Iowa's young defensive ends look to fill a big void

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Yes, Iowa’s defensive ends are young. They know this. They don’t need fans — and certainly not reporters — to keep reminding them of it.

“We learned from two awesome seniors (Drew Ott and Nate Meier) last year. They taught us everything we know, basically,” Hawkeye sophomore Sam Brincks patiently explained, and not for the first time, at Iowa’s media day Saturday. “Being young is different, but we’ve embraced it.”

Parker Hesse is the most experienced of Iowa's defensive end group, making 44 tackles as a freshman a year ago.

Ott and Meier combined for 12 of Iowa’s 30 sacks last year. How to replace those two edge pass rushers is the biggest concern for a Hawkeye defense that appears solid everywhere else.

Stepping in to the void are sophomores Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson, Brincks and redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson. Can they accelerate the heartbeats of opposing quarterbacks, or will Iowa need to blitz more to put some heat on?

The Hawkeyes defensive ends from left, Matt Nelson, Parker Hesse, and Anthony Nelson pose for a portrait during media day on Saturday, August 6, 2016 in Iowa City.

Iowa’s coaches seem to think the young quartet will be just fine.

“I don’t look at them as sophomores. I look at them as football players, and they’re the best we have,” defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

Here’s a closer look at the four defensive ends who began training camp last week atop the depth chart, all of them native Iowans:

Parker Hesse

Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse signs autographs for fans during the spring game for the 2016 Iowa Hawkeyes football team on Saturday, April 23, 2016, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Hesse has the most experience — but the least size. The Waukon native is just 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, but managed 44 tackles and two sacks a year ago while filling in when Ott was injured.

“I’d still consider myself a pretty inexperienced player,” said Hesse, who counts pass-rushing as his biggest need for improvement. “You‘ve got to find what works for you and really hone in on it. That’s kind of what all of us young guys... We’re in the process of, right now, just bouncing stuff back off each other and helping each other along the way.”

Hesse’s edge is quickness.

“You’ve got to start everything with your first step,” he said. “Even your power moves have to come off people fearing your speed.”

Coach Kirk Ferentz singled Hesse out for praise, acknowledging that his rookie season was a “school of hard knocks.”

“He really competes. Now he's more mature, stronger, got a year under his belt,” Ferentz said. “I thought the way he looked in spring, I thought we saw a different guy.”

Matt Nelson

Iowa defensive end Matt Nelson jumps up to go after a pass during the spring game for the 2016 Iowa Hawkeyes football team on Saturday, April 23, 2016, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Matt Nelson is the summer-camp starter at the other end spot, after making 14 tackles while playing in 13 games last year.

At 6-foot-8, 282 pounds, the Cedar Rapids Xavier product can be a handful for opposing linemen.

But size means nothing if you don’t have the proper technique, Nelson said Saturday, and learning to play against the run was his biggest adjustment.

“Pass rush you can sometimes rely more on your athleticism versus run blocking you have to be very honed in in your hands and your pad level,” he said. “My biggest advantage is length, to keep offensive linemen off of me during the run game.”

Nelson’s made enough strides in that aspect that Morgan pronounced of him: “He’s a great leverage player.”

Matt Nelson on Iowa's defensive line coming together:

Anthony Nelson

Anthony Nelson has the same height advantage as Matt, standing 6-7. He’s also added 33 pounds to get to 253 in one year. He’s considered Iowa’s third best defensive end despite not yet taking a snap in a college game.

“He’s going to be a factor,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “He’s a very athletic guy for how big he is. … He looks like he’s 225 (pounds) and I think he moves really well. I think he has good toughness. I think he plays low and he’s a guy that’s going to fight you out there.”

Nelson, who played at Waukee, said his biggest adjustment was learning the more complicated schemes of the college game. With that knowledge in hand, he’s looking to make a big contribution this season.

Sam Brincks

Brincks was slowed this spring by a foot injury that dated to his time in high school at Carroll Kuemper and that finally required surgery. He’s fully healed now and feeling great, he said.

Brincks played on special teams last year, earning a letter, but has yet to record a tackle in college.

“I look at the big picture more and depending on what I see I can make better adjustments,” he said of his learning curve. “Everybody’s a lot bigger and it’s faster and it’s close quarters. It takes a while to get used to it.”

Brincks is 6-5, 270, giving Iowa a tall trio at defensive end, if nothing else.

“If we had a basketball team, we’d be OK,” Ferentz joked. “It wasn't necessarily by design, that's just kind of the way it worked out, and it doesn't hurt. I don't think it hurts to have that length and that leverage, and if you know how to use it, it can be a real advantage too.

“And based on what I'm seeing in practice, going back to the spring and then just three days (ago), I think those guys have a little bit of understanding how to make that work for them.”

More media day coverage:

Morgan said that redshirt freshman Brady Reiff has also been getting some time with the second unit at defensive end.

“I think Brady’s a really intriguing guy,” he said of the younger brother of former Hawkeye offensive tackle Riley Reiff.

Morgan said ideally there would be four — and maybe even five — defensive ends to rotate during the season. He’s hoping that those regulars don’t include the five true freshmen on the roster.

Parker said it’s probably asking too much for a first-year player to come in and win a big role on the defensive line, but held out the possibility.

“We’re starting to install the defense and for somebody to learn all this defense and have the ability to go out there,” Parker said, his