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IOWA FOOTBALL POSITION PREVIEWS 2017: THE DEFENSIVE LINE

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The Hawkeyes return a lot of sacks! But can it translate to consistent strength in the trenches?

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In our sixth installment, we take a look at how the defensive line will shake out. For our other position previews, please see the landing page, or take a look below:

Running Backs
Offensive Line
Secondary
Wide Receivers
Linebackers

In Jerry’s Linebackers piece, he touches on how the Josey Jewell-Ben Niemann-Bo Bower troika has the chance to go down in the pantheon of great Hawkeye linebacker units. Though the defensive line is much younger than the linebackers, I think this group has an opportunity to go down as a memorable unit in the years to come.

The Situation

Iowa loses last year’s best contributor Jaleel Johnson (7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 56 tackles) and super-sub Faith Ekakitie to pro football, but still return a good amount. The pre-camp depth chart had them set up as follows:

LE: Matt Nelson (6’8”, 285) OR Anthony Nelson (6’7”, 260)
LT: Cedric Lattimore (6’5”, 295); Brady Reiff (6’3”, 260)
RT: Nathan Bazata (6’2”, 287); Garret Jansen (6’2”, 280)
RE: Parker Hesse (6’3”, 257); Sam Brincks (6’5”, 275)

And here’s their scholarship distribution:

Defensive Line Scholarship Distribution Chart

POS SR JR SO RS FR Incoming FR Total
POS SR JR SO RS FR Incoming FR Total
DE Parker Hesse; Matt Nelson Anthony Nelson Chauncey Golston; Romeo McKnight; Austin Schulte; Brandon Simon Levi Duwa; AJ Epenesa 9
DT Nathan Bazata Garrett Jansen; Cedric Lattimore; Jacob Newborg; Brady Reiff 5

In JP’s weekly recruiting installment, he identified ways Iowa could bolster defensive line, specifically the tackles:

For a position that’s designed to eat space and blockers, that’s a really thin group. I would expect one or two of the DEs to slide inside (there have been rumors that Epenesa might do this, but that might criminally limit his impact given his fantastic abilities on the edge) or even potentially an offensive linemen to switch sides as the staff looks to just add bodies to get guys a breather in 2017.

The Returning Starters

all stats via sports-reference unless otherwise noted

Parker Hesse:
Don’t let Hesse’s small frame fool you. He’s played above his weight in each of the two previous seasons, as he totaled 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks in his career. As a sophomore, he improved his passes defended three-fold (from one to three, but still), as a way to counteract the disadvantage he faces on passing downs going against the hulking tackles of the Big Ten.

While the Nelsons shared defensive snaps and Bazata faced injuries, it was Hesse who became a mainstay along the line with Jaleel Johnson last year. He always gave the requisite effort and, despite playing above his weight, it wasn’t always quite enough. With the depth at the position, a reduced snap count for Hesse could improve his effectiveness as he’ll never face a lineman smaller than himself.

Matt Nelson:
The larger Nelson took hold of the starting job last year and proved effective. He stepped up after not really breaking through as a freshman. Last year, he had 42 tackles, 6 for loss, and 5 sacks. The larger of the two Nelsons, his size opens up the question of sliding inside. Per Reese Morgan via Morehouse, it is actually something Nelson brought up:

Actually, Matt brought it up. ... Matt just says, ‘Coach, I just want you to know I’ll do whatever I can to help this football team. I’ll move inside, outside, you just tell me where to play.’ You just love that attitude. He’s been like that from day one. He had a couple snap inside. He’s played outside. The plan would be to utilize him in both positions if we can.

In the Raider package, he served as a nominal defensive tackle, as defensive coordinator Phil Parker would put a number of rush-oriented players on the field. My interpretation of the above would open the possibility of rotating inside on regular downs. With youth inside, his presence would allow them to last longer into games, and the season, provided he can play the position.

Unfortunately, Morehouse also mentioned Nelson’s injury history this offseason. His time away from the field took away his ability to test out a new role on the team. Only time will tell if he can serve the multiple roles he offered.

Nathan Bazata:
Bazata’s stats closely mirror the other two previously mentioned. As a tackle, it’s not expected for him to contribute much in the way of statistics as most of his job is to ensure guards and centers don’t get to the second level of Iowa’s defense. Much like Matt Nelson, Bazata has battled injuries since the end of the 2016 season. It’s imperative he come into 2017 full strength as he’s the most experienced lineman on the roster and there’s not much else behind him.

The Sack Master

Anthony Nelson’s stat line borders on gaudy, considering he was more renter than owner of the right defensive end position last year. 6 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 11 QB hits, 32 QB hurries. He’s going to factor into next year and the two after that.

One concern with Big Ant is size. Despite being 6’7”, he’s listed at only 260 pounds. Iowa has made hay with weirdly shaped defensive linemen - see: King, Mitch - but he’ll need to be able to hold his ground in the run game to see the field more.

The Heir Apparent

For better or for worse, Iowa is rolling with Cedric Lattimore as the starting defensive tackle alongside Bazata. In limited snaps last year, he posted only one tackle (though he made the most of it, as it was a strip sack). It’s going to be trial by fire for the true sophomore, who certainly looks the part. Whether he is able to back it up is another story. If Iowa hopes to have a successful season, a lot of it rests on him adequately replacing Johnson.

The X-Factor

The man.

The myth.

The legend.

For as much as I undersold Lattimore’s impact above, I’m probably overselling AJ Epenesa’s. The 5-star prospect is the highest Iowa’s gotten in the Ferentz era and everyone has a speculation as to how he’ll be utilized. Per the Morehouse piece above, Parker sees a successful freshman campaign as one where he’ll be in the game between 15 and 20 snaps. He also hopes to keep it simple for him, stating:

[Epenesa] has a lot of things to learn and to ask a true freshman as a defensive lineman to come in, and, hey, you’re going to be our starting defensive end and we’re going to move you inside and play a three-technique or one-technique. I think that’s a little too much right now.

To me, this reads as he’ll have one job and one job only: get to the quarterback. He’ll be able to provide the most impact as a defensive end with only one man in front of him. If it gets more complicated than that, it probably means he’s doing a heckuva job getting to the quarterback.

We can only hope.

The Rest

Ideally, Iowa is able to rotate eight guys through the defensive line. It seems like that is said every year, and every year Iowa struggles to get to that number. But they’re close, with the 4 ends listed above with 2 tackles.

Brady Reiff, Garret Jansen, and Sam Brincks posted about 10 combined tackles last year and to have an impact, they won’t need to have many more than that. If each can come in and provide a solid series or two worth of work each half this season, it’ll do wonders for the big boys up front.