Iowa Hawkeye football takeaways: Raves for defensive line, freshmen stating their case

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Phil Parker is not known for gushing about the football players he coaches.

That makes his statement Tuesday about the Iowa defensive line all the more telling.

“I think it’s the best we’ve been up front as a whole since I’ve been defensive coordinator here,” Parker told reporters.

Parker is in his 19th year on the Iowa coaching staff, his sixth as coordinator.

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa signs autographs during the open practice on Kids Day on Aug. 12. The highly touted freshman defensive end will play in the season opener against Wyoming, defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. Probably extensively.

What has him so excited?

Hot-shot freshman A.J. Epenesa, for one. But also the knowledge that he can rely on veterans Nathan Bazata, Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson.

Epenesa is certain to play in Iowa’s Sept. 2 opener vs. Wyoming, Parker said. And not in a limited role.

In-depth:A closer look at A.J. Epenesa as a high school phenom

“He’ll be able to give us 20 snaps, maybe 25, maybe 30. I think he has the ability to go out there and play. I think the sub-packages (third-and-long), he can help us in. I think he can play on first and second downs. He’s a guy that can handle himself out there,” Parker said of Epenesa, who is being used exclusively at defensive end in order to minimize his learning curve.

“His size — as a true freshman, (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) coming in — and his ability to run (have impressed Parker). Whether he knows what he’s doing or not, he can run to the ball.”

To free up opportunities for Epenesa to wreak havoc, Parker has been moving Hesse and Matt Nelson inside in certain situations. Bazata and sophomore Cedrick Lattimore will start at defensive tackle, with sophomore Brady Reiff coming on strong as a third option. The ability to play Nelson (6-8, 285) and Hesse (6-3, 257) all along the front gives Parker a strong seven-man rotation, which is more than he had last season.

“Matt Nelson can play two positions because he already knows one of them,” Parker said. “(Hesse) is a commander inside, with the other guys being outside.”

Freshmen becoming primary options in secondary

Epenesa isn’t the only rookie making a splash for Iowa’s defense. Matt Hankins has moved up to second string at cornerback and is expected to see a great deal of playing time against Wyoming due to the one-game suspension of starter Manny Rugamba. And Geno Stone has risen rapidly to the No. 2 line at strong safety, making a redshirt season unlikely.

“He’s demonstrated physical wherewithal, plus he’s grabbing on to what we’re trying to do, systematically,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Hankins (6-1, 175).

As for Stone (6-0, 195), Parker simply pointed to one play in a recent practice that demonstrated his natural ability. Stone sprinted up to tackle a running back coming out of the backfield, jarred the football loose and ran for a touchdown.

“I’m not saying he’s a Jovon Johnson-type of guy,” Parker said, referencing a four-year Iowa starter from a decade ago. “It was just a natural thing for him to do. It was no big deal for him, being out on the field. He knows how to play the game of football, and he just went out and did it.”

Rookie tailback moving up the ranks

All signs are pointing to true freshman running back Ivory Kelly-Martin taking the field this fall as well.

The Plainfield, Ill., product appeared to have moved up to the No. 4 tailback spot during the Aug. 12 open practice at Kinnick Stadium. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz on Tuesday stopped short of saying Kelly-Martin had surpassed sophomore Toks Akinribade in the pecking order (behind Akrum Wadley, Toren Young and James Butler), but had glowing things to say about the 5-foot-11, 195-pound rookie.

“We’re still evaluating all that, but Ivory’s done a nice job. I can say that much,” Ferentz said. “He’s demonstrated the ability to catch the ball. He’s demonstrated the ability to run it. He’s been pretty good in blitz pick-up — he’s showed some physical toughness there. And then he’s demonstrated some value on special teams as well.

“That’s always a big thing for young guys, on getting them closer to the field — if you’re going to have a limited role on offense, then, shoot, you better have a lot of special-teams value. And right now, he’s in the process of earning that.”

Kelly-Martin was unofficially Iowa’s second-leading rusher during scrimmage action Aug. 12, carrying 11 times for 57 yards, compared with Akinribade’s two rushes for six yards.

It also looks safe to say fellow freshman running back Kyshaun Bryan will redshirt. Bryan walked out of practice Tuesday with his left arm in a sling.

Other injuries: Kirk Ferentz provided good news Tuesday in saying that none of his first-teamers were injured, but did note the “diciest” guys were on the second and third teams.

Most notably, offensive linemen Lucas LeGrand (a second-team tackle) and Spencer Williams (a second-team center) didn’t practice Tuesday. Sophomore Nate Wieting (a second-team tight end) continues to be sidelined.

Creating a dynamic duo

Wadley and Butler, senior tailbacks coming off 1,000-yard rushing seasons, continue to be one of the most intriguing storylines of Iowa’s summer camp. Brian Ferentz reiterated he’s exploring ways to get Wadley more involved as a receiver, splitting him out wide at times. Butler, a graduate transfer from Nevada, has been kept in the backfield for now, but that could change.

From media day:Butler, Wadley forge a quick bond as Hawkeye teammates

“We’ll play the best 11 guys we can get on the field at any time. We’ll play them and we’ll get them in as many spots as we can. So we’ve been very cognizant of getting guys like Akrum, out in space. James, his role has pretty much been in the backfield so far, but he’s a guy that’s capable of going out there,” Ferentz said. “Whether it’s a tight end and a running back, or whomever, we would like to get them on the field. So if there’s ways to do that that are maybe non-traditional — I wouldn’t say unconventional, but non-traditional — we’re exploring those and making sure that guys are cross-trained at those spots.”

Wadley drew praise from both Ferentzes for his willingness to mentor younger players.

“Akrum’s having a really good camp and he’s acting like a senior,” Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s always got a positive vibe on the field.”

Where's Brian?

Brian Ferentz, in his first season as offensive coordinator, said he still hasn’t decided whether he’ll call plays from the press box or the sideline this season. And he knows time is running out.

“I liked it upstairs. It’s just, when you come down, it’s like you were watching on TV. It’s really like you weren’t there,” Ferentz said. “But there’s some really good things about being upstairs. You can see a lot more. It’s pretty calm up there. … I’ve worked downstairs in the practice situations as well, so I think we’ll kind of figure out what we’re doing here, Monday or Tuesday, and go with it. But, again, it will be subject to change.”

Ferentz joked that the deciding factor might be the weather.

“There’s some really good things about being in the box. One of them is that you are warm,” he said. “I don’t want to feel the elements. You like to feel the game, certainly, but the elements I can do without.”

Register columnist Chad Leistikow contributed to this report.