Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.
Today: Defensive Tackle
I would say it's dart-throwing time, because the last two or three positions in ATP are usually a crapshoot. The thing is, that's been true of nearly every position this year. Like wideout and cornerback before it, we are sure of one piece of the puzzle in the defensive tackle depth chart. Unlike those, it took all of summer to find the other (and we're still not very sure of that one). This preview might hold up all season. Then again, it may be wrong by the time you read it.
Mike Daniels (#93, Senior (RS), 6'1", 275, Highland Regional HS (Blackwood, NJ))
This time last year, Iowa was preparing to go into the season with the biggest, strongest, most experienced, most talented line in quite possibly the history of the program. Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns were experienced at end, Binns as a pass-swatting obstruction, Clayborn as a first-order terrormonster. GULK and Ballard had already spent a year side-by-side at defensive tackle with great success. Barring injury, there was no need for a fifth defensive lineman. Mike Daniels, though hyped by the coaches and the clear choice as a third defensive tackle, was shut out. There was no room at the inn. By week one, Ballard had moved outside to defensive end. Binns had been sent to the bench. There had been no room for Mike Daniels, but Daniels was so good at busting holes in opposing lines that he broke open a hole in his own.
Daniels was a garage sale find: A two-star prospect from a New Jersey school that has little history of success and finished 4-6 in his senior season, he had offers from Temple and I-AA's and some interest from Villanova in early January. He fit the Iowa mold, though: New Jersey kid, heavyweight wrestler, high motor, played defensive line and halfback. And it took until two weeks before Signing Day, but Iowa finally found him. They offered January 26, he visited January 27 and called in his commitment on January 29. After a redshirt season, he started on special teams and has worked upwards from there. Now as a senior, coming off a season where he recorded 40 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 4 1/2 sacks while wreaking havoc in opposing backfields, he is the vocal leader of the defensive line and the target of every offensive coordinator on the schedule.
That's not to say there aren't concerns. Daniels was a superstar against Ball State last year (he won some random award as defensive player of the week from someone) but struggled in Big Ten play and late in the season; of his eleven tackles for loss, only three came against Big Ten opposition. He recorded one in-conference sack. In the final two games of the year, against Minnesota and Missouri, he recorded exactly zero tackles. He's also destined for the Clayborn treatment in 2011; how he handles it, and whether he can keep something in the tank for the last month of the season, could well determine whether Iowa's defense lives up to its usual lofty standards.
Dominic Alvis (#79, Sophomore (RS), 6'4", 255, Logan-Magnolia HS (Logan, IA))
If Daniels was a diamond in the rough, Alvis was buried fifty feet underground. He played his high school ball at a small school in western Iowa with little history of success and an even smaller record of producing Division I-level athletes. In week four of his senior season, Alvis broke his fibula (in the middle of a game where he racked up over 200 yards rushing at halftime) and missed the rest of his season. He held scholarship offers from South Dakota and Northern Iowa. Despite being in the heart of Iowa State's most fertile recruiting ground, he was deemed too small to play for Gene Chizik. Reese Morgan stumbled into him during one of his Don Quixote-like trips through the state and liked what he saw: A productive player and established team leader who fought through a serious leg injury to play basketball and run track, and at 6'4" and 225 pounds, he had the perfect frame for Iowa's strength and conditioning program. Iowa offered a grayshirt, and when ISU didn't get in the game -- Rhoads showed some late interest after taking over but never made an offer -- Alvis took it.
As it stood on Signing Day, Alvis would have to spend his first semester on campus away from the team and join in time for winter training. He would miss August camp as a true freshman, strength and conditioning during his first fall, a full season of practice time. For a player who was undersized, it could be an enormous setback. In May, though, Iowa had a scholarship open when Jacody Coleman (remember him?) shipped off for somewhere where Pat Angerer wasn't playing. Rather than twiddle his thumbs for four months, Alvis now had his ticket to summer camp. Obviously, he took advantage, redshirting for 2009 and suddenly appearing on the depth chart behind Adrian Clayborn as a redshirt freshman. Now, just 27 months after he was a glorified walk-on, Alvis sits atop the August depth chart at defensive tackle.
