Replacing Daviyon Nixon and Chauncey Golston: Iowa's plan to retool the defensive line
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The defensive line has been at the core of Iowa's longstanding tradition of strong defenses. There are two byproducts of that: a high turnover rate at the position, because players are leaving for the NFL, and an expectation that the next man will fill the void.
The 2021 season is no different.
Iowa is replacing three starters from last year's defensive line, and the interior of the unit is where the attention is centered. After a breakout 2020 season, defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, last year's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, opted for the NFL. In addition, the Hawkeyes lost fellow starting tackle Jack Heflin and key reserve Austin Schulte to graduation.
On the end, Chauncey Golston, a three-year contributor, was a third-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys.
With each passing season, the same question remains: How will Iowa replace their defensive line production? According to position coach Kelvin Bell, the on-field play isn't the only loss.
"The other thing is just that 'feeling,'" Bell told reporters at Iowa's media day Friday. "That feeling of bringing your big brother to the fight. That was (Nixon and Golston). When those guys walked onto the field you had a sense of security no matter what was going on. ... That's what you're going to miss."
At this point, the Hawkeyes don't have that marquee name that rings bells like Golston and Nixon did last season. Bell said replacing them will require a group effort.
"Our guys are doing a great job of trying to do that collectively," Bell said. "While there may not be a star power name, as a group they're coming together well. Obviously being young, they're going to take their lumps because they haven't played a lot of games.
"They're coming together well and they're going to need to because we start hot in Week 1 and Week 2."
Who is next in line on the interior? The first two names that come to mind are redshirt freshman Yahya Black and redshirt junior Noah Shannon. They were named the starting tackles on Iowa's preseason depth chart.
Black provides the physical presence — or the "big brother" element Bell was referring to — at 6-foot-5 and on the plus side of 290 pounds. Aside from his size, his biggest strength may be his long arms. He estimates having a wingspan of over 7 feet, which he learned to better utilize during his 2020 redshirt season.
"Separation (from the offensive linemen) is a big thing from our coaches. and I work on that every single day," Black said. "This year everything is a lot clearer."
Shannon hasn't been a consistent starter but is the elder of the interior group with 15 career games under his belt. As the most experienced player, he sees his role as taking the younger players under his wing.
But Shannon is still learning himself. One lesson he took from players before him: Preparation is key. He spent more time in the film room this offseason than ever before.
"(What I learned) was play recognition," Shannon said. "Seeing where the running back, tight end and receivers are in relation to each other. Getting an idea before the ball is snapped of where the ball is going to be, so that allows me to play faster."
One constant from last year is defensive end and lone returning starter Zach VanValkenburg, a preseason All-Big Ten selection. Outside of him, there's a lot of opportunity to play along the defensive line, and plenty of names that aren't Black and Shannon are set to take advantage.
Redshirt junior John Waggoner is currently listed as the other first team defensive end in Golston's position, with fellow redshirt junior Joe Evans also in the mix.
On the inside, younger players like Deontae Craig, Logan Lee and Lukas Van Ness earned praise from Shannon for taking a big step during spring practice. According to head coach Kirk Ferentz, "everybody" is in the mix currently as they try to build significant depth on the front.
"We're going to need at least six, hopefully eight guys," Ferentz said. "Hopefully we can develop to where those guys can play with confidence and allow us to do what we want to do defensively."
Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, their back seven is among the most experienced in the Big Ten. Defensive line is the biggest question mark heading into the season.
"Our D-line, we have some young guys that can be a force," safety Kaevon Merriweather said. "We don’t have as much worries as we had in the preseason. Our D-line will definitely be fine when it comes to game one.”
At this point in fall camp, the only thing that will calm Bell's nerves is the group staying as healthy as possible. A fully healthy group means each player can get their maximum amount of reps leading up to the Sept. 4 opener against Indiana.
In terms of developing more leadership and that sense of security, it will come from following the same formula that's been successful year after year.
"Chauncey soaked up (knowledge) from Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson," Bell said. "Then you have guys like Noah Shannon, John Waggoner, Zack VanValkenburg (who) soaked up (knowledge) from Chauncey, so those leaders emerge from the inside.
"Making sure our standard of play doesn't slip, that's how that thing gets filled. It's nothing that I do. And the older guys now are talking to younger guys. As those guys move on, new leaders will emerge."
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org