|97||Darian Cooper||SR(RS)||6-2/280||Defensive Tackle|
|67||Jaleel Johnson||JR(RS)||6-4/310||Defensive Tackle|
|56||Faith Ekakitie||JR(RS)||6-3/290||Defensive Tackle|
|61||Kyle Terlouw||JR(RS)||6-4/285||Defensive Tackle|
|99||Nathan Bazata||SO(RS)||6-2/285||Defensive Tackle|
|72||Brant Gressel||SO(RS)||6-2/280||Defensive Tackle|
Previously on Assume the Position:
There was a time when Iowa took oversized defensive ends or linebackers and made them into defensive tackles. Neither Matt Kroul nor Mitch King were projected by anyone as defensive tackles when the committed to Iowa, yet they became the backbone of one of the best Iowa defenses of all time. Mike Daniels was a defensive end. So was Karl Klug, to the three teams that looked twice at him. Iowa might have recruited defensive ends, but it made defensive tackles.
Something shifted around 2011. Suddenly, Iowa was chasing top defensive tackles everywhere. Part of it likely had to due with pure personnel: Without 285-lb. terrormonsters at defensive end like Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard (or Kenny Iwebema and Bryan Mattison before them), Iowa needed heft on the interior that it didn't have. And so Iowa landed behemoths like Carl Davis, and less-heralded behemoths-to-be like Louis Trinca-Pasat. The strategy worked, to the extent that Iowa just graduated two multi-year starters and has a bevy of options for the next two-plus years. There's not much of an argument that defensive tackle has the most pure recruiting talent of any spot on Iowa's depth chart at the moment, even if that talent hasn't had much in the way of experience.
And yet, Iowa looks set to go back to its old model now. There were no specific defensive tackle recruits in the 2014 class. There were no defensive tackles in the 2015 class. And with 20 commitments in the 2016 class, you guessed it: No defensive tackles. Instead, Iowa is landing players like Michael Slater, ostensibly a linebacker but big enough to move to defensive tackle without difficulty. The same could be said for any of the five defensive ends Iowa has already landed for 2016, all of which are already over 230 pounds. We're going back in time and, unlike some other things that Iowa maddeningly holds onto, this one has a track record of success.
Jaleel Johnson (#67, Junior (RS), 6'4, 310 lbs., Montini Catholic HS (Lombard, Ill.))
After two years of spot duty in place of Carl Davis and Trinca-Pasat, it's finally time for Jaleel Johnson to break through. And if his play in 2014 and the spring is any indication, Johnson is ready.
On a roster wholly lacking in recruiting accolades, Johnson is the exception. He was a four-star recruit out of Chicago, ranked by Rivals as the third-best prospect in Illinois, with an offer sheet to match: Iowa beat out Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Arizona and a handful of other Power 5 programs for his services. And at 300 pounds as a high school senior, it was thought that he was ready to contribute early.
Johnson redshirted, and while he waited, Davis and LTP took over. He looked the part in substitute work, but was blocked from doing much more than that. His size prohibited a move to defensive end. Johnson was effectively stuck until this year; while anyone paying even minimal attention to the program could see that he was the heir, he still had to wait for King Louis to leave. Unlike Davis, who came in at 310 pounds and remade himself into a three-technique tackle, Johnson looks like a classic block-swallower. Even though he is 6'4, Johnson plays lower and looks thicker than Davis.
All of this parallels Mike Daniels, a beast of a defensive tackle who spent two years watching and one year rotating behind an experienced and talented pair of defensive tackles before pairing with a smaller tackle on a remade defense. Daniels played his part, but was a destructive force in that role, to the point that a defensive line replacing three NFL regulars didn't see an enormous drop-off. It also got Daniels a pro career of his own, a fact that Iowa's staff has undoubtedly been whispering in Johnson's ear for the last three years. It's time for Johnson to write his own ticket, to go from a backup to the centerpiece of Iowa's defensive line. The talent is there. The experience will come.
Director of the Office of Management and Bazat
Nathan Bazata (#99, Sophomore (RS), 6'2, 285 lbs. Howells-Dodge HS (Howells, Neb.))
Bazata was not offered by any other FBS program when Iowa offered him a scholarship early in the 2013 recruiting cycle. Being a Nebraska recruit, he was found, scouted and recruited by Reese Morgan. Unlike most Iowa recruits out of Nebraska, Bazata wasn't exactly under the radar, with interest from much of the Big Ten, including the in-state Cornhuskers. He was also a Kirk Ferentz checklist guy: Two-time Nebraska state heavyweight wrestling runner-up with a weight room mythos stretching back to high school. If Kirk Ferentz could make a recruit in a laboratory, it would be Nathan Bazata.
