Does high school wrestling help Midwest college programs win in the trenches?

Ian Boyd

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Recently here at the Flyover Football board, a favorite topic came up regarding the Midwest’s penchant for producing physical, hard-nosed players. Particularly offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers, and tight ends. When you see strong programs for the region, such as Wisconsin or Iowa, they are invariably effective because of such personnel.

One theory I’ve heard aiming to explain the Midwest’s tendency to generate physical offensive lines attributed it to the blue collar culture of the region. A culture with a high value for hard, demanding work could lead to a higher number of kids willing to scrap and fight through pain and repetition and master the craft of winning battles in the trenches. I mentioned this idea on the board and @Toadvine offered another factor...wrestling.

Kids in the south, or in Texas, don’t wrestle as much as they do up north and particularly not as much as they do in the Midwest (spanning down into Oklahoma as well). Their offseasons are more often spent on track, baseball, or basketball, but in a state like Iowa or Kansas? Those kids are often “encouraged” to wrestle in the same way skill talents are “encouraged” to run track and collegiate athletes are “encouraged” to show up for summer drill work.

I’ve heard Iowa in particular is very heavy on wrestling and it also happens to be the state where the flagship program (the Hawkeyes) routinely turn local 2 or 3-star talents into All-Big 10 and NFL offensive linemen, tight ends, defensive linemen, and linebackers.

Wrestling gives kids tons and tons of practice and reps at grappling, understanding leverage, coordinating their footwork and hands, and engaging in intense competition which can be painful and unrelenting in a fashion guaranteed to build toughness.

Intrigued by Toadvine’s theory, I decided to test it with a team I already knew to have benefitted from bringing along some wrestlers. Specifically I looked up Kansas State’s history with former wrestlers in their nickel fronts over the last 10 years.

K-State wrestlers up front on D.jpg

The Wildcats have had five starters who were former wrestlers in their six man fronts over the last 10 years. Those five encompass eight years worth of some of the best, most essential players up front for the Wildcats over the last decade. In particular, Kansas State’s ability to enjoy better and more consistent defensive tackle play than most other Big 12 programs despite a lower level of recruiting can arguably be explained by the presence of former top wrestlers Travis Britz, Will Geary, and finally Drew Wiley.

Naturally, this was entirely intentional on the part of Bill Snyder. This piece by Kellis Robinett for the Kansas City Star mentions Britz and Geary in particular and includes the following tidbit from Snyder,

Snyder admired Iowa’s successful wrestling program when he served as the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator. He attended matches and learned from them. He viewed wrestling as an experience that can help anyone on the football field.

“I love the sport of wrestling for that particular reason,” Snyder said. “You have to have good leverage, and football can be a game of leverage at most positions. I also think there is an innate toughness that goes along with it that I appreciate.”

Well, there you go. Snyder’s eye for recruiting wrestlers, either with scholarships or preferred walk-on positions, was intended to give the Wildcats a Hawkeye-esque advantage in finding high level trench fighters without the benefit of higher level recruiting. Finding a 215 pound linebacker with the quickness to run in space yet also the strength and willingness to hold up in the box is tricky. Finding a defensive tackle who can withstand double teams and give you an edge at the line of scrimmage is downright difficult. Everyone is fighting for the latter in recruiting.

But if such players are walking on at your program without even needing an initial scholarship offer? Now you’re cooking.

It would appear Bill Snyder thinks Toadvine is onto something in his theory for explaining the capacity of some Midwestern states for producing as much trench talent as they do.

One obvious follow-up question here is whether new head coach Chris Klieman shares this notion and if the Wildcats have other wrestlers in the pipeline. Looking through the depth chart it doesn’t appear K-State is likely to lean on any former wrestlers at starting positions although back-up inside linebacker Austin Moore, a 6-0, 215 pound Kansas walk-on, is one possibility here.

As for whether or not Klieman is aiming to maintain this strategy for finding defensive tackles, his 2021 class included a 6-0 defensive tackle named Damian Ilalio from Manhattan who very recently won the State Championship in the 285 pound division. Ilalio’s other scholarship offer came from Illinois State so it seems reasonable to suppose Klieman is wise to the “value the wrestling background ” theory.

Then there’s Iowa. Over the last five NFL drafts the Hawkeyes have had three offensive linemen selected and three defensive linemen. Three of those six draft picks were former wrestlers and included defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, multiple title-winner Austin Blythe (a center), and state champion Tristan Wirfs (offensive tackle). A catch here is all three of those players were rated as 4-star recruits, despite Wirfs and Blythe coming from humble Iowa.

