Iowa's D-line works to develop its 'A' game

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Football fans see the savagery — a tangle of large bodies colliding in search of control of the line of scrimmage.

Parker Hesse looks for the subtlety — small variations in technique that can spell the difference between winning and losing.

“You think of D-line or offensive line play as more of kind of a brute position, but in actuality there’s almost more of a game within the game,” Iowa’s junior defensive end explained this week. “Little things that you can take advantage of or that can get you beat by a guy.”

That’s why the Hawkeyes’ tight-knit defensive line is spending the summer working to develop both the strength and the savvy necessary for success in the fall, Hesse said. They study film together. They pump iron together.

Watch, lift, repeat.

“That’s something that’s pretty unique about the D-line room right now. We have a lot of really intelligent guys,” Hesse said. “By picking up on tiny techniques and echoing off each other, it can really give you an advantage.”

Iowa’s spring practices found Hesse as the lone returning starter on the field.

Senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata was still hobbled by an ankle injury suffered in an Oct. 22 loss to Wisconsin. He played through it for the rest of a season that ended with an 8-5 record, but had surgery and a couple of setbacks during the winter.

Junior defensive end Matt Nelson broke his foot on the first day of spring practices and promptly joined Bazata in the rehab room. Sophomore end Anthony Nelson also missed a week in April with a concussion.

The Nelsons are healthy again for summer workouts. Bazata said he is a week away from being cleared to run and expects to be healthy when August camp begins.

In the meantime, they’ve been picking each other’s brains during nightly gatherings. Bazata said he learned more while sitting out this spring than he did in his previous years of actually practicing. He credited Hesse and the Nelsons for that. Those three combined for 15.5 sacks a year ago, while Bazata recorded only 1.5. He is confident that number can rise sharply if he applies his new knowledge.

The ends are also focused on attacking opposing quarterbacks, Hesse said. The thought dominates their June conversations.

“I think that’s really the next level. We have the opportunity to change games with the guys that we have,” Hesse said. “We’ve got to be the ones who make those deciding plays.”

There was a healthy competition among the ends last year when poring over their stats each Sunday, Hesse said. Before watching film, Hesse and the Nelsons would review their numbers in tackles, forced fumbles, sacks and more. Hesse was always quick to point out that he missed nearly two games with a hamstring injury.

“Anything I was behind in, I’d always put an asterisk next to it,” he joked.

Even so, the numbers were remarkably even. Matt Nelson led the ends in tackles with 43. Anthony Nelson set the pace with six sacks. Hesse, at 6-foot-3 the shortest of the bunch, somehow batted down three pass attempts.

And that was with all three players being underclassmen. With another year of experience, Hesse said those stats should be expected to rise.

Bazata had a much different experience, beginning the 2016 season as a starter alongside senior Jaleel Johnson. He was pleased with his early play but said he was never the same after his Week 8 ankle injury. Bazata soldiered on in order to provide a few plays off for Johnson and fellow senior Faith Ekakitie, and said he has no regrets about doing so.

The offseason brought the second surgery of his life. Bazata suffered a dislocated shoulder as a wrestler at Howells-Dodge High School in Nebraska, and that surgery kept him from throwing during his subsequent track season. Undeterred, he took up running instead and competed in the 400 and 800 meters. The results were what you would expect from an athlete who is now 6-2, 287 pounds.

But Bazata said he’s bringing the same patient mindset to the recovery from his second significant injury.

“Some guys you’ll see get frustrated, and you have to brush that off. You can’t let it get the best of you because no one likes a moper and moping doesn’t help you heal faster,” Bazata reasoned.

The plus side of the rehab has been Bazata’s growing bond with Matt Nelson. The two were seen walking out of Iowa’s football complex together after Wednesday’s media session — each with a barely noticeable limp.

It’s symptomatic of the defensive linemen as a whole, Bazata said. That togetherness was something Drew Ott instituted as a senior in 2015, and it remains two years later.

“We hang out at each other’s house. We go to movies together (a majority vote decides which ones, but typically comedies). We eat together,” Bazata said. “We come in and watch film together and we go out and do drills together. We’re very close.”

And they’re hoping that closeness translates to the football field, where linemen need to work well together in close quarters.