By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz likes to call them stories and there were four incredible stories standing within about 10 feet of each other on Monday in the front foyer of the Iowa Football Complex.
Defensive backs Cooper DeJean and Sebastian Castro, linebacker Jay Higgins and 26-year-old Australian punter Tory Taylor were all meeting with the media for the first time since each of them had earned multiple All-America honors.
DeJean and Taylor both earned unanimous consensus All-America honors, which gets them a place on the honor wall in the Iowa Football Complex.
Iowa now has 31 consensus All-Americans in program history, including 16 in the Kirk Ferentz era dating back to 1999.
Taylor was also the recipient of the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate punter.
Each player has his own story to tell, and while each story is different, there is one common theme in that none of the four were highly recruited.
Taylor is part of a growing trend of Australian punters that are coming to the United States to play college football, so it’s kind of hard to compare him to a typical recruit.
Iowa zeroed in on Taylor and then convinced him to be a Hawkeye.
There wasn’t much fanfare when Taylor arrived during the middle of the global pandemic in 2020, but he has since gone on to become arguably the greatest punter in program history, which is quite a statement since the late, great Reggie Roby punted for Iowa and helped to lead the resurgence under Hayden Fry in the early 1980s.
DeJean arrived in 2021 after an astonishing high school career in which he excelled in football, basketball and track and field.
He picked Iowa over scholarship offers from Illinois State, North Dakota State and South Dakota, while Iowa State reportedly never made an offer.
DeJean is now sort of a Hawkeye legend after just three seasons, including two as a full-time starting cornerback and punt returner.
He has performed so well that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who isn’t one to spread the praise on thick unless absolutely deserved, called DeJean the 2023 version of Nile Kinnick on Monday.
There isn’t a better compliment that an Iowa player could receive.
DeJean’s most famous play as a Hawkeye will forever be remembered as one of the greatest punt returns in program that didn’t happen according to the record book.
His 54-yard punt return for a touchdown against Minnesota in which he eluded multiple defenders near the Minnesota sideline with a nifty spin move was a jaw-dropping masterpiece from a performance standpoints, and that will never change.
What did change, however, is the ruling on the play as the touchdown was erased due to what was called an invalid fair catch signal.
It was a highly controversial call, partly because the officials didn’t stop the play on the field, and because DeJean insists he wasn’t signaling for a fair catch when he waved his arm.
Minnesota would go on to win 12-10, but the legend of Cooper DeJean received a huge boost from that surreal high-and-low moment.
Higgins reportedly had 11 scholarship offers coming out high school in Indianapolis, but seven were from teams in the Mid-American Conference, one was from Western Illinois, while two others were from Tulane and the Air Force Academy.
Neither Indiana nor Purdue apparently saw enough in Higgins to offer him a scholarship, and both instate teams could have used him, considering how poorly they performed on defense this season, while Higgins leads the Big Ten with 155 tackles, a total that ranks fourth in program history.
Higgins has led the team in tackles in 11 of 13 games with two 15-plus tackle games and nine games with 10 or more stops. He has been a leader on an Iowa defense that is fourth nationally, allowing 13.2 points per game.
Castro picked Iowa over scholarship offers from Ball State, Iowa State, Minnesota and Syracuse.
The fact he had four BCS offers, including Iowa, separates Castro from the other three, but he was hardly a coveted recruit coming out of suburban Chicago.
Castro has since proved his doubters wrong by having one of the best single seasons for an Iowa defensive back in program history.
He recorded 61 total tackles, 8 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, 11 pass breakups, three interceptions, and one interception returned for a touchdown that came against Iowa State.
Upon joining the team, each player has traveled a different path to stardom.
Taylor hit the ground punting and has been a starter since his very first game at Purdue in 2020.
He never had punted in a real game before, but it was hard to tell as he started launching booming punts since day one.
DeJean saw action in seven games as a true freshman in 2021, and though he showed flashes of brilliance, there was no indication that he was on the verge of stardom and would achieve it in just two seasons as a starter.
Higgins had to wait until his senior season to be a starter as he played behind All-American Jack Campbell and three-year starter Seth Benson over the past three seasons.
