A.J. Derby set to make impact on defense, special teams


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Iowa's special-team players streaked downfield on a third-quarter kickoff, surging toward Indiana kick returner Shane Wynn in a mass of black shirts.

But all eyes in Kinnick Stadium were on the player leading the charge in a No. 17 jersey. That player was seeing the first special-team action of his career. That player was A.J. Derby, who was a backup quarterback until early last week.

The 6-4, 232-pound redshirt freshman lowered his shoulder as he approached Wynn, drilled the Hoosier in the chest, and drove him down onto the 15-yard line.

And so ended Derby's career as a gunslinger — at least for now. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said the physically gifted athlete will spend the rest of his Iowa tenure at linebacker, barring injury at other positions.


"Nothing seems permanent around here right now with injuries and what-have-you, but [linebacker] is what we're going to focus on … the rest of the way," he said after the Hawkeyes' 45-24 win over Indiana on Oct. 22. "We saw him on kickoff coverage today; it was excellent. We've been searching for guys there, [and] he went down and made a real nice play."

Derby was a four-star prospect from City High and was ranked the best player in the state after his senior season. He was recruited as a dual-threat quarterback, but he also played receiver, linebacker, and defensive back with the Little Hawks — and punted well enough that he holds the school record for the longest kick, a 70-yarder. He had scholarship offers from programs like Alabama, Florida, Stanford, and Miami.

But he wore a redshirt last year as Ricky Stanzi put the finishing touches on an NFL-worthy career, and he appeared destined to ride the bench this year as James Vandenberg's backup. He had two appearances this season, both in garbage time, and completed 3-of-6 passes for 30 yards.

He dropped out of the quarterback depth chart entirely earlier this month, when Ferentz suspended him for two games after he was arrested for public intoxication and criminal mischief. Derby said the time off helped him realize he isn't bigger than the team.

"Stop being stupid, stop making mistakes, and try to focus on the team and do what's best for that," he said when asked about lessons he took from his suspension.

Considering Vandenberg will likely start for another year and the Hawkeyes have USA Today high-school Player of the Year Jake Rudock waiting behind him, Ferentz decided it was best for the team that Derby move to linebacker.

The 20-year-old said Ferentz called him into this office on Oct. 18 to discuss the switch. He accepted the idea after he spoke with his father, John, who was an All-Big Ten linebacker at Iowa from 1988-91.

And while everyone from Vandenberg to linebacker Christian Kirksey admitted they were surprised when they learned Derby would line up at outside linebacker, no one seemed concerned about his transition.

"He already has the size to be a linebacker — he's bigger than me — and I just looked at him and said, 'I know you're going to be a good player,' because he's so athletic," Kirksey said. "… He automatically focused in and tuned in to linebacker. He did pretty well."

Derby probably won't see any snaps with the defense for a while, but he got off to a good start against Indiana; he said he enjoyed smacking Wynn on his special-teams tackle after spending the early part of his career wearing the quarterback no-contact shirt in practice.

"It was good to get some contact out there and make a tackle," he said, laughing. "I haven't hit anybody since I got here — which is weird — so it was kind of fun."

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