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Assume the Position 2013: Defensive Tackle

Iowa's not lacking for defensive tackles. But can they move beyond mere competency in 2013?

Matthew Holst

Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.

Previously on Assume the Position 2013:

1. Tight End
2. Linebacker
3. Running Back

Today: Defensive Tackle

The question isn't really who is going to start at defensive tackle. In fact, we're fairly certain of who the two starters will be. The question is just how many defensive tackles start. No, Iowa's not going 3-4 -- or the glorified 5-2 that passes for 3-4 defense at many programs in 2013 -- or adjusting to an odd-man front. But Iowa has two huge reasons to consider moving a defensive tackle to the end:

(1) Iowa has a history with massive defensive ends. Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard, both in the neighborhood of 285 pounds, were not prototypical rush ends in any sense of the word. But both became extremely effective pass rushers and, in Iowa's grand scheme of things, phenomenal block hogs and running game containment specialists. Funnel the running backs and quarterbacks to the middle and let the linebackers mop up untouched by blockers: That's the plan for Iowa's defense, and big mofos at defensive end certainly don't hurt that plan.

(2) Arguably, Iowa's six best defensive linemen are tackles or, in the case of Dominic Alvis, definitely are more tackle than end. There's no doubt that it's six of the top seven. Iowa has done a horrendous job of recruiting and developing edge rushers since Clayborn (and, to a lesser extent, Ballard and Binns) left town. Aside from Drew Ott, there isn't much in the pipeline that is buzzworthy at the moment. Are they really going to sit Darian Cooper or Faith Ekakitie so that Bud Spears can get trounced by another left tackle?

So we're going to chronicle every defensive tackle here. Just know that we're fully expecting a couple of them to make an appearance later. And given the defensive end chart, it could be much, much later.

Das Auto

Louis Trinca-Pasat (#90, Junior (RS), 6'3, 290 lbs., Lane Tech (Chicago))

Man, we hoped he was Pat Angerer. Not Angerer in the sense that he's an ass-kicking linebacker whose best friend is his brother's dog and who still texts the former teammates he liked to tell them they should probably just give up on making the NFL. But Angerer in the sense of a guy who almost gave up on football because of injuries and lack of success, only to come back bigger, faster, stronger, meaner. We got a bit of that last season. We need a lot more this year.

LTP came to Iowa after leading Lane Tech to a city championship, but was undersized (235 pounds as a true freshman) and technically lacking. After a redshirt and a season spent on the bench, it was entirely possible that he would end his career in exactly the same place. There weren't whispers of Trinca-Pasat's imminent departure in December 2011. There were shouts. But Trinca-Pasat rededicated himself last winter, earned plaudits from the staff through spring, and won a starting spot. In a season almost completely lacking in optimism, he was a positive story.

He was also an undersized first-time defensive tackle in the most run-heavy Big Ten in a generation. There were times where he made the wrong read and allowed a gaping hole to the other side (Ferentz attributed the Venric Mark run to LTP having his head a couple inches out of position). There were times where the brute force of two interior linemen was too much for him to handle. And there were times, especially late in the season, where the multitude of minor injuries became death by a thousand cuts. He finished the season with 12 starts, 40 tackles, 4 TFL, and a blocked kick. He was also the one-eyed man in a kingdom of blind defensive linemen, by all measures the most effective and most talented defensive lineman on the 2012 team.

Despite a spring spent on the sideline nursing a shoulder injury, we're expecting another big step forward for LTP in 2013. He's no longer inexperienced, no longer undersized, and no longer a surprise. It's time for two good years.

The Paradigm Shifter

Carl Davis (#71, Junior (RS), 6'5, 315 lbs., Stevenson HS (Sterling Heights, MI))

What if we were wrong about Davis? For three years, we've looked at that weight number and presumed that he was the block-absorbing Matt Kroul to someone else's Mitch King. But what if we were just profiling? What if it's Trinca-Pasat that's the hole-stuffing defensive tackle and Davis that's the backfield-invading, quarterback-hunting marauder? Are we ready for a world where the 315 pound guy is the undersized tackle?

