As Ott verdict looms, Iowa D-line gets crash course in humility

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s first Rose Bowl Game in 25 years won’t be forgotten, even though that’d be nice to do after the humbling 45-16 defeat to Stanford on Jan. 1.

Instead, it’s become a film-study focal point this offseason, particularly along the Hawkeyes’ defensive line. The unit was blasted by Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal, starting with his 75-yard touchdown reception 11 seconds into the game.

“I think we know where we want to go. I know we know where the bar has been set,” said 17th-year Iowa assistant Reese Morgan of eyes that were opened in Pasadena, Calif. “We know what we have to do.”

As defensive line coach, Morgan is charged with developing one of the most uncertain position groups in the program.

He started with tough-love film distribution to the five returning guys who played the most last season — tackles Nathan Bazata, Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie, and ends Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson.

“I went and made a cut-up of every single play in the run game that they did, both good and bad,” Morgan said. “I went through every snap, and we put it in their locker. Their goal in the offseason was to study that, come into spring ball with goals. What do you have to get better at? What are you good at? What are your objectives?”

How about some film spoiler alerts for his young ends?

“Defending the block, getting off the block, reach blocks, everything that you can imagine,” Morgan said with a Cheshire Cat grin, knowing there’s a lot of growth available as spring practice continues through April 23's open event at Kinnick Stadium.

Details set for Hawkeyes' Valley Stadium practice

“It's humbling, because you've got 160 plays that say ‘bad’ and you're supposed to look at them, and you got maybe 80 plays that say ‘good’ and you're supposed to look at those and write down comments about it. So I think it's part of the teaching process.”

Notice that Drew Ott isn’t mentioned here. Ott’s wait for the NCAA to decide whether he’ll be granted a fifth season of eligibility at Iowa is expected to end soon. But even if #TheDecision (as Ott’s newly created Twitter account calls it) is ruled in his favor, Ott wouldn’t be able to practice with the Hawkeyes this spring, anyway, as he recovers from right-knee surgery.

Iowa defensive end Matt Nelson  (at 6-8, 275, the team's tallest player) is shown during a March 30 practice. He's listed as a starter at left end, with Parker Hesse starting at right end.

It’s prudent for Iowa to move on without Ott and consider it gravy if he can return.

That means there’s a lot of youth at the starting end positions. Redshirt sophomore Hesse played the most last year after Ott tore elbow ligaments in Week 2, but he was undersized and in his first year at the position after switching from linebacker. Hesse’s up to 6-foot-3, 250 pounds — a 10-pound upgrade over last year, but still not in the physical ballpark of dominant force like Ott (6-4, 277) when healthy.

“The great thing about Parker Hesse has to do with what his parents did with him when he was a young man,” Morgan said. “They did a great job of instilling values in him. He's a great competitor. He's very tough. He is very detailed, very intelligent. He has a lot of pride. You have that. Plus, he has got some ability.”

Surgery, Trump 'backlash' cap eventful offseason for C.J. Beathard

Look for the biggest upside on the ends to come from redshirt sophomore Matt Nelson (6-8, 275) and redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson (6-7, 250). Matt Nelson got extended action late last year as senior Nate Meier battled through injury, and despite his size can get good leverage on blocks. The Hawkeyes’ tallest player will be counted on to bat down pass attempts, while Anthony Nelson could be a pass-rush specialist off the bench. It's possible some incoming true freshmen such as Chauncey Golston (6-5, 227) or Cedrick Lattimore (6-5, 260) could get a chance to play, too.

Iowa feels more comfortable at tackle, where its top three players return. End, though, will be an under-the-microscope position for the Hawkeyes, who saw firsthand a year ago how an impact player at that position (such as Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun in the Big Ten Conference title game) can affect a contest.

“If you look around the country, there's a lot of guys at that position that are really, really special. We go against some of those guys,” Morgan said. “Right now, we have some solid guys that are young, and they will have an opportunity to improve and get better. Somebody like Calhoun, we don't have that guy yet.

“I think as we continue to grow, we're going to try to continue to try to get guys that are better. But right now, our focus is to work with the guys that are here on campus and develop them the best of our ability.”