IOWA CITY – As his college career nears an end, Nathan Bazata continues to embrace the grind.
Always has. Always will.
That’s a part of who Bazata is, an undersized, blue-collar defensive tackle from a small farm town in eastern Nebraska where he learned the value of hard work that has allowed him to thrive on the Iowa football team.
He is expected to make the 36th start of his Hawkeye career Friday when Iowa concludes the regular season with a 3 p.m. game against Nebraska, a return to familiar territory for Bazata even though the Cornhuskers didn’t give him a look during the recruiting process.
Bazata arrived at Iowa with three games of experience at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium on his resume, playing in state eight-man championships there three times including as a senior at Howells-Dodge High School.
He played left guard and nose guard, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in 15 pounds lighter than the 287 pounds he carries now to deal with the oversized offensive linemen he faces on a regular basis in the Big Ten.
Bazata has been a constant in the Hawkeye defensive front for the past three seasons, often taking on offensive linemen two at a time to help free up linebackers to make plays.
“He’s a guy who doesn’t say a lot but lets his actions speak for him,’’ linebacker Josey Jewell said. “He probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but we see it every week on tape. He’s there, doing his job and doing it really well.’’
Bazata leads Iowa’s defensive linemen with 39 tackles this season, including 5.5 tackles for a loss.
He recorded the first safety of his career last week to give the Hawkeyes their first points against Purdue, work that was just part of another day at the office to another in a long list of recruits uncovered by Iowa assistant Reese Morgan.
NCAA Division I recruiters don’t usually make their way to Howells, Nebraska, population 561, but Morgan found Bazata, who was part of a senior class numbering 21 and added the first-ever Football Bowl Subdivision player from his school to a lengthy list of recruiting finds.
“He found me under a rock,’’ Bazata said. “I don’t know how he found out where I was, but it’s just kind of cool the way it all happened.’’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz thinks so, too.
“When Reese gets his eyes on guys, he’s got a real knack of whether it’s a track meet, wrestling, whatever, of just seeing things in players and athletes that maybe other people don’t see as clearly,’’ Ferentz said.
“… Nate was one of those guys that just really impressed him and when he walks in, it’s not ‘Wow.’ He’s not one of those 6-4, 6-5 guys, but there was a sense of this guy is really serious about what he does.’’
That first-blush look of a player Morgan learned about as he checked in on two other prospects who were attending a camp at Chadron State proved to be accurate.
Ferentz describes Bazata as a “hard-working, tough-minded guy,’’ who has made the made the most of his opportunity.
Bazata savors the experience, every bit of it from being part of a Rose Bowl team to fighting his way back onto the field after dealing with a nagging high ankle sprain last season.
“There are some guys that are just freaks and get noticed,’’ Bazata said. “That wasn’t me.’’
He followed the blueprint of another former Hawkeye who was a product of an eight-man program in Nebraska’s high schools and thrived in the Big Ten, Drew Ott.
“I talked a lot with him when I first got here about what it took to compete here, what I needed to do to be able to play at this level,’’ Bazata said. “He gave me a lot of good advice that has helped me do my job.’’
Bazata didn’t follow Ott’s lead in his choice of transportation.
Ott once drove his scooter from Iowa to his hometown in south-central Nebraska, a nearly 11-hour excursion.
“His back hurt for a couple of days,’’ Bazata said. “I’ve ridden my cycle home, but not my moped. I didn’t do that, but the rest, I learned a lot from him.’’
He plans to put that knowledge to work again Friday, taking the field one final time at Memorial Stadium with plenty of family and friends on hand to watch Bazata work.
“Coming off of last week, we’ve got some work to do,’’ Bazata said. “We want to get back to being at our best. That would be the best memory I could have this week, a win in my last Big Ten game.’’