Leistikow: How Iowa football made its deep, 8-man defensive line rotation thrive

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — The Iowa football team arrived to 76-degree temperatures here on Florida’s Gulf Coast as it geared up for Tuesday’s Outback Bowl.

And while this trip is hardly a vacation with the final game of the 2018 season looming, the Hawkeyes’ defensive linemen should be refreshed as they check into their Harbour Island hotel for the next seven nights.

A well-conceived approach by Phil Parker and his defensive coaches maximized a talent-rich position of defensive end to create one of the most feared pass rushes of the Kirk Ferentz era.

Iowa's defensive line has maintained a core group of eight rotating players all season, including starter Parker Hesse (40) and second-teamer A.J. Epenesa (94). The Hawkeyes' third-down pass-rush package included Hesse, Epenesa, Anthony Nelson and Chauncey Golston.

While “snap counts” became a buzzing topic during portions of Iowa’s 8-4 regular season, we’re not talking about Noah Fant today. The NFL-bound tight end is not part of the Hawkeyes’ preparation for Tuesday’s 11 a.m. CT matchup against No. 18 Mississippi State at Raymond James Stadium.

This playing-time conversation is one coaches are much more eager to address.

Over 12 games, the Hawkeyes consistently rotated their defensive front four to keep their best players fresh. Like hockey line shifts, four would go in, four would come out — sometimes in the same series.

That’s a luxury defensive line coaches Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell would love to have every year. Of course, a coach can’t just throw in bodies to throw in bodies.

If a player isn’t ready, he’ll be exposed.

“They have to earn our trust,” Morgan said. “If they can do it consistently in practice, then you feel pretty good about it.”

Out of fall camp, a top eight had emerged.

The starting four would be Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse at defensive end; Sam Brincks and Matt Nelson at defensive tackle. The veterans. They would start every Iowa game held in 2018.

The next four: Sophomores A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston at end; juniors Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff at tackle. The future.

“At times,” Morgan said, “the second group was playing as well or better than the first group.”

This season has produced exemplary results. Iowa led the Big Ten Conference in scoring defense despite inconsistency at linebacker and a young secondary that at times started two true freshmen.

The Hawkeyes’ defensive front won’t have the enter a bowl game with the tired legs it did for the Rose Bowl three Decembers ago. In that 2015 season, defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata logged snap counts in the high-600s — carrying at least 80 percent of the workload.

By contrast, Matt Nelson’s unofficial snap count in the low- to mid-400s this season was the highest of any defensive tackle. Given Iowa’s 763 defensive plays, that’s an approximate workload of 55 to 60 percent. 

Even at defensive end, where there’s less punishment than tackle (where a player contends with multiple 300-pound blockers on nearly every play), Hesse and Anthony Nelson come to Florida with snap counts in the low-500s. That means they’ve played roughly 70 percent of snaps, which, interestingly, is similar to the percentage Hesse played as a much-less-polished red-shirt freshman while filling in on the fly for Drew Ott.

Meanwhile, Epenesa and Golston have been half-time players — with snap counts in the mid- to high-300s.

The crafty part of Parker’s design, though, was that he unleashed an all-defensive ends front on expected passing downs — Anthony Nelson (6-7, 271) and Epenesa (6-5, 277) usually lined up at ends, Golston (6-5, 265) and Hesse (6-3, 261) usually at tackle.

The specialty defense (which doesn’t have a clever name but needs one, right?) became a big play waiting to happen. In addition to 34 sacks — most in the program since 2003 — Iowa entered bowl season tied for the FBS lead with 18 interceptions.

The four defensive ends accounted for a whopping 26½ of those sacks — a total which alone would top more than half (66 of 130) of FBS teams. Epenesa, despite a lighter workload, is tied with Nelson for the team lead with 9½ sacks.

A generational talent at Iowa, Epenesa thrived when he was asked to do what he does best — attack the quarterback with speed and power.

No wonder the second-year player was named first-team all-conference by the Big Ten’s media despite technically being a second-teamer at Iowa. Morgan spoke recently about the continued ascent he’s seen from Epenesa with his physicality, daily practice habits, hand-fighting … everything.

“If there’s a checklist of things, you’d say check, check, check,” Morgan said. “Improvement, improvement, improvement.”

Epenesa, really, has been the key to the rotation. He's made that second unit hum. As a result, the entire defensive line played faster and healthier.

Although Lattimore and Reiff missed the opener due to suspensions, not one of the core eight missed a game due to injury. That level of durability can’t be overstated.

But there were other benefits, too, that coaches were pleased to see unfold.

“It makes it tougher on the offensive line,” Morgan said, “because instead of preparing for four guys, you’re preparing for eight.”

Morale was another biggie.

Even though workloads varied from week to week, roles were embraced.

Anthony Nelson played 57 snaps at Indiana, then 23 the next Saturday against Maryland.

Epenesa and Golston saw their average snap counts rise to 38 in Iowa’s final three games, compared with 26 in their previous three.

When eight guys play regularly at one position, motivation and happiness go up.

Imagine being a younger defensive lineman trying to gain a role. Instead of climbing into the top four, you know you can earn meaningful playing time by cracking the top eight.

The hope is for this trend to continue; although 2018 will be tough to repeat.

If things are going well behind the scenes, names we don’t know much about now will be making a case for key snaps alongside Anthony Nelson (probably), Epenesa, Golston, Reiff and Lattimore in 2019.

Garret Jansen? Brandon Simon? Noah Shannon? John Waggoner? Daviyon Nixon?

A walk-on, as Brincks once was?

“If everyone feels like they’re getting to contribute and they’re part of it, obviously they’re more engaged,” Hesse said. “That’s just human nature. To have such a large portion of our room all pushing forward, it’s really helped.”

Then, he fittingly added, “Top to bottom.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.