IOWA CITY, Iowa – Matt Nelson looks more like a power forward on a basketball court than a defensive tackle. As they say, looks can be deceiving.
The 6-foot-8, 285-pound junior earned Division I basketball scholarship offers during his time at Cedar Rapids (IA) Xavier High. It spoke to the athleticism of a guy who picked up football rides from Notre Dame and Stanford, among others.
Nelson has established himself as a playmaker coming off the edge the two seasons. In 2016, he racked up 6.5 tackles for loss and six sacks, while recovering two fumbles. Pro Football Focus rated him as one of the top run stopping ends in the Big Ten.
The two-time academic all-conference pick has had his role expanded on a defensive line trying to do that throughout group. Fellow ends Parker Hesse and A.J. Epenesa also saw action inside during Saturday’s Kids Day practice at Kinnick Stadium.
“So far, I like it. It’s a different look, a different feel and different kind of alignments and that sort of stuff. But I like the challenge and hopefully in the future it pays off,” Nelson said.
Of the ends, Nelson appeared inside the most. Some of it occurred during situational work but it looked like the first-team line featured Hesse and Anthony Nelson (no relation) on the outside with Matt Nelson and Nathan Bazata inside.
Outside of Bazata, the Hawkeyes are inexperienced at tackle. Coaches are trying to advance sophomores Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff, who moved inside in the spring. It makes sense employing Matt Nelson and Hesse inside at times during the transition.
“The more versatility we have the more ways we can get guys on the field, more guys contributing, that’s only going to help us as a team and as a defense. We’re hoping to break open some games that way,” Hesse said.
Perhaps moving edge players like Nelson and Hesse inside takes the place of the three-man front Raider package on some obvious passing downs. There are times when Hesse and Nelson line up together at tackle.
“We’re trying to get more speed out there when it comes to third and long. That’s going to help our team out when guys can make an impact on getting to the quarterback. It helps our DBs out, too,” Bazata said.
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Iowa is young in the back end as well. Manny Rugamba and Joshua Jackson are first-year starters at cornerback, Jake Gervase is replacing injured No. 1 free safety Brandon Snyder, who tore his ACL in the spring.
Nelson could end up being the key to it all. He’s always been a fundamentally sound football player and he looked natural inside on Saturday despite his unusual height for the position. He’s trying to incorporate some of the skills that make him a good run stopper at end to the inside.
“I have to take a note out of Nathan Bazata’s playbook. He eats up double teams better than anybody we have. I just try to watch a lot of his film and see how he plays. He’s been a great mentor to me so far,” Nelson said.
D-Line coach Reese Morgan jokes that Bazata (6-2, 287) is naturally leveraged. He’s referring to the senior being short for his position.
“He says it every day. I think he does it to get under my skin,” Bazata said with a smile.
It should be viewed as a compliment from what Nelson sees. He watches Bazata closely for pointers. He also listens.
“He plays real low. He plays off the ball. Everything he does. He’s got good coaching points. He can help a guy and say, hey try this, get your hips down a little more, torque your hip this way. So, he’s just been a great help so far,” Nelson said.
Said Bazata: “Matt stays low pretty well for a guy his size. I can’t say much, just bend you knees.”
Nelson credits his ability to play with good leverage at his height to Morgan and strength coach Chris Doyle.
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“It’s get your hips down, get extended and keep the guys off you,” he said.
Nelson’s development on the inside was stunted this spring when he broke his foot during the first workout. He was sidelined through much of the summer.
“I kind of stepped wrong and felt it and was like this doesn’t feel right. I went and talked to the trainers and got it all checked out. That was that,” he said.
Nelson said he’s feeling much better now. He’s still working on improving conditioning but that should come throughout the rest of camp.
With he and Hesse helping inside, Iowa can better absorb the losses of tackles Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie. It gives Lattimore, Reiff and others more time to develop.
“It’s not as big of a deal as it may seem to be,” Hesse said. “We’re doing a lot of things situationally and if you focus on the task at hand and how you can take advantage of your strengths and weaknesses and just helping the team with what every is called upon you it’s not to difficult of a change.”