Just how good can Iowa football's defensive line become?

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Parker Hesse is looking forward to less playing time this season.

That’s how deep and versatile Iowa’s defensive line is.

Hesse has been a mainstay on the right end for much of the past two seasons, a hard-charging but undersized former linebacker who has relied on speed and technique more than muscle to generate eight sacks and five passes broken up. The junior is expected to be even better this season, but he looks around him and knows that so is everybody else.

The only way to slow Iowa's defensive line this season might be to do something illegal, as Florida guard Martez Ivey tried against Hawkeye Nathan Bazata in last year's Outback Bowl.

And not just the starting four, but the top eight. Hesse can’t wait to unleash a wave of bodies at opposing offensive lines, starting with Saturday’s 11 a.m. season opener against Wyoming (BTN).

“You get more guys, that’s just going to make everyone more efficient as a player and keep fresh bodies on them. We’re looking to wear teams down up front and make a lot of effort plays,” Hesse said.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said last week this is the best collection of linemen he’s had in his six years in that job. Hesse and defensive tackle Nathan Bazata both said it’s nice to hear those words, but premature to believe them until they prove it on the field.

But there’s no mistaking the determination the unit has to be a strength of the team. Usually, it’s offensive lines that talk about pounding opponents into weary submission.

The Hawkeyes aim to turn that notion on its head this fall.

“The way we play, first and foremost, playing blocks physical, keeping guys off our linebackers,” Hesse explained. “A lot of teams don’t play like that anymore. And then, having multiples guys come in, always having a fresh guy working their offense, is something that could be a huge advantage for us.”

Bazata, a 6-foot-2, 287-pound senior, anchors the line. If he’s doing his job, you’ll hardly notice him. He muddies things up on the interior so that ends like Hesse can get clean shots at the quarterback.

Bazata was hobbled by an ankle injury for the second half of last season. That lingered into the spring, and defensive line coach Reese Morgan limited Bazata’s snaps early during summer camp to let him return to full health.

Morgan was “being overprotective a little bit,” Bazata said, before acknowledging in the next sentence: “I needed it. I needed to get in better shape.”

A funny thing happened while Bazata bided his time – Matt Nelson moved from defensive end to tackle and is now Bazata’s backup. At 6-foot-8, Nelson seems too tall to be tangling with the sawed-off centers and guards, but Bazata said that height is what can make Nelson such a unique pass-rushing option on third downs.

“He’s got long arms, so he can get them up and tip a ball, too, for us,” Bazata said of Nelson.

Indeed, quarterbacks are not accustomed to coming face to face with what is essentially an NBA power forward in the middle of the line.

Hesse also has moved inside some in Iowa’s new-look pass-rush packages. Iowa’s defensive linemen are becoming adept at moving from position to position, situation to situation, knowing there will be plenty of time to catch their breath while someone else plays a snap or three.

Starting next to Bazata will be sophomore Cedrick Lattimore (6-5, 295), the only newcomer to the first unit. He’s replacing the graduated Jaleel Johnson and Bazata said he hardly notices a difference.

“He can be a real impact player for us this year,” Bazata said of Lattimore. “His explosiveness off the ball, just attacking guys and being able to knock them back on double teams.”

Backing up Lattimore is sophomore Brady Reiff (6-3, 260), another converted end whose specialty is speed in the pass rush.

At end, there’s Hesse, of course, paired with sophomore Anthony Nelson (6-7, 260) coming off a sparkling seven-sack debut season.

Freshman A.J. Epenesa (6-5, 270) figures to outshine them all before his career is done. But to start, he’s a second-stringer who will get premium playing time, especially in passing situations. The other backup defensive end is steady junior Sam Brincks (6-5, 275).

That’s a heck of an octet, with only Bazata set to exhaust his eligibility after this year. No wonder Parker is so excited.

“If we work hard, there’s opportunity for us (to be elite),” Bazata said, sounding like a Hawkeye senior as he tried to tamp down the hype. “But we’re not there yet. We’ve got to just keep improving each week.”

Saturday’s game, against star Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, could be a great jumping-off point for Iowa’s defensive line. Marquee matchups against Penn State’s Trace McSorley (Sept. 23) and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett (Nov. 4) also loom, meaning the Hawkeyes’ defensive front will get to test itself against the best.

Allen, at 6-5 and 233 pounds, has a powerful arm and a knack for extending plays. He’s a terror if he gets outside the pocket. The Hawkeyes know this, and know they can’t let that happen.

“He moves really well, and when he gets outside the pocket he’s really accurate. So for us we’re emphasizing on keeping him in the pocket, make sure we’re balanced up front so we can’t give him a seam to take off,” Bazata said.

Bazata and Hesse both said they’ve never faced a quarterback with Allen’s skill set. They respect him, but aren’t in awe. Allen was sacked 27 times last season; he threw another 15 interceptions. There are plays to be made, or broken.

“As a defensive lineman, if you’re not excited to play a quarterback who can kind of change games and you’ve got to a chance to get him off-schedule, make him nervous, that’s kind of what you play for,” Hesse said.