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Iowa Football 2020 Position Previews: Defensive Tackle

A lot of new faces and some potential breakout stars look to replace a pair of departed seniors.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Iowa
Daviyon Nixon is set to be this season’s breakout player on the defensive line.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

While the 2020 football season doesn’t have a definite start date due to the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, we’re continuing to countdown to the season by previewing each of Iowa’s position groups for the upcoming season. While there are still question marks around practice schedules, whether fans will be in the stands and now which coaches will be on staff, the roster is largely set. We’ll take a look at who has come and gone from each group and who projects where.

Up this week is the interior of the defensive line: defensive tackle.

Phil Parker has been adapting his defensive scheme over the last few years to account for the changing offenses in college football. That has meant more use of the “cash” position in the secondary with fewer reps for linebacker as 4-2-5 slowly replaces the base 4-3. We’ve also see creativity along the defensive line as Parker looks for innovative ways to generate pressure on the QB. That has meant the emergence of the “Raider” package and more snaps with traditional defensive ends lined up inside and tackles lined up outside to create mismatches with offensive linemen and confusion across the offense with twists and stunts.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for good, assignment sound play from the tackle spot to eat up blockers and opportunistically create havoc. That is easier said that done and it certainly helps to have stellar defensive ends like A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston lined up beside the tackles.

While only one of those starters returns in 2020, the tackle spot has more question marks as both starters graduated following the 2019 season.

The Departed

The Hawkeyes lost a bunch of talent to the NFL last offseason, including a pair of stars on each side of the line with Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa. While the early NFL departures are the names that get the headlines, it’s perhaps the lesser known role players who graduated that will be the most sorely missed.

At defensive tackle, Iowa lost both starters as Cedric Lattimore and Brady Rieff both graduated following the 2019 season. While neither were stars in the way A.J. Epenesa was on the edge, both were solid players who did their jobs with relative consistency. The pair combined for 74 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2019. The numbers aren’t eye-popping (Epenesa had 49 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks for comparison), but they are solid.

And your defensive tackles aren’t there to pad stats. Tackles are in the middle of the defense to plug holes and eat up blockers. Reiff and Lattimore certainly did that as the linebacking trio of Kristian Welch, Djimon Colbert and Nick Niemann combined for 177 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 3 sacks despite injury issues for Welch.

For Iowa’s linebackers to have a successful 2020 campaign, they’ll need Iowa to replace Lattimore and Reiff with capable newcomers.

The Future Star

The leader in the clubhouse to eat up snaps lost by Lattimore and Reiff’s graduations is Daviyon Nixon. Nixon was a very good prospect in the class of 2017 as a 6’4” 275 pound defensive end who was a freak athlete. The only question was grades, which took him to Iowa Western Community College, only to learn he was in fact eligible and cleared to play at Iowa after he had already enrolled in JUCO.

After a year at IWCC, Nixon had transitioned to the interior and the big dogs came calling. And by big dogs, we’re talking about Nick Saban as Alabama tried to recruit Nixon out of IWCC despite the fact he was still signed with Iowa (it is a violation to recruit a prospect under NLI and a NLIE is binding for a JUCO player until they receive their Associate’s Degree).

It’s easy to see now what Saban saw in 2017. At 6’3” and now 305 pounds, Nixon is still a freak athlete. He’s explosive and powerful, able to bull rusher offensive linemen or use his burst to blow past them. As was pointed out in the defensive end preview, Nixon has enough explosion to move outside situationally to wreak havoc.

Not only that, but Nixon is Iowa’s most experienced returning tackle with 366 career snaps played. He finished his sophomore season with 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. Look for him to step into the role of constant in the middle for Iowa in 2020 with the potential to blow up runs in the backfield and get to the QB in passing situations.

The Newcomer

While Nixon has the most game snaps of a returning defensive tackle, Iowa actually brings in a newcomer at the position who dwarfs everyone else in game experience. Northern Illinois graduate transfer Jack Heflin comes to the Hawkeyes with more game snaps (1,570) than anyone already on the Iowa roster. In fact, Heflin has more game experience than all other Iowa defensive tackles combined. By more than double.

As previously discussed when he initially announced his intention to transfer, the 6’4” 319 pound Heflin was a dominant force in the MAC. He finished last season with 31 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in just 11 games, earning him second team All-MAC honors by the conference’s coaches and All-America Honorable Mention honors by Pro Football Focus.

With Nixon already poised to be a staple in the middle, Heflin adds another big body the should anchor the interior of Iowa’s defense this season. Furthermore, given his size and talents, Parker and defensive line coach Kelvin Bell have the flexibility to get Heflin and Nixon some rest or bump Nixon to the edge without creating a vulnerability in the middle.

The Cavalry

While Nixon and Heflin are expected to be the core of Iowa’s interior line, there are a number of other players already on the roster who should provide plenty of options to the coaching staff.

Prior to the arrival of Heflin, senior Austin Schulte was the presumed starter. He may still push for the gig, but the 6’4” 290 pound Pella native is facing some stiff competition. After recording just 12 tackles and 1 tackle for loss in his 192 career snaps, Schulte appears like a strong candidate to be the third tackle rotating for depth rather than the guy that makes you turn your head on third down.

Beyond Schulte, redshirt sophomore Noah Shannon is a youngster who could be next in line after Nixon. At just 6’ tall, Shannon lacks the length of Nixon, but he’s a stout 294 pounds and has a similar combination of power and burst. Look for him to build on his 62 career snaps this season while providing a breather to Iowa’s starters and mixing in situationally in the pass rush.

Further depth is likely to be provided by senior Dalles Jacobus of Palo. At 6’1” and 275 pounds, Jacobus is a bit undersized, but he has a great set of pipes and a creative mind.

Hawkeye Football Player Writes and Sings Touching Song About the Hawkeye Wave

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Iowa also has a number of younger guys who were brought in at defensive end but may ultimately end up at tackle. John Waggoner was a one-time 4-star prospect at defensive end, but at 6’5” and 275 pounds, the Des Moines native has the size and power to slide inside if needed. He’s a prime candidate to eat a few snaps on the interior on third downs as Parker and Bell look to continue their creative ways in getting pressure on the QB.

Logan Lee is another youngster who could fit that bill. Lee was likewise a 4-star prospect, but committed to Iowa as a tight end. He promptly moved to defensive end, but at 6’5” and 270 pounds already, the redshirt freshman another versatile athlete who could slide inside to allow for stunts and twists with Nixon on the edge.

The tackle position was once an area of concern heading into 2020. With a pair of starters departed due to graduation, there are holes to fill as with Lattimore and Reiff went 2,247 career snaps at the position. But the Hawkeyes have a budding star in Nixon already on campus and the addition of Jack Heflin provides Iowa with a pair of big bodies to fill the middle on a regular basis.

With the added depth of senior Austin Schulte and a young playmaker in Noah Shannon, Iowa has four quality tackles to rotate on a regular basis. With another senior in Jacobus and some versatile ends in Lee and Waggoner, Phil Parker and Kelvin Bell have both depth and flexibility to get creative with the defensive line. Add in a recruiting class of 2020 that had seven defensive linemen and the position group is building for the future.

Look for tackle to be a position of strength for the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2020.