The blueprint for building a dominant Hawkeye defense almost always starts up front, so it is no surprise the most feared Hawkeye defenses of the past 2+ decades have featured elite talent at the defensive end position. Defensive ends are asked to do a LOT in Iowa’s bend-don’t-break scheme, from sealing the edge on running plays to corralling mobile quarterbacks and keeping them contained in the pocket. Furthermore, with Iowa’s historically conservative blitzing tendencies, Hawkeye defensive ends are usually called upon to serve as the primary pass rushers and are asked to generate consistent pressure through a four-man rush.
While Iowa’s defensive ends have shined in recent seasons, there is some concern about how the line will hold up after suffering heavy attrition over the past few years. First-team All-Big Ten defensive end Chauncey Golston will be suiting up for the Dallas Cowboys this year, Northern Illinois transfer Matt Lorbeck (an All-MAC selection in 2019 according to Pro Football Focus) is no longer listed on the team’s roster after entering the transfer portal in January, and the loss of starters Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin on the interior of the line will put greater pressure on Iowa’s defensive ends to help compensate for the lack of experience at defensive tackle. For Iowa’s defensive line to reload yet again after another round of significant departures, the Hawkeyes defensive ends will need to shine early and often in 2021.
Fortunately, Iowa isn’t losing all of its production at the position. Senior right end Zach VanValkenburg returns after starting every game last season en route to earning Second-team All-Big Ten honors. A former transfer from DII Hillsdale College, VanValkenburg was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week after racking up three sacks against Minnesota on November 13, and his four fumble recoveries on the season tied for the most of any player in the country last year. VanValkenburg plays with an excellent motor and could be in line for a big season in 2021 after being named to Phil Steele’s pre-season all-conference squad.
While VanValkenburg has more or less locked down the starting right end position, the competition at left end should continue through fall camp. Junior John Waggoner is the leading candidate after being identified by the coaching staff as “one of the most consistent and steady” players during spring practice. Waggoner turned heads after leveling a huge hit on Tyler Goodson during an open practice, and the former Dowling Catholic standout could be in for a breakout season if he manages to secure first team reps this fall. Waggoner is versatile enough to play inside if needed and could rotate some with projected starting defensive tackle Yahya Black, a player who took reps at defensive end as a true freshman last season and could be called upon to play minutes at that position again in 2021.
Waggoner and VanValkenburg have the size and strength to play all three downs, but Iowa’s best pass rusher could very well make a name for himself from outside the starting lineup. Former high school quarterback Joe Evans has recorded five sacks over the past two seasons and has shown a quickness off the edge that could make him an invaluable part of Iowa’s pass rush in 2021. Evans is undersized for his position at 6’2” 248 lbs. but shows excellent closing speed when he zeroes in on the QB and could help replace some of the 11 sacks Iowa lost from last year with the departure of Nixon and Golston.
Chris Reames was listed on Iowa’s spring depth chart along with VanValkenburg, Waggoner, and Evans at defensive end, but the sophomore remains something of a mystery to Hawkeye fans after missing all of last season and both spring practices due to injury. The 6’7” Iowa native has great length for his position and has drawn comparisons to his predecessor in the #98 jersey Anthony Nelson due to both his frame and his style of play. If Reames can stay healthy, he could be a factor at that position this fall.
A group of talented freshmen will also be competing for reps. Deontae Craig was one of the most intriguing prospects of Iowa’s 2019 recruiting class and has shown his chops as a pass rusher during spring practice, though defensive assistant coach Jay Niemann did note that Craig still has progress to make in developing as a run defender. Lukas Van Ness came to Iowa as a defensive end and may ultimately stay at that position, but he did get some run at defensive tackle during the spring and recorded two sacks during one of the open practices, so the coaches may well shift him to the interior of the line if continues to shine there. Ethan Hurkett was also very active during his spring game reps and was mentioned by Phil Parker as a player who has made real strides this season, so he could work his way into the rotation if he continues to bulk up and develop over the summer. In-state true freshmen Max Llewellyn and Jeff Bowie are both promising prospects as well, but will likely require some seasoning before they are ready to compete for consistent reps.
Even with VanValkenburg returning in 2021, it’s hard to remember the last time Iowa had quite this many questions along the defensive line. Can the Hawkeyes replace the production they lost from last season? VanValkenburg shined last year when he was the 3rd or 4th most dangerous player in Iowa’s front four, but is he prepared to handle the double teams he could face in the early goings of 2021? Can Iowa find the right player to compliment him at left end this season and develop a strong rotation of edge rushers to keep the defensive line fresh late into games? The Hawkeyes managed to reload on the line after losing A.J. Epenesa one year ago, and their ability to replicate that feat in 2021 could very well determine whether the Hawkeyes can post another elite defense this season.