Technique-focused Nathan Bazata a believer in Iowa's defensive line

Mark Emmert,
Iowa defensive tackles, from left, Faith Ekakitie, Nathan Bazata, and Jaleel Johnson pose for a photo during the University of Iowa football team's media day. Bazata and Johnson made appearances in last Saturday's win over Illinois State.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Nathan Bazata was a star on the defensive line for his Howells-Dodge High School football team. He was a pretty fair wrestler back home in Nebraska as well.

But he didn’t really understand how to seize leverage until he got to Iowa and started watching Louis Trinca-Pasat manhandle opposing offensive linemen.

It was all about hand placement, Bazata soon learned. The more compact the contact, the better.

Iowa defensive tackles Nathan Bazata (left) and Jaleel Johnson should provide strength up the middle for a young line this season. Bazata vows to not wear down in his junior campaign.

“When you’re outside (with your hands), it’s hard to control a guy. If they’re on your chest, it’s hard to get off blocks and make a play,” Bazata said this week as he prepared for his junior season with the Hawkeyes. “It’s all about having your hands right on what we call the 'power circle,' and that’s the numbers on your jersey pretty much.

“Once I got the hang of it, it was simple. I was like, 'well, why wasn’t I doing that the whole time?’”

Bazata, a defensive tackle, used his newfound knowledge to record 42 tackles and three sacks while starting every game in a 12-2 season as a sophomore. It was a promising beginning, but the 6-foot-2, 285-pounder admitted he wore down as the season progressed. He is determined to avoid that this year while helping a young group of defensive ends make the same adjustment he did last season.

“I’ve played with (sophomore Parker) Hesse most of the year,” Bazata said. “Right now our chemistry is really good on that side with pass-rush games and just the run concept. I know Matt Nelson (the presumed starter at left end), he got a lot of reps last year, too. I really honestly don’t think it’s changed much, but we’ve just to keep on working to fine-tune everything.”

Bazata and senior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (6-4, 310) figure to be the strength of a line that is without pass-rushing star Drew Ott, who did not receive a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA after his senior season was sidetracked by multiple serious injuries. It was Ott who served as a mentor to Nelson, much as Trinca-Pasat passed on the tricks of the trade to a young Bazata.

Nelson, a 6-8, 275-pound sophomore who graduated from Cedar Rapids Xavier, acknowledged the youth of Iowa’s four top defensive ends (sophomore Sam Brincks and redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson are the others), but said the challenge is leadership, not talent.

“We can do a lot of damage this year. I’m excited,” said Nelson, who listed his personal goals as “playing with more instinctiveness and aggression and just playing faster.”

Any damage inflicted on opposing offenses this fall will be the result of work being put in now, as Bazata knows well. He and Nelson were both on the field for the fateful culmination of that wearying drive by Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 5. After 21 plays, including five third-down and one fourth-down conversion, drained 9 minutes from the clock, the young linemen dug in on the goal line trying to stop the Spartans’ bruiser L.J. Scott from reaching paydirt. They failed, and Michigan State won 16-13 to hand Iowa its first loss.

Michigan State running back L.J. Scott reaches across the goal line for the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Bazata made reference to that sequence Wednesday.

“What we’re focusing on is our technique, mainly,” Bazata said of summer drills. “We want to be the best we can at our fundamentals because when you have a high-pressure situation like the Big Ten championship game, you can fall back on your fundamentals and everything comes natural to you.”

His statement seemed to assume that Iowa would be back in that spot, where the placement of Bazata’s hands on an opposing player’s jersey might make the difference between winning and losing.