Spring Outlook: Hawkeye Defensive Line
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa said goodbye to four starters from last year’s very productive defensive line. That it didn’t create panic says a lot about the strength of the position.
New D-Line coach Kelvin Bell, who takes over for the recently retired Reese Morgan, likes what he sees. Still, there’s work to be done this spring and summer. Building depth is key.
The projected starters supply comfort. All of them are experienced. End A.J. Epenesa (6-6, 280) returns after leading the Big Ten in sacks (10.5) as a reserve. Opposite him stands Chauncey Golston (6-5, 265), who keeps getting better and is poised for a breakout season.
“Physically, you’ve got two guys that are extremely talented in terms of performance numbers and combine numbers,” Bell said. “It’s just the mindset of being an every-down player is what they need to understand… That has more to it than just rushing the quarterback.”
Inside, Cedrick Lattimore (6-3, 295) will be entering his third season in the rotation with six starts under his belt. Brady Reiff (6-3, 277) returns for his third year of playing, having seen action in 32 games.
After that foursome, things become cloudy. Bell is searching for guys capable of filling out the rotation even it doesn’t stretch eight deep like last year. That number is possible, however.
It’s a matter of earning trust.
“It’s just about the development and that development is ongoing through spring ball, through summer, through summer practice. That’s how you get to eight. I can’t look out there right now and say, “hey, you eight are going to play” because every rep is earned,” Bell said.
Iowa is repping linebacker Amani Jones at end this spring. It gives the defense a different look with a guy who can rush the passer, set the edge, fill gaps or drop into coverage.
Jones started last season as the No. 1 middle linebacker. He struggled and moved into a backup role. He continued in his starring role on special teams.
“He’s going to have to adjust. Things happen a lot faster down there because you’re closer to the ball. But the energy he provides, he’s really good for the room. He wants to be good, which is important,” Bell said.
“But I don’t think of Amani as a defensive end. I think of him as an edge defender. He knows if he wants to play those reps are earned. We’re not just going to throw him out there so his parents can take pictures.”
Bell isn’t necessarily looking for the most talented individuals. He’s searching for the players that work well together. He believes that led to last season’s success.
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That means communicating and understanding in a fluid unit.
“If we can get them to the level of the guys last year, we’ll be pretty good,” Bell said.
The four starters from 2018 – Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson, Sam Brincks and Anthony Nelson – lived together. That helped their relationships and improved their connection on the field.
Bell knows that setup can’t always be created. But he plans on fostering togetherness on his unit.
“You can have the players over for dinner or you can have an activity outside the (football) building where you’re together. You create opportunities for us to be together and hopefully you can catch a spark,” Bell said.
Members of the defensive line joined a text group, keeping open a line of communication.
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At tackle, high hopes exist for Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 306), who sat out last season after transferring from Iowa Western Community College. He’s at Iowa despite receiving an Alabama offer following a season at JUCO.
The ability is there, Bell said. Nixon is preparing himself physically and mentally this offseason so he can contribute.
“He wants to better,” Bell said. “There’s no pushback, there’s not resistance from him on doing anything extra to get himself in position to play,” Bell said.
Noah Shannon (6-0, 294) also red shirted in ’18 after arriving from Oswego (IL) High. After working on the scout team all fall, he began the spring in the two-deep at tackle. He’s trying to build on what he learned during bowl prep.
“He’s been everything we thought he was when he was recruited. You’ve got a hungry, humble kid that wants to be good, that wants to be coached, that wants to be pushed. He’s already earned the respect of the older guys,” Bell said.
Redshirt junior Austin Schulte (6-4, 287) joined Shannon as a No. 2 tackle on first spring depth chart. He began his career on the defensive line, switched to offense and returned to the D-Line. He’s overcome injuries.
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“He’s the guy in the room that a lot of our guys look to even though he hasn’t played. Just his level of enthusiasm, his attention to detail, a lot of guys admire that. That tells you a lot about the character of the kid,” Bell said.
“I see him right now in a role. He’s in the two-deeps and he’s rotating with the first team. So, he’s a guy that I can count on. I know he knows where he’s supposed to be. I know he knows what to do.”
At end, redshirt freshman John Waggoner (6-5, 267) showed up on the two-deep. He starred at West Des Moines Dowling Catholic and came to campus with good deal of hype.
“To be honest with you, (he’s) a pleasant surprise. You never know what to expect when you get a kid that’s highly recruited. He’s come in and doesn’t say boo. All he does is work,” Bell said.
“There’s nothing flashy about John, but he’s extremely consistent. I’m excited to add him to the rotation this fall as well.”
Iowa added a graduate transfer defensive end in Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 265) from Division II Hillsdale (Mich.) College. He recorded 70 tackles (14.5 for loss) and 8.5 sacks, and forced three fumbles last season. He was named his conference’s D-Lineman of the year and will have two years to play for the Hawkeyes.
“The film speaks for itself and I wouldn’t have been interested if the tape wasn’t good,” Bell said. “But after meeting him, he fits. He seems like he’s been here already in the program.”
Nathan Nelson (6-3, 252), the younger brother of Anthony Nelson, popped up on the spring two-deep behind Epenesa. He suffered an injury. Bell said he hoped to get him back sometime later in the fall.
“We didn’t just recruit him because he’s Anthony’s brother. The kid has some ability,” Bell said.