The Iowa Hawkeyes have developed an assembly line of prolific defensive ends and this group is no different.
The tease was warranted on Wednesday because Lukas Van Ness was so prolific as a backup defensive tackle. Some context: 28 Hawkeyes have tallied 5 or more sacks in a season since 2000. Only one other was a freshman (Anthony Nelson) and he didn’t match the 7 (!!!) Van Ness put up last year, largely out of position. His sack total tied for tenth among Hawkeyes in the filtered timeframe and was sixth in the conference last season. He nabbed freshman All-American honors for his efforts.
From what I can gather, only Jared DeVries’ insane 12-sack year is the only better number a freshman has put up at Iowa.
He added 33 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, and a deflected pass. The big question for Van Ness will be if he can maintain his production as his position changes to defensive end and his workload increases as a starter. His role will change as he’ll be on the field more often in run situations and will have to adjust accordingly.
But when it’s a pass rush - enjoy him while you can. If he ticks all the boxes, 2022 could be his final year in the black and gold.
John Waggoner was a little bit of a “will he or won’t he” as a recruit, eventually getting the Reese Morgan vote of approval after an underwhelming senior year of high school. He didn’t really break through the depth chart early in his career, but also didn’t need to with AJ Epenesa and Chauncey Golston ahead of him. Last season, he started all 14 games and accumulated 25 tackles, a fine if underwhelming number.
I don’t want to undersell his ability, though, as he hasn’t needed to be an explosive end wreaking havoc in the backfield. His ability to engage with his blocker allows linebackers behind him to fill gaps and finish plays. He’s done everything asked of him and has been an academic all-Big Ten every season he’s played. Another season like last would be a success but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have the breakout senior season we’ve seen from past seniors.
Joe Evans is the other veteran presence at end and, not that long ago (Parker Hesse), players built like Evans would occupy more of a full-time role. Evans, though, has taken to the pass rush specialty and gathered 12 sacks across his three seasons.
Thad’s breakdown of Evans’ game ahead of the 2020 season proved prescient...for 2021. Evans tied Van Ness with 7 sacks for the team lead and added 33 tackles as well. He’ll continue being a pass rush specialist and, in all likelihood, continue being really freaking good in that role.
Sophomore Deontae Craig was featured sparingly in the 2021 campaign, as he was in on 1.5 sacks and 14 tackles. He entered the spring as a backup end and will continue being a rotational piece. His 260-pound frame portends a future full-time role as the guys ahead of him clear out.
I’m adding true freshman Aaron Graves here again. He’s a total freak athlete and maybe freakier student (good way). He was named the 2022 MaxPreps player of the year and earned his associates degree along the way. He is the combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell of Iowa recruits, as he played basketball AND wrestled, picking up the latter halfway through his high school career.
Easton had a great year going 47-1 and beating Graves 4-1 in the semis. Congrats.— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) June 13, 2022
I’d take it easy on Graves, who decided to wrestle for the first time as a junior in high school. Plus, he scored 33 points in a basketball game the night before wrestling State quarters and semis. https://t.co/eIPpcxpCUA
(that was a weird Twitter exchange!)
He’s as ready-made as any true freshman defensive lineman (yes, including Epenesa) and AJE’s freshman numbers (15 tackles, 4.5 sacks) are realistic goals.
Max Llewellyn is still growing into his 6’5” body, weighing just 243 pounds after his redshirt season. If Evans’ trajectory has shown, though, Iowa isn’t afraid to throw guys like that out there if they feel comfortable they can perform in certain situations.
True freshman Brian Allen is an intriguing guy to file away for later. 6’4”, 250 lbs and previously committed to Illinois. Some funky stuff with being coached by Iowa employee Jason Manson at prep school kept him from committing without a waiver.
Junior Chris Reames is the last guy I’ll mention. At 6’7”, he has the length Iowa has coveted at the position and is up to 274 pounds. There are a lot of guys in front of him if he’s gonna go from four appearances to contributor but an injury kept him out of 2020, so he’s got a little more runway to crack the depth chart than the typical junior.
I really, really like this group. Tons of guys who have shown a high ceiling with a lot of potential contributors. Iowa’s done a fantastic job developing eight-plus along the line to keep kids fresh as the season wears on. They’ve also leaned a little more into length & leverage than weight, which has helped them become more modern at the position without sacrificing much by way of yards per carry.
This defense is stacked.