It looked that way this spring, when Davis went from a guy who couldn't beat out Steve Bigach to an unstoppable force in the middle of the Iowa defensive front. We're talking about a player who recorded 14 tackles and 1.5 TFL in 11 games last season, who played far too upright to effectively use his weight to his advantage, and who, again, could not take advantage of the myriad opportunities floated his way to take down some thoroughly modest competition for a starting spot. He nearly topped those numbers in one spring game, working the underclassmen guards in front of him like tackling dummies and blowing up play after play.

The thing is, Davis isn't built like a 315 pound defensive tackle. For one, he's extremely tall for the position. For another -- and in part due to his height -- a disproportionate amount of that weight is in his shoulders and legs. He doesn't have the barrel-chested largesse of other "big" defensive tackles, and it shows in his playing style. Davis is never going to be called svelte, but he is in comparison to other, lighter, defensive tackles at Iowa and elsewhere. And it's that build, more than the weight, that dictates his style of play. And that style might be more like Mike Daniels than Christian Ballard.

The Next Big Things

Darian Cooper (#97, Sophomore (RS), 6'2, 280 lbs., DeMatha Catholic HS (Elkridge, MD))
Faith Ekakitie (#56, Freshman (RS), 6'3, 287 lbs., Lake Forest (IL) Academy/Brampton, Ontario)
Jaleel Johnson (#67, Freshman (RS), 6'4, 310 lbs., Montini Catholic HS (Lombard, IL))

We probably weren't the first to come up with it, but we wrote last year that Iowa is fairly clearly working on a five-year plan these days. Looking at the last ten years of the Ferentz tenure shows inexplicable boom times, followed by surprising struggles by a senior-heavy team, followed by a graduation- and NFL-induced purge, followed by the removal of program deadwood, followed by rebirth, particularly in the trenches. And if 2012 was the new 2007 -- given the smoke-and-mirrors victories over Michigan State and Illinois in 2007, they really aren't that far away from each other -- then the slow, steady emergence of Darian Cooper is the same glimmer of hope that we got from Clayborn and Ballard late in that other ill-fated bowl-missing campaign. He finished his first full season of action with two starts and twelve appearances, 34 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and a pair of pass breakups, with the production coming late in the season. He doesn't really have the height or the build to move to defensive end, but he's going to get plenty of playing time regardless.

Ekakitie and Johnson, the pair of four-star, Illinois-based defensive tackles Iowa landed in 2012, are even larger unknowns. Ekakitie was the talk of spring, and the buzz surrounding him has only grown since. At 287 pounds, he's not out of the question for a move outside, especially in running situations. Johnson, already up to 310 pounds, is slightly more problematic. Ferentz was not one for a defensive line rotation until attrition and injuries in recent years forced his hand, and he'll largely stay with a stable group of tackles if he can. If Davis' resurgence is a real thing and not just a good spring, Johnson might be stuck behind the two juniors for the next two seasons.

While You Wait for the Others

Mike Hardy (#98, Junior (RS), 6'5, 275 lbs., Kimberly HS (Appleton, WI))

We'll talk much more about him at defensive end, but Hardy is starting to take on the Steve Bigach role as a defensive line utility knife, not necessarily big enough for defensive tackle and not effective enough in the pass rush for weakside defensive end. He'd be an ideal strongside end, but Iowa's already got one of those. He could be a tackle in a pinch, but there are already plenty of tackles on this team ahead of him.

Dean Tsopanides (#75, 6'2, 265 lbs., Torrington (CT) HS)

Tsopanides is another tweener, not yet big enough to be an effective defensive tackle, not tall enough for an ideal end. In a season where Iowa suffered injuries and inconsistent play all across the defensive line, the redshirt freshman did not see any action whatsoever. That's not a good sign.

Nathan Bazata (#99, Freshman, 6'2, 280 lbs., Howells (NE) HS)

You see all those redshirts above? There's no way Bazata gets out of 2013 without one, unless all of the other defensive linemen end up like the zombies in World War Z. No harm in that; most Iowa defensive tackles need a year in the weight room, and the surplus of tackles only further enforces the benefits of a year with Chris Doyle.