Regardless of what defensive structure a team runs, many will argue that the most exciting in-game battles you’ll see are the ones that take place over on the edge—otherwise known as each end of the line of scrimmage.
With that said, heading into the 2020-2021 season, Iowa’s defensive end group seemingly provides more questions than answers for those on the outside looking in.
Over the past decade, the Iowa football program has seen a fair share of premier level college talent pass through their doors. Players such as the likes of Adrian Clayborn, Broderick Binns, Drew Ott, Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa just to name a few.
Out of that group, Epenesa’s name certainly stands out, as his early departure for the NFL leaves the program without a clear heir apparent at the weakside defensive end spot opposite of Chauncey Golston.
If there’s one certainty regarding Iowa’s defensive end group this upcoming season, the unfortunate reality is that there isn’t a player capable of matching Epenesa’s level of impact and production at defensive end this upcoming season—shocker, right? The good news is, there doesn’t have to be.
What Epenesa provided the Iowa program over the past three years—more so the past two—should be viewed as a once in a while luxury rather than a common occurrence; Iowa isn’t a blue-chip program with a revolving door of NFL talent at each and every position although they do a much better than most programs across college football’s landscape in that regard.
Epenesa was a game-breaker who altered opposing offenses’ plan of attack just by lining up on the field. That level of talent and disruption doesn’t get replaced in a single college offseason at any program; unless the program is a perennial national title contender, but even then it’s hard to do.
HE’S THE MAN
Heading into the 2020 season, instead of feeling like it’s Chauncey Golston and the crew, it feels more like it’s Chauncey Golston and the who? … Admittedly, I might have gotten a little carried away there.
Regardless, let’s start by throwing some praise at the one guy out on the edge who Iowa fans can take solace in knowing can and will perform at a high level almost every time he touches the field.
Just by looking at Golston’s frame, you can tell that he’s a guy who pro-level scouts already have a close eye on and a guy who is fully capable of playing pro-level football for some sort of professional league once his Iowa football career has concluded.
At 6-4, 270-pounds, Golston checks the prototypical height and weight boxes for a 4-3 NFL strongside defensive end, but the real differentiator with Golston comes with his freakishly long arms and how he goes about using them to his advantage.
When you watch Golston play, he’s a constant disruptor and a guy who can make an impact in the passing game without even getting close to the quarterback, as his length and overall awareness has led to a number of batted passes and passing lane disruptions during his time at Iowa; try throwing a screen in his direction. I dare you.
In addition, Golston’s speed and clean pursuit angles allow him to work quickly to the sideline in the run game and couples that with that quick twitch movement and burst off the line of scrimmage that everyone seemingly loves to rave about, which only adds to the ways Golston can win off the edge.
As Golston steps into the unquestioned leadership role on the defensive line for his senior season, he’ll be tasked with not only producing at a high level as a pass rusher and edge-setter in the run game, but also as a leader and mentor for the bevy of young talent on Iowa’s defensive line.
So, now that we’ve thrown praise at the only solidified starting talent for Iowa at defensive end, the question now becomes out of all the “unknown” players, who appears to be next in line for starting reps?
Well, there’s a handful of names that jump out when you look strictly at Iowa’s roster: Redshirt sophomore John Waggoner, senior Zach VanValkenburg, senior graduate transfer Matt Lorbeck (plans to take a redshirt), redshirt freshman Logan Lee, redshirt freshman Jake Karchinski, redshirt freshman Taajhir McCall and redshirt freshman Chris Reames.
With that said, let’s focus specifically on the guys on that list who have actual snaps under their belt, which narrows that list down to Waggoner and VanValkenburg.
Out of the two, VanValkenburg is the more logical fit for the currently vacant weakside defensive end spot, as he’s far more twitchy and active with his hands compared to Waggoner. In addition, although VanValkenburg is a relative newcomer to Iowa’s program, he does have an edge in college playing experience, as he enrolled at Iowa as a former graduate transfer from NCAA Division II’s Hillsdale College in Michigan.
In addition, VanValkenburg led Waggoner in snaps last season and, despite limited production, comes across as the more well-refined player at this point in time.
With that said, if you’re plugged into the Iowa football program, then chances are you might have noticed a certain name that I’ve intentionally left unmentioned up until this point and that player actually happens to be Iowa’s second leading sacker from a year ago. His name is Joe Evans.
Now, Evans is an interesting player in that he truly falls under a few different positional categories: Linebacker, defensive end or EDGE.
As a walk-on redshirt sophomore, Evans has seen very limited action over his career thus far—89 snaps in total. However, as previously stated, despite his limited snap total, Evans somehow found a way to be Iowa’s second leading sacker in 2019.
That surprising level of sack per snap efficiency only heightens in weirdness when you account for the fact that Evans only has a grand total of seven tackles in his short career; averaging over one sack per tackle — keep it up, Joe!
Evans’ usage has a lot to do with that oddity in efficiency, as his snap usage came almost entirely in sub package situations where the opposing offense was facing a fourth and medium, third and long, etc..
When you watch Evans play, you won’t often see him with his hand in the dirt, as his usage is more so that of a standup edge rusher. However, at times, Iowa’s coaching staff has utilized him in a QB spy role against more athletic passers.
As far as physical tools go, Evans won’t blow you away with any of the popular, attractive athletic traits such as burst, straight line speed, quick twitch or even length, but he does have a motor and good awareness, which prevents him from rushing the passer with reckless abandonment—an issue many inexperienced pass rushers often make.
Although Evans wouldn’t be the first, second or even third option I’d personally consider lining up at defensive end, he does play a unique role that can serve Iowa’s defense well in certain spots.
JOINING THE CLUB?
It’s no secret amongst Iowa football fans that redshirt junior defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon is a player worth getting excited about.
Lining up 6-3, 305-pounds, Nixon supports a big frame and despite that fact makes strong case for being Iowa’s most explosive and most athletic pound-for-pound defensive lineman in 2020; Nixon is an absolute disruptor on the inside.
With that said, despite serving a bulk of his time at defensive tackle last season, much like Evans, Nixon would on occasion slide out to defensive end in sub package situations and although his production on the edge wasn’t exactly eye-popping, much of that had to do with limited reps.
Analyzing the reps that he did take at defensive end, the 6-3, 305-pounder didn’t even look a slight bit out of place at weakside defensive end, which just speaks highly to his athleticism and fluidity.
When you look at Iowa’s defensive line as a whole it’s clear to see that there’s more capable depth on the interior than on the edge, especially with the addition of a true nose tackle in Jack Heflin via graduate transfer from Northern Illinois. This leaves Iowa’s coaching staff with an intriguing option heading into 2020, because although Nixon should be playing the bulk of his snaps inside, he’s fully capable of not only sliding out to the edge but potentially excelling out there as well.