This is the part of the post where you say, "Gee, Vint, that's an excellent story, but 255 pounds at defensive tackle?" We get that, and it was our first thought as well. As Dochterman said on his podcast, it still seems more likely that Alvis moves outside, especially given presumptive starting defensive end Lebron Daniel's ongoing injury problems. With that said, Mitch King weighed in at 265 for his senior season and was at his most productive at less than 260. King was paired with a block-swallowing co-tackle. If the coaches determine Daniels is that guy, due to either his size and strength or the giant target on his chest, they might use Alvis as the "quick" tackle on stunts. They also might not use him here at all. Our best guess is that he will be used situationally in a relatively constant three-player rotation.
The Space Eater (and Eater of Other Things)
Carl Davis (#71, Freshman (RS), 6'5", 310, Stevenson HS (Detroit, MI))
It's been a long time since Iowa has had a bona fide zero-technique nose tackle type, but here's Carl Davis, the first defensive lineman in ages to actually lose weight during his redshirt season. Davis, a universal three-star recruit who held offers from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and most of the MAC, came to campus at nearly 325 pounds. Doyle worked to get him to 310 (he's listed at 295 officially, but everyone acknowledges that's low), and his quickness has reportedly improved as a result. He enters August camp planted behind Daniels on the depth chart.
Davis is the primary reason for the ongoing discussion of implementing a 3-4 defense, an idea we've panned before and continue to believe is implausible. With that said, Ferentz remains impossibly enthralled with Bill Belichick, whose Patriots have gone to multiple defensive sets in recent years. Furthermore, Iowa has experimented with three-man fronts in the past, most prominently in the 2009 blowout win over Iowa State where the Hawkeyes put Christian Ballard on the nose and played Jeff Tarpinian as an additional cover linebacker in passing situations with great effect. ISU QB Austen Arnaud was clearly rattled by the look and began throwing indiscriminately to players in white jerseys. We haven't had a chance to discuss defensive ends yet this summer, but the fact that we haven't should tell you all you need to know about Iowa's potential pass rush with four down linemen. Those facts, when coupled with the alternative pass rush opportunities created by a three-man front and the emergence of Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey as outside linebackers, mean we may see the occasional return of a loose 3-4 with Davis in the middle. This all depends on Davis being able to hold up at the point of attack, a presumption without any basis in fact until he steps on the field. We like his chances, though, and he'll have plenty of opportunities to prove it in 2011.
While You Wait for the Others
Steve Bigach (#54, Junior (RS), 6'3", 282, St. Ignatius HS (Cleveland, OH))
There's a certain kind of Iowa player, a guy like Brad Herman or Adam Gettis, who always gets mentioned by the coaches, who has occasional injury issues but never anything extremely debilitating, who just can't ever get over the hump and grab a starting spot. Steve Bigach, who spent two seasons toiling behind Karl Klug and now might well be usurped by younger players, is one of those players. We've heard for three years that Bigach has impressed his coaches, that he's a natural fit once a defensive tackle spot opens. The spot is now open, and yet Bigach opens another August as backup. He'll have his chances this year -- barring a breakout performance by Davis, everyone will -- but it should really be more at this point, no?
Thomas Nardo (#87, Senior (RS), 6'3", 277, Lancaster (PA) Catholic HS)
The Nard Dog recorded the first three tackles of his career in blowout wins over Eastern Illinois and Ball State last season, which is a good thing. Nardo, a preferred walk-on in the Class of 2007, has always been mentioned as a team leader and hard worker, and he deserves to walk away with at least a Moonlight Graham state line. With that said, Nardo still probably won't play much outside special teams. He's listed as co-second string defensive tackle entering his final August camp, and there's little more than the promise of a big defensive line rotation to indicate he'll break through.
Darian Cooper (Number unknown, Freshman, 6'1", 290, Dematha Catholic HS (Hyattsville, MD))
Cooper, the most recent byproduct of Iowa's new connection with D.C.-area powerhouse Dematha Catholic, is one of the rarest things in the Iowa recruiting universe: A ready-made defensive lineman who may well have skipped a redshirt season and contribute immediately. We use the past tense for a reason: He's not on campus yet. When pressed for a reason why Cooper was still sitting at home, Ferentz said it was a "complication," which is probably the most Kirk Ferentz answer ever. Regardless of what that complication is -- and, let's face it, it's almost certainly a clearinghouse issue if it's occurring in August -- it threatens the career of another of the crown jewels of Iowa's 2011 class. When coupled with Rodney Coe's exile, it's devastating. If the "complication" is worked out and Cooper returns to camp later this week as Ferentz projected Friday, it merely decreases the chances Cooper plays this season. But we've seen this before, and it almost always ends at prep school.