Analysis: With 2018 recruiting haul and A.J. Epenesa, Iowa's defensive line could be dominant
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There are certainly question marks returning for the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2018.
Linebackers? Big yep. All three starters are graduating.
Cornerbacks? We don't know if first-team All-American Josh Jackson will return.
Running backs? No more Akrum Wadley. No more James Butler.
There's no question with the defensive line, though. Thanks to repeated victories on the recruiting front, this position projects as an immediate and long-term strength. It returns a healthy amount of experience, while also adding the state's top prospect, a U.S. Army All-American Bowl Game invitee, a junior college stud with Alabama suitors and a recruit who picked Iowa over 13 other Power 5 offers.
Of course, those players are John Waggoner, Tyler Linderbaum, Daviyon Nixon and Noah Shannon, who form Iowa's upside-riddled 2018 group of defensive big boys. The Hawkeyes have also offered fast-rising three-star defensive end Zach Petersen from North Scott.
This class is only Iowa's latest (projected) success story for defensive line recruits.
In 2017, they landed five-star prospect A.J. Epenesa and Nixon, before he had to take the junior college route. In 2016, they signed Cedrick Lattimore. In 2015, it was Anthony Nelson, Brady Reiff and Garret Jansen. In 2014, they got Matt Nelson.
Every year, there's a gem.
The biggest takeaway this year? The intriguing idea of Epenesa playing with Waggoner on either side of the line for two or three of the next four seasons. Epenesa has lived up to his five-star billing with 15 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a freshman, and Waggoner projects as a highly productive defensive end.
Moving inside, Nixon will have every opportunity to start next to Lattimore. Linderbaum and Shannon, two very different kinds of defensive tackles, might not start right away on Saturdays, but they project to be key pieces down the line. Linderbaum is a rare athletic breed at nose tackle who logged a 70-yard pick-six this year, while Shannon is a 305-pound brute.
So, combining this incoming class with Iowa's returning starters and significant contributors, here's how Iowa's strongest position looks over the next few years ...
2018: Epenesa, Lattimore, Matt Nelson, Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse, Waggoner, Linderbaum, Nixon, Shannon, Reiff, Sam Brincks and Jansen
2019: Epenesa, Lattimore, Anthony Nelson, Waggoner, Linderbaum, Nixon, Shannon, Reiff and Jansen
2020: Epenesa, Waggoner, Nixon, Linderbaum and Shannon
That's at least four stalwarts or projected stalwarts over the next three seasons.
How Iowa's recruiters have built this strength
The Hawkeyes have a solid base for their defensive line recruiting. For one thing, they've rightfully earned nationwide standing as a program that produces NFL linemen on both sides of the ball.
Defensive line coach Reese Morgan is among the country's most effective recruiters for homegrown talent. He was one of the best high school coaches in the state's history, and he knows everyone that plays a role in Friday night lights here — from Butch Pedersen of West Branch to Tom Wilson at the Class 4A juggernaut Dowling Catholic. Everyone. Morgan was the point man for Waggoner and Linderbaum's recruitment.
It also helps that Kelvin Bell, Iowa's recruiting coordinator, is the assistant defensive line coach. He's energetic and well-liked, and he boasts a proven track record of landing big-time Midwest recruits.
With that in mind, here's a look at the present and future of Iowa's defensive line, and how the Hawkeyes handled each player's recruitment. Plus, we'll review some 2019 targets to keep an eye on.
A.J. Epenesa, Class of 2017: Former five-star prospect who lived up to his hype as a freshman. He has accumulated 15 tackles and 4.5 sacks this season. Epenesa was a legacy recruit whose father played for Iowa in the mid-1990s. He picked Iowa over just about every juggernaut you can imagine, including Alabama, Florida State, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC. Still, even with the Iowa ties, Bell and Morgan logged their miles for this big-time get — one of the biggest in program history.
Anthony Nelson, Class of 2015: A highly athletic defensive end with 35 tackles and six sacks this year. Nelson was a three-star in-state prospect from Waukee who was an Iowa State pledge until January of his senior year. After watching him dominate that season, Iowa extended an offer in December. One month later, the son of a former Hawkeye defensive lineman flipped to Iowa City. This one must've felt pretty dang good for Morgan. This was also before Bell's time; he joined Iowa in February 2016.
Matt Nelson, Class of 2014: The rising senior has accumulated 18 tackles and a sack this season. Another in-state, three-star prospect (from Cedar Rapids Xavier) who chose to stay home and play for the Hawkeyes over his other two finalists, Notre Dame and Stanford. Nelson became a top priority in spring 2013. Iowa then made a concentrated push and landed him in June 2013. Morgan was the point man here.
Parker Hesse, Class of 2014: Hesse has 39 tackles, 10 for loss and 3.5 sacks, plus one interception so far. This was a great find for the Hawkeyes, as Hesse was a two-star athlete with only FCS offers, other than Iowa. A diamond-in-the-rough recruiting win.
John Waggoner, freshman: Waggoner is a four-star prospect who held offers from powers such as Ohio State and LSU. But in the end, UCLA, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State and Iowa State formed Iowa's main competition. Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes made a late push to land Waggoner after interest had wavered at times during the recruitment. Morgan closed the deal in person.
Tyler Linderbaum, freshman: Linderbaum is a U.S. Army All-American Bowl Game invitee who could have racked up Power 5 offers if he wanted to ... but he didn't. A Hawkeye fan for life, Linderbaum picked his dream school over Iowa State in May after his junior year. One of Morgan's easier recruiting wins.
Daviyon Nixon, sophomore: This was a big — and patient — recruiting victory for the Hawkeyes. They landed Nixon as a three-star prospect out of high school in Wisconsin, then stayed loyal to him when his grades became an issue and he had to play a junior college season. That loyalty proved to be important, Nixon told HawkCentral, when he chose between Iowa and Alabama this fall. Morgan led the way on this one, too.
Noah Shannon, freshman: Shannon is another early 2018 commit — July after his junior year. The 305-pound defensive tackle first committed to Minnesota, but decommitted in May. Two months later, he picked the Hawkeyes over the Gophers. A late steal for Bell and Morgan.
Mosai Newsom, Waverly-Shell Rock: A 6-foot-5, 245-pound homegrown defensive end with offers from Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota, plus interest from Iowa State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Northwestern. Newsom's recruitment is poised to explode this summer, and the Hawkeyes will simply try to hold on.
Jason Bargy, Momence (Momence, Illinois): Bargy is a light-footed four-star defensive end with offers from Illinois, Iowa, Purdue, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa State. He visited Iowa for its win over Ohio State, and the Hawkeyes are an early strong contender for the 6-4, 225-pound prospect.
Jalen Hunt, Belleville (Belleville, Michigan): Another productive three-star defensive end prospect sitting in the Midwest. Bell is the point guy for this recruitment. Hunt has offers from Iowa, Indiana, Iowa State, Kentucky, Pittsburgh, Temple, Michigan State and Western Michigan.
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.