None of this is conclusive but you wouldn’t look at these results and conclude wrestling isn’t a factor.

I also looked up the starting offensive line for the dominant 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, three of which were from Nebraska and the other two from Texas. One of the Nebraskans, left tackle Chris Dishman, was a very successful high school wrestler while the other four starters were all track and field stars in shot put.

Certainly wrestling isn’t the only factor in the Midwest’s penchant for punching above their weight in terms of producing some really stout, talented linemen. However there’s certainly something here. The cultural dimension and emphasis on wrestling definitely present a sort of “chicken or egg” dilemma in ascertaining the reason for the perceived toughness of the players. The reason for wrestling’s popularity is likely the culture’s value for toughness.

Nevertheless, it seems to be an advantage for the schools in the area who recruit wrestlers and find them to be well versed in the art of grappling up close with an opponent.
 

timeontarget

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Thanks Ian-- great stuff.

I always have looked favorably on recruits who are wrestlers.

IMO, there is nothing more demanding physically than a tough wrestling match. I recall watching one of my high school football teams do "monkey rolls." They would do them for a period of approximately 30 seconds. In comparison, the state champion wrestling team did monkey rolls for 2 minutes × 3 with a 20 second break between, then 1 minute × three with a twenty second break between. Like an overtime wrestling match.

I was on that team after the swimming season (unfortunately moved that summer or I would have stuck with it). It was brutal, but you sure as hell wanted any of those guys on your side in a fight: They were all tough as nails.

I think the balance and practice fending off attacks are particularly valuable for offensive linemen. I really liked the tape for Jacob Sexton, one of the OL prospects from Oklahoma. I did some deeper digging and found an article where he discusses wrestling (and that has footage of him doing backflips on a trampoline and discussion of him saying he can almost stick a backflip from the ground, i.e., that he is working on doing it). I'll dig the link up and attach it.
 

Ian Boyd

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Link to article I mentioned earlier.


Think Creed Humphrey was a wrestler too.

[ edit -- link to article about Creed, who found wrestling helpful.

https://www.espn.com/college-footba...ey-wrestling-background-pays-oklahoma-offense ]
I may follow up and check out the extent to which this has boosted Oklahoma lineman prospects. Oklahoma State might be the school to look at for that.
 
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timeontarget

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I may follow up and check out the extent to which this has boosted Oklahoma lineman prospects. Oklahoma State might be the school to look at for that.
Be interesting, but not sure how critical a successful wrestling program is to the football appreciation of the benefits of HS wrestling. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State both had great programs when I was a kid. Went to camps at both. I have a vague impression of more wrestlers on the OU lines, but that is without any data, just scattered memories. You mentioned Nebraska-- that is one school I would have named as using wrestlers a lot. But, again, that is just my vague impression.
 

kevinbelt

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People in Iowa care about high school wrestling the way people in Texas care about high school football. I had a client a few years ago who was a wrestling official, and he was always talking about so-and-so having offers from ten schools and being the number one prospect in the class of four years from now. A lot of us in the Midwest wrestle in addition to playing football, but in Iowa they play football in addition to wrestling.

I wonder if it’s coincidental that the two states in the Midwest with strong cultures of other winter sports are the two historically worst at football. Indiana plays basketball, and Minnesota plays hockey. Other states obviously play those sports too, but in Indiana and Minnesota they’re the prestige sports that the best athletes play.

I think basketball as a second sport makes sense for Space Force guys - you’re learning footwork and burst. And Mahomes and Murray show the value of baseball for QBs. But yeah, wrestling is a great infrastructure sport.
 

Ian Boyd

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People in Iowa care about high school wrestling the way people in Texas care about high school football. I had a client a few years ago who was a wrestling official, and he was always talking about so-and-so having offers from ten schools and being the number one prospect in the class of four years from now. A lot of us in the Midwest wrestle in addition to playing football, but in Iowa they play football in addition to wrestling.

I wonder if it’s coincidental that the two states in the Midwest with strong cultures of other winter sports are the two historically worst at football. Indiana plays basketball, and Minnesota plays hockey. Other states obviously play those sports too, but in Indiana and Minnesota they’re the prestige sports that the best athletes play.

I think basketball as a second sport makes sense for Space Force guys - you’re learning footwork and burst. And Mahomes and Murray show the value of baseball for QBs. But yeah, wrestling is a great infrastructure sport.
I definitely think Minnesota hockey and Indiana basketball are huge factors.
 
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