In Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin, your Iowa Hawkeyes enjoyed its most destructive interior defensive line 1-2 punch since probably the days when Karl Klug and Christian Ballard lined up in between Adrian Clayborn and Mike Daniels.
The former duo combined for 25 sacks and tackles for loss last year, and their unfortunate but understandable departure with eligibility remaining in 2021 leaves a gaping hole on what otherwise could prove to be a potent defensive line that returns Zach VanValkenburg, John Waggoner, and Joe Evans.
The first thing to know about this interior line is that all signs point to Noah Shannon as the big dog of this group. At 6-0, 289 lbs the junior from Illinois has the most typical three-tech body on the roster. The second thing to know is that he has just one start to his name and 15 total appearances over the past two seasons.
The third thing to know is that Logan Lee is the only other player who has any experience at the position, appearing in two games as a redshirt freshman in 2020.
Adding further concern to this group is the fact that the three bodies behind Shannon missed basically all of spring practice and the two scrimmages. Lee has been hobbled since stepping on campus, Logan Jones got hurt in the first scrimmage and might not be ready by fall camp even, and Yahya Black—the projected starter alongside Shannon—has been hurt with an undisclosed injury. The situation became so dire that Louie Stec, a freshman walk-on, saw first-team reps in the spring games.
Redshirt freshmen Lukas Van Ness and Isaiah Bruce are expected to be the backstops to the starters after Jake Karchinkski entered the transfer portal in May.
I will say that between Shannon and Black, there is enough high school hype tape to feel a couple steps above of OK when it comes to the group.
One thing to keep an eye on with this unit (and all others, but linemen in particular) is how these guys develop during life after Doyle in the weight room. I’m about as faithful as it comes to thinking that the strength program won’t skip a beat in his absence, and this is probably the year—and the group—that’s going to put that faith to test.
We’ve seen in years past that the success of Iowa’s defensive line is the catalyst for how the rest of that side of the ball does. While I’m not ready to be concerned until I see snaps—and I don’t necessarily think this is the most dire the situation has ever been for this team—it’d be a shame to see guys like Jack Campbell and Dane Belton and Matt Hankins and Kaevon Merriweather suffer because the front four just can’t cut it.
It’s unusual—and perhaps troubling—that Iowa finds itself in such a position after having four defensive linemen drafted the past three years and another three picked up in free agency in that span. A deeper look at Iowa’s recruiting is coming, but for now, this is what I’m keeping my eye on.
This could all be simple offseason overreaction, however. Inexperience and injury is the greatest reason this may read as a pessimistic piece, but let’s remember the guys Iowa had last year were so good that there wasn’t really any wiggle room for anyone else to get a chance to shine. In sum, I’m fully prepared and willing to put my foot in my mouth when Shannon and Black garner all-conference honors in November.