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.
Previously on Assume the Position 2013:
Today: Defensive End
It was just three years ago that Iowa had three NFL-ready defensive linemen available at end. Broderick Binns went undrafted, but ended up in Arizona with former Hawkeye defensive line coach Ron Aiken. Christian Ballard moved to tackle and became an important rotation guy for the Vikings. And, of course, Adrian Clayborn was a first-round draft pick for Tampa Bay. All three players were highly rated; Clayborn and Ballard were four-star recruits, while Binns was as high as a player could be rated while still remaining at three stars. Iowa had acknowledged that (1) defensive end is crucial to the defensive scheme as a whole, given the lack of blitzing, and (2) a capable defensive end in that scheme required more than a little athletic ability.
Just two years later, Iowa was playing a former grayshirt and a two-star fifth-year senior at defensive end, finishing with seven fewer sacks than any other Big Ten team. Needless to say, things had fallen apart. An entire generation of defensive end recruits either never got out of the starting gate or flamed out. There were any number of reasons for this: Clayborn, Ballard and Binns left little room for anyone else to break through. Recruiting stalled out for whatever reason. And those recruits that Iowa did land bristled at Rick Kaczenski's brash coaching style.*
* -- There's a very good reason why Nebraska's defensive line has imploded in the two years since Kaz put that name brand on his shirt, by the way.
Iowa desperately needed a rebuild on the defensive line in general and defensive end in particular. Fortunately, defensive tackle is going through a bit of a renaissance. And at end, we're starting to see the makings of a comeback. It's still in larval stage, but it's there.
The Tiny King
Dominic Alvis (#79, Senior (RS), 6'4, 265 lbs., Logan-Magnolia HS (Logan, IA))
Alvis is a good story: Initially an Iowa grayshirt commit, he got moved onto the active roster after a late defection in 2009. He redshirted, then opened his account with a sack late in the 2010 Iowa State game for his first collegiate tackle. Alvis moved into the defensive line rotation as a sophomore. Initially, Alvis was a defensive tackle. His first two starts as a sophomore were on the interior line, but he was generally ineffective there and moved outside for Iowa's third non-conference game against Pittsburgh. He hasn't moved back since, starting seven games at end in 2011 before an injury against Michigan ended his season, then making 12 starts last season at end.
Iowa defensive line duties are peculiar. Ferentz's teams don't rely on tackles as block-eaters and ends as pass rushers so much as the entire line is dedicated to both. Ballard and Clayborn played outside at 285, while the undersized Karl Klug disrupted the pocket from the interior, a tactic Iowa has used going back to Mitch King. As a result, Iowa defensive ends don't typically post gaudy sack or tackle numbers. With that said, Alvis' junior campaign was the least productive season by a regular Iowa starter at defensive end in the last decade. His 31 tackles are the lowest total by an Iowa starting defensive end in that time, as were his 3 sacks, both by a fairly considerable margin.
Alvis' statistics could be the result of Iowa's defensive line rotation, but defensive end was not as subject to substitution as tackle for the simple reason that there weren't any other ends that were worth a damn. It could be due to lingering injuries, but he never missed a start. The most logical explanation is that Alvis was worth a damn, which earned him his spot, but he wouldn't have been anything more than serviceable understudy in normal circumstances. It's Iowa's attrition and recruiting failures that have forced him into the starring role, a role he has performed as well as he possibly could.
Drew Ott (#95, Sophomore, 6'4, 265 lbs., Giltner HS (Trumbull, NE))
Man, do the coaches love Drew Ott. Sure, they love Alvis as a hard-working scrappy guy who has maxed out everything he has for three years, and they love Ott for many of the same reasons. But they really love Ott.
Let's go back to the Northwestern game: Drew Ott has redshirted his way through the year, but he's on the sideline in Evanston for some reason when Ferentz inexplicably yanks his redshirt and sends him into a lost cause of a game. Was Ott ready? He didn't make a fool of himself, but his stats (three tackles in five games) were hardly noticeable.
