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The Best of the Black and Gold: BHGP Ranks the Greatest Defensive Linemen of the Ferentz Era

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Former Big Ten quarterbacks should stop reading this article now to avoid triggering their PTSD.

Iowa Hawkeyes vs Penn State Nittany Lions

This offseason, Black Heart Gold Pants is undertaking the unenviable task of ranking the greatest players of the Kirk Ferentz era. From 1999-2019, we’re emptying the memory banks, popping in the highlight tapes, and embracing the controversy as we try to determine who stands out as the best of the best. We’ll start by ranking the top five players at every position group before moving on to the top 25 players regardless of position. Rankings are based on college performance and do not take professional success into account.

Few positions are as important to the success of Iowa’s defense as its defensive line. When the Hawkeye front four perform at a high level, the defense tends to succeed. When they struggle to pressure the quarterback consistently or fail to uphold their assignments in the running game, Iowa’s defense has historically faltered.

Fortunately, Iowa has consistently produced elite defensive linemen for much of the program’s history, a tradition that has more than carried on during the Ferentz era. Between the ferocious space-eaters and run-stuffers on the interior to the dynamic pass rushers who dominate the edge, Ferentz and his defensive staff have a knack for churning out D linemen who can take over a game. Here are the best of the best.

5. Colin Cole (1999-2002)

Colin Cole was a difficult player to miss when he was on the field. Not only was the 300+ pounder bigger than the average defensive tackle recruited by Ferentz, but his play was frequently larger than life. A four-year contributor who broke out during his senior year, Cole earned first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American honors in 2002 and anchored one of the most ferocious defensive fronts in Hawkeye history. As excellent as Matt Roth, Howard Hodges, Jared Clauss, and Jonathan Babineaux were on their own merits, they undoubtedly benefited from Cole’s ability to engage multiple blockers and clog up the middle.

Cole wasn’t just a space-eater, though—he made plenty of tackles on his own. Cole’s 213 career tackles and 23 career sacks were extremely impressive for an interior defensive lineman, as were his 18 tackles for loss in 2002. Strong against both the run and the pass, Cole more than earned his reputation as one of the most impressive defensive players of the Ferentz era.

4. Adrian Clayborn (2007-2010)

Adrian Clayborn was the only Ferentz-era defensive lineman to earn consensus first-team All-American honors after his 2010 season, but Iowa fans know that this was a makeup vote after Clayborn was denied the honors he deserved the season prior during one of the most statically impressive campaigns in program history. Clayborn’s 2009 season saw the talented end record 70 tackles, 20 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and one blocked punt that changed the course of Iowa’s season.

Clayborn further elevated his play during his dominant performance in the 2010 Orange Bowl, earning Defensive MVP honors after recording nine solo tackles and two sacks and absolutely devastating Georgia Tech’s high-powered rushing offense.

Clayborn’s 2010 season was a serious statistical disappointment, but he still managed to turn in on during big moments, dominating Penn State for the second year in a row and coming up with a huge blocked kick in Iowa’s win over Michigan.

3. Mitch King (2005-2008)

I was the only member of the BHGP staff to include Mitch King in my top five, and I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. The only Ferentz-era player to be named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, King had a motor like few I’ve ever seen don the black and gold. King was undersized for a Big Ten defensive tackle, yet regularly managed to occupy multiple blockers and was a fixture in opposing backfields and one of the best run defenders Iowa has ever seen on the defensive line. Since 2005, only two Big Ten players have recorded more career tackles for loss than King (53).

King was a converted linebacker who became a four-year starter and two-time All-Big Ten honoree. His breakout performance came against Wisconsin in 2005 when the first-team Freshman All-American stifled the potent Wisconsin rushing attack with four tackles for loss, two sacks, and consistent pressure in the backfield.

As a senior, King posted 15.5 tackles for a loss, was named to several All-American teams and was the engine behind one of the best defenses of the Ferentz era, holding opponents to only 13 points per game. He played with exceptional discipline and was constantly mindful of his role in the overall team defense yet showed bursts of ferocity as intense as any of Iowa’s greatest defenders. Iowa has produced several stellar defensive tackles under Kirk Ferentz, but none better than #47. After all, what’s a mob to a King?

2. A.J. Epenesa (2017-2019)

An Iowa legacy and one of the most highly-rated recruits ever landed by Ferentz, Epenesa may well have secured the top spot on my list had he returned for his senior season. Kirk Ferentz has coached many elite pass rushers, but Epenesa might be the best of the bunch. As Tnels20 writes:

“It’s not just the sacks, but the forced fumbles created and also the interceptions that were caused by his pressure. I’ve had a lot of good laughs watching him bulldoze or toss aside offensive lineman.”

A two-time first-team All-Big Ten honoree and an All-American in 2019, Epenesa finished with 26.5 career sacks (the fourth most in program history) despite only playing three years and only starting for one season. He was the clear star of the stellar 2019 defense, which is arguably Phil Parker’s crowning achievement as Iowa’s defensive coordinator. He also posted one of the most dominant all-around games by a defensive lineman in Iowa history against Illinois in 2018, recording eight tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one blocked punt, and one defensive touchdown.

While Clayborn struggled as a senior against constant double-teams, Epenesa learned how to dominate in spite of the increased attention. JPinIC writes:

“Unlike Clayborn’s fall back to reality in 2010, Epenesa topped his performance with 11.5 sacks in 2019. That, along with the forced fumbles and the way he totally disrupted offensive game plans in every way make him the undisputed #1 for me.”

Epenesa was the #1 choice for each of my BHGP colleagues but came in as a respectable #2 for me. That being said, I dare anyone to tell the next man on my list that he shouldn’t occupy the top slot.

1. Matt Roth (2001-2004)

Two words: Iowa Hawkeye Pride.

Matt Roth is one of the most terrifying men to ever don the black and gold, full stop. Roth is a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, was voted an All-American in 2004, and ranks at or near the top of the list of people you don’t want to run into at the end of a dark alley. Roth was an extraordinary pass rusher whose 30 career sacks rank third in program history and the top among all Ferentz alumni, and he hit opposing ball carriers with such ferocity that Iowa fans swear they felt every one of them.

Roth was a standout on three elite defenses from 2002-2004, led the Big Ten in sacks (7), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (3) during conference play as a senior and is, to my knowledge, the only player to every rip Robert Gallery’s face mask off. Roth had several stellar games throughout his Hawkeye career, including Iowa’s wins over Michigan State in 2002 and Illinois in 2003.

No Ferentz-era defensive lineman could match the combined the strength, speed, and tenacity of Matt Roth or his consistency and production over a sustained period of time. Plus he once got Nick Saban a stripper, so if you need a tie-breaker in his favor, there you have it.

Three words: Hawkeye pride.

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Composite BHGP Staff Rankings:

5. Jonathan Babineaux

4. Colin Cole

3. Adrian Clayborn

2. Matt Roth

1. A.J. Epenesa

It killed me to leave Babineaux off my list, so I’m thrilled I get a chance to talk about him here. Babineaux was an incredibly gifted defensive lineman who was productive on both the outside and the interior. Injuries kept him off the field for the entirety of 2001 and half of 2003, but he was dominant when he was healthy, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors during his senior campaign in 2004 in which he posted a school-record 25 tackles for loss.

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As great as Iowa’s defensive line has been under Ferentz, it’s time to move to his true crowning achievement: the offensive line.