So how is it that a recruiting afterthought from rural Nebraska has jumped past far more coveted recruits to the top of the defensive tackle depth chart? There are no less than five factors at play, any combination of which could explain Nathan Bazata: Starting defensive tackle.
Factor 1: Bazata's early commitment and steadfast loyalty to the Hawkeyes after that commitment kept suitors at bay, and his lack of offers resulting from that loyalty, combined with typical small-school skepticism, deflated his apparent value despite the three-star grades. In other words, "afterthought" applied largely due to circumstances beyond Bazata's control.
Factor 2: Bazata's checklisting makes him more valuable to Ferentz and Morgan. The wrestling background and ability in the weight room probably scored points with Chris Doyle, the one surefire fast-track to the top of the depth chart. He also plays to his position coach, Morgan, who previously pushed for the remarkably similar Dominic Alvis.
Factor 3: Injuries to players ostensibly above Bazata in the typical pecking order have opened opportunities not typically available to underclassmen in his position. Iowa still doesn't know if Darian Cooper is going to be able to play ever again; even if he can, Cooper will have spent more than a year out of football. Similarly, Faith Ekakitie spent much of 2014 fighting injuries.
Factor 4: Bazata might be the perfect fit opposite Johnson, the one surefire starter on the roster. From what we have seen of him, Bazata looks far more like a three-technique than one-technique. The same cannot necessarily be said for Ekakitie or Cooper, though the sample size for all three is quite small. But if Iowa has its block-stuffer and needs the smaller, athletic, powerful end to pair with him, Bazata looks to be that guy.
Factor 5: He's an awfully damn good football player. Bazata played in nine games last year and, while he recorded just four tackles, he had an impact. He only played in limited snaps, but he stood out when on the field. Bazata also showed improvement through the season. His tackles came exclusively against Wisconsin and Nebraska, arguably the two best running attacks Iowa saw last season.
Barring injury, Nathan Bazata is likely a three-year starter at defensive tackle. We'll be talking about him for a while. Let's hope that Factor 5 is the only one we have to consider this time next year.
The Perpetual Unknown
Darian Cooper (#97, Senior (RS), 6'2, 280 lbs., DeMatha Catholic HS (Washington D.C.))
Cooper's career has been nothing less than star-crossed. He signed with Iowa over Michigan State in 2011, but a test score problem kept him out of the first week of August camp his freshman season and locked him into a redshirt. While he was waiting, Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis filled the void. His second season coincided with Trinca-Pasat's awakening, and repeated injuries prevented him from making any serious challenge to those above him on the depth chart. Nevertheless, he made two starts in Trinca-Pasat's absence and appeared in ten other games in 2012, recording 35 tackles and 3.5 TFL.
It wasn't enough to make him a starter, but Cooper had become the do-it-all rotation tackle that Iowa wanted in 2012. And then Iowa decided it didn't need that in 2013. The final blow: A knee injury last August that has kept him out for nearly a full year. And now we're not sure if he'll ever play again, let alone start at defensive tackle.
In a previous ATP, we wrote this:
"Cooper isn't competing with seasoned veterans. He's up against guys in his class or the classes immediately adjacent to his. He's either going to have to grow up fast or wait a long time."
That was 2012. He's still waiting.
While You Wait for the Others
Faith Ekakitie (#56, Junior (RS), 6'3, 290 lbs., Lake Forest (Ill.) Academy)
Ekakitie had the same accolades as his classmate Johnson, but nagging injuries, indecision over his position -- he's changed from tackle to end to tackle at least once -- and vague issues with his play have left him behind not just Johnson but Bazata. When asked this spring, Ekakitie said he's preparing to be the rotation tackle this year. If he asks the three previous names on his list, he'd learn that he's preparing for disappointment.
Kyle Terlouw (#61, Junior (RS), 6'4, 285 lbs., Lynville-Sully (Iowa) HS/Iowa Central C.C.)
What happens when you combine Kirk Ferentz's favorite thing -- small-school Iowa walk-ons -- with one of his least-favorite things -- junior college transfers -- and throw it into the toughest depth chart position on his team? Meet Kyle Terlouw, who popped up on the roster as a JUCO walk-on last year and popped up again on the depth chart this spring. He's a defensive tackle nicknamed "Turbo," so you know what you're getting. He could see time this year, if Cooper is unable to play or if that walk-on gene outweighs the junior college thing.
Brant Gressel (#72, Sophomore (RS), 6'2, 280 lbs., Centerville (Ohio) HS)
Gressel had a solid offer sheet -- Cincinnati, Louisville, West Virginia, NC State, Minnesota -- but is clearly behind both the logjam of upperclassmen and his own classmate. Best-case scenario: He outplays Terlouw and Ekakitie for some playing time this year. More likely scenario: He doesn't see significant playing time until his senior year, if then.