And Castro had to wait even longer after having been redshirted in 2019.
He then appeared briefly in one game in the 2020 season, and he saw limited action in 14 games in the 2021 season, but he had just five tackles.
It was late in the 2022 season when Castro finally started to emerge.
He finished with 22 tackles for the season, and seven came in the final two games.
His late-season surge would be a sign of things to come as Castro has gone in one year from being a reserve to now trying to decide if he will return for a sixth season or declare for the 2024 NFL draft.
Higgins and DeJean are also deciding between returning for one more season or leaving for the draft, while Taylor will enter the draft.
“It’s kind of interesting, they’ve all got little different careers,” Kirk Ferentz said Monday. “You think about Tory, he’s been a four-year guy, certainly Cooper two years now full time, Jay, really first time as a middle linebacker for us. He played a lot last year, but first time as a primary starter for us. And then Sebastian basically it was right at the end of the (2022) season when he started to turn the corner last year.
“So, they’ve all got different paths, but the accomplishment level that they played at this year is certainly noteworthy. And the commonality is that all of them have great attitudes and they all have really strong work ethics and then the way they’ve improved. Everyone is a story of improvement, and a career of improvement. And that’s really kind of the design of our program. That’s how we’re hoping to do it and we’re not looking for a quick fix or hoping to patch too many holes. I’d rather have guys that grow up in the program.”
The four players were just looking for an opportunity, and that’s how every one of these stories starts.
Taylor came to Iowa from Melbourne, Australia with modest expectations, and on sort of a trial basis.
“Not many people would know this, but when I first came here, I was kind of like I’ll play this season, and then if I enjoy it, I’ll hang around and stick around,” Taylor said. “And then I was kind of like, ‘we’ll, this is pretty fun and I’m not half bad at this and I’ll keep it going.’
“It was weird, my first year I would just run out there, catch it, and kick it as far and as high as I can, and then I’m like, ‘you guys are going to have to do the rest.”’
And while DeJean was a highly decorated multi-sport star in high school, he couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams that stardom would come in just three years as a Hawkeye.
Despite all his success in high school and despite his extraordinary athletic ability, DeJean, who is from Odebolt, had some doubts when he joined the program.
“If you asked me three years ago if I’d be in this position, I’d tell you no,” DeJean said. “To be honest, when I first committed here and got here, I didn’t even know if I could play at this level coming from a small town and school in Iowa.
“But I’ve just tried to come in every day and work my hardest and I have great coaches and teammates around me who’ve helped me learn the game on a deeper level.”
For Castro and Higgins, just having the chance to choose between another season as a Hawkeye or declaring for the NFL draft is an extraordinary development in which there is no bad choice.
“I’m just blessed,” Castro said. “It’s like a win-win situation. Come back and play for Iowa or play in the NFL, do something that I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid.”
After hearing how Castro had described his situation, Higgins smiled and said:
“That’s a good quote from (Stro). Quote that at the top of the article.”
Iowa has earned the reputation as one of the best developmental programs in the country under Kirk Ferentz, and players such as these four have helped to build that reputation.
Each has defied the odds and exceeded expectations, and they have done so by embracing the grind and by trusting their coaches and the process.
Taylor will make his final appearance as a Hawkeye when Iowa faces Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando, Florida, and there is a chance that DeJean already has played in his last game as a Hawkeye should he decide to enter the draft.
DeJean is currently recovering from a lower-leg injury and won’t play in the bowl game.
But if he were healthy, DeJean would be just like the other three in that he would be eagerly awaiting a chance to represent Iowa in the bowl game.
In an age when multiple players opt out of playing in bowl games because of concern about injury, or because they’re more interested in preparing for the NFL draft, Iowa’s four All-Americans are loyal to the team, and to the program that helped to make them the latest in a long and distinguished list of stories under Kirk Ferentz.
“You probably won’t see a lot of guys opt out around here,” Higgins said. “That’s just the type of guys we are. We understand that every game is important to us. We want to win every game and getting that 11th win.
“Obviously, when you win the bowl game it just feels better. Your stories will be better once you win the game. We’re focused on winning and we’re going to need our best guys to do that.”