By Rob Howe
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Xavier Nwankpa arrived at Iowa 10 months ago as one of the program’s highest ranked recruits in history. The five-star prospect reported scholarship offers from Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and just about any other school that plays the sport.
With those credentials and his production at Pleasant Hill (IA) Southeast Polk High school, it was fair to wonder if he’d contribute to the Hawkeye defense in Year 1. It hasn’t happened. And while that’s bothered some fans, he’s taken it in stride, displaying a high level of maturity.
Nwankpa showed up Tuesday for interviews here at the indoor practice facility with a smile on his face that reappeared throughout questioning. He’s enjoyed his first season of college football and where he’s playing it.
“I’m very happy here,” he said.
You can see him bonding with his teammates during pregame warmups. He fits well into a program that ignores high school player rankings once student-athletes arrive on campus. Success is earned.
“I like the culture here,” he said. “All the guys, especially in the DB room, we’re really tight. We’re all just getting along, trying to be the best we can be.”
Nwankpa (6-2, 210) is contributing on special teams for an outfit that’s won four games in a row and can claim its second consecutive Big Ten West Championship Friday with a victory against Nebraska (3 p.m. CT, BTN). The Hawkeyes will pay tribute to their seniors in a pregame ceremony.
Strong safety Kaevon Merriweather will be among that group. He’s mentoring Nwankpa this season as the youngster prepares for potentially taking over his starting position next season.
“That’s my roommate on game days and in fall camp,” Nwankpa said. “He’s just helped bring me along, pick up the speed of everything and really just help my knowledge, for sure.
“He’s really helped me understand the defense. Coming in, I really didn’t know what to expect. He’s helped me since I first got here (in January as an early enrollee). He taught me how to watch film. In high school, you watch film, but in college you really have to watch film.”
Nwankpa is soaking up knowledge and patiently taking the steps of improvement needed for ultimate success. It’s not always easy waiting your turn, but there’s something to be said for enjoying the process.
“Really, I’m just focused on helping the team get better wherever I can so when the opportunity does present itself I’ll be there and be ready,” he said.
Nwankpa has appeared in 10 games this season, registering four tackles on special teams and some limited late-game work. He’s embraced his time on special teams.
“As a freshman, throughout the whole country, it’s hard to even get on the field at all. I’ve had the opportunity. Coach (LeVar) Woods has implemented some things to help me get on the field, which I feel like will help me in the future,” he said.
Despite the demands of his first college season, Nwankpa makes time for his friend and former Southeast Polk teammate Kadyn Proctor. While he was the nation’s No. 1 safety in the ’22 recruiting class, Proctor (6-8, 345) ranks as the top offensive tackle in the country for ’23.
Proctor verbally committed to the Hawkeyes in June, but it didn’t keep other top programs from pursuing him. He officially visited Oregon earlier this month.
Nwankpa and former Southeast Polk quarterback Jaxon Dailey, a freshman at Arkansas State, share their experiences from recruiting when Proctor asks them. They’re advising but also giving space.
“I tell him it’s his process, take his time, take his visits,” Nwankpa said. “You only get this opportunity once. So go ahead, do what you can. I told him that home is always here.”
Proctor is keeping his thoughts to himself, not talking about his recruitment after Southeast Polk won its second consecutive Class 5A state title last Friday. He and his family are navigating the process privately. That could include a visit to Iowa Friday for the Nebraska game.
He’s considered a rare plug-and-play offensive lineman in college. From what Nwankpa’s seen, he believes Proctor can help a program next season.
“I’ve always worked out with him, but especially these two off-seasons, he’s faster than what you think and he’s definitely very physical. Clean up technique and everything, I feel like he’ll be ready when he steps on campus, wherever,” Nwankpa said.
Time will tell if the former in-state prep standouts will team up again in pursuit of championships.