’m all for it if it’s healthy,” Ferentz said of recruits using the hope of playing in the NFL as motivation. “It’s not a program goal. And I always tell our players, and tell prospects, it’s a by-product of having a good college career, just like when I talk to kids at our camps, be a college football player and have a great high school career. Focus on that and things will work themselves out if they’re supposed to.”