Iowa Football Confident D-Line Will Be Fine Even without A.J. Epenesa

October 15, 2020

Written by Rob Howe

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Iowa – When evaluating Iowa Football’s 2020 defense, it makes sense to ask where the pass rush is going to come from. The Hawkeyes lost an excellent edge man in A.J. Epenesa to April’s NFL Draft a year after Anthony Nelson headed to the league.

Epenesa earned second-team AP All-American honors last season after posting 11.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He registered 26.5 sacks in his three college seasons and required offenses to pay him extra attention, freeing up others on his defense to make plays.

The Hawkeyes have seen a total of seven defensive line starters move on after the last two seasons. That’s created some unknowns for the current group.

Iowa coaches are confident that their current collection of men up front can continue the success generated there since the now-retired Reese Morgan rebuilt position early last decade. It starts with the lone returning starter, fifth-year senior defensive end Chauncey Golston.

“Chauncey has done a good job of progressing and becoming a good pass rusher,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.

After being a backup the two previous seasons, Golston (6-5, 270) earned honorable mention all-conference laurels during 13 starts in ’19. The Detroit native recorded 47 tackles (26 solo) with 9.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception, five pass break-ups and seven quarterback pressures.

“Chauncey’s maturation from when he got here in 2016 to where he is now…he just needs to continue playing because he’s on the right track,” defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said. “He and Austin Schulte are guys I think I can leave in the room and have them coach the young guys because they’ll do it with the detail that’s expected.

“I’m really proud of (Golston). I’m excited for a big year for him. There’s no pressure there. Play your game. I’m fully confident that if he goes out and plays the way he’s supposed to play…and he’s not A.J. They’re totally different guys. But the impact for us defensively, he’s definitely a guy we’re going to need to play well.”

Like Golston, Schulte (6-4, 283) begins his fifth season with the program. The Pella (IA) High product returns following his first injury-free campaign that saw him play all 13 games at defensive tackle with two starts. He’s in the running for a first-team spot and will be an important member of the rotation.

Fourth-year junior Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 305) might be the most physically gifted member of the D-Line. Parker expects the Wisconsin native to help in the pass rush as a guy that mostly lines up inside but has the athletic ability to kick outside.

Nixon improved as last season moved along. He registered 29 tackles (19 solo), 5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, five quarterback pressures and one pass break-up in 13 games, one of which he started.

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“He needs to be a good teammate, period,” Bell said when asked what he needs from Nixon. “When I talk about being a good teammate that is setting an example and then holding others accountable to that example. If he can do those two things, the sky is the limit.”

Golston, Schulte and Nixon form a solid foundation on which to build. After that trio, Iowa is dealing with much less game-experienced personnel in terms of its program.

Graduate transfer Jack Heflin (6-4, 312) started 31 games at defensive tackle for Northern Illinois before joining the Hawkeyes during the offseason. He earned honorable mention all-American honors from Pro Football Focus after leading the Huskies in tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (3.0) last season.

“He’s a fit for Iowa, a team-first guy. The scheme is a little bit different from what he’s used to. I think I’m his third defensive line coach in five years so there’s some technical things that he’s got to get better at but he understands what it takes to play winning football,” Bell said.

Redshirt sophomore Noah Shannon (6-0, 288) gives Iowa a fourth tackle who may be ready to contribute more after seeing action in seven games during ’19.

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While there appears to be depth inside, Iowa really is looking to fill the hole left by Epenesa on the outside. Golston is hinting that he could be moving to the right side, where Epenesa lined up. Either way, there’s a vacancy on the edge.

John Waggoner (6-5, 271) and Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 270) rotated in behind Epenesa and Golston last season, albeit at a low rate. VanValkenburg was listed as the starter on the first depth chart before fall camp, while Waggoner was listed as a backup at tackle.

Joe Evans (6-2, 248), a converted linebacker, showed up well in pass-rushing packages last season. He began camp as the backup to VanValkenburg on the the two-deep. Logan Lee (6-5, 267), who’s development was hindered by injury last fall, showed up as Golston’s backup, but Parker said they’ve been repping the redshirt freshman at end and tackle.

“Logan Lee is an extremely detailed guy, a meticulous note taker. Right now it’s time to put those notes to use. He’s played more football in the past couple weeks than he has before. He’s getting his feet wet now. He’s got the ability to play inside and outside. He’s a guy I’m excited about to be in that rotation,” Bell said.

Considered a specialist last season, Parker and Bell believe Evans can be a three-down D-End in ’20.

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“I really like how Joe has progressed. He added a little bit of weight. I just love his toughness. I see him playing a lot,” Parker said.

Like Lee and Nixon, Waggoner offers the versatility to play inside or out. The redshirt sophomore from West Des Moines Dowling Catholic is bigger and stronger than when he arrived on campus.

“I talk with guys about the vision for the room. We recruit defensive linemen. And everybody at some point in time is going to go inside just because I want them to know it. None of the moves are permanent. If you need a spare tire, you don’t care if it goes on the front, the back, the right, the left, just get it on the car,” Bell said.

“That’s how I look at John. I think he’s a really good player and I want to get him on the field but I don’t want to be selective about where I put him. He’s going to have to have knowledge of inside or outside.”

Like Helfin, Matt Lorbeck (6-4, 255) arrived as a graduate transfer from Northern Illinois during the offseason. Unlike his Huskie teammate, he didn’t get on campus until Aug. 10 and just started working with the Hawkeyes when fall camp started last month.

“He’s behind the learning curve. He’s the guy who we’ve thrown in the deep end in practice and he’s figuring out how to swim. So, it’s too early to say where he fits in, but I’m excited about his potential,” Bell said.

Iowa boasts a large number of young guys on the front, including redshirt freshman end Taajhir McCall (6-3, 215), who is opting out for this season. Jake Karchinski (6-4, 279) and Chris Reames (6-7, 255) are scholarship players in his class.

The Hawkeyes are bringing in five true freshmen scholarship defensive linemen. Deontae Craig (6-3, 249), Ethan Hurkett (6-3, 245), Isaiah Bruce (6-2, 273), Lukas Van Ness (6-5, 259) and Yahya Black (6-5, 279) will be looking for push their way into the rotation.

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