Ott was a three-star recruit from tiny Trumbull (pop. 205) with good academic credentials, success in three sports (though he played basketball instead of wrestling like Ferentz usually likes), and a Kansas State offer in his pocket when he committed to Iowa in June 2011. Rivals ranked him as the second-best player in the state of Nebraska, though he never received an offer from the Huskers. Aside from maybe Ekaitie, he had the most ready-made build for playing defensive end, which is why that redshirt came off.
Was playing those last five games and recording those three tackles worth a year of eligibility? Considering the talk of him since that fateful day, we can only assume that he was ready and needed. It says as much about Ott as it does the guys who were eligible. Bud Spears had already redshirted at that point, yet did not play against Northwestern. Mike Hardy had played before in 2012, but did not come in. Ott got the call because he was the best man available, and he's at the top of the depth chart because he continues to be. This has been his job to lose since late October.
While You Wait for the Others
Mike Hardy (#98, Junior (RS), 6'5, 275 lbs., Kimberly HS (Appleton, WI))
There remains a small but rabid portion of the Iowa fanbase that believes Mike Hardy should be a starter, based primarily on the fact that he grew up in Wisconsin, had an offer from Wisconsin, and chose Iowa. These are typically the people who obsess over Bret Bielema and see Hardy as sort of a reversal of Bielema's defection for Madison. These people are insane.
What Hardy is: a classic tweener. At 6'5 and 275 pounds, he doesn't have the size you'd expect for a defensive tackle. But he also doesn't have the agility and speed for a standard defensive end. The size issue isn't as big a deal at Iowa as it is elsewhere, and I would expect him to move inside if it weren't for the fact that Iowa has a glut of defensive tackles. He'll play in the rotation at end, particularly in run situations.
Riley McMinn (#94, Sophomore (RS), 6'7, 260 lbs., Rochester (IL) HS)
McMinn missed most of August camp with an injury last year, then missed the second half of the season with another injury. The latter injury forced Iowa into removing Ott's redshirt, and it's been all Ott since. The frame and the athletic ability are intriguing, but he's not a pure pass rusher by any means, and Ott's quick advancement could freeze him out.
Nate Meier (#34, Sophomore, 6'2, 235 lbs., Fremont-Mills HS (Tabor, IA))
Now this is a pure pass rusher. Meier, an eight-man football star at Fremont-Mills who picked up a late Iowa offer, made one appearance as a true freshman. Initially, it was thought that he could eventually play running back or linebacker, but the staff moved Meier to defensive end this spring. It appears to have stuck: Meier is a surprising addition to the two-deep out of August camp, and could be a situational contributor on pass rush for a team that desperately needs it. Anything more than that would be stunning for the undersized Meier.
Melvin Spears (#49, Sophomore (RS), 6'2, 265 lbs., Allen (TX) HS)
Spears, billed as another pure pass rusher, got a shot late last season when injuries decimated the defensive end rotation. The fact that Iowa pulled Ott's redshirt before playing Spears is not a good sign. Word is that Spears needs to play with better leverage and positioning, especially against the run. Iowa's defensive end philsophy is as much about setting the edge of the line as it is getting to the quarterback, and if you can't hold up against offensive tackles or maintain that position against the run, you aren't going to play much.
Faith Ekakitie (#56, Freshman (RS), 6'3, 287 lbs., Lake Forest (IL) Academy)
When word came out of camp that Ekakitie, the four-star monster who came to Iowa with Jaleel Johnson last February, was definitively moving to defensive end for good, Iowa fans thought they immediately had another Adrian Clayborn. That might eventually be the case, but there's clearly work to do: Ekaitie isn't in the Week 1 two-deep (classmates Ott and Meier are, obviously) and likely needs some time adjusting to his new position. I'd expect him to play this year, but the idea that he'll become an immediate starter was fantasy.
Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara (#91, Freshman (RS), 6'5, 235 lbs., Cypress Bay HS (Weston, FL))
DVC redshirted in his first year on campus, as expected. Much like Meier, his size could limit his contributions to passing situations in 2012. Unlike Meier, his height gives him room to grow. There's a distinct chance that he doesn't play this year. It shouldn't be taken as anything more than a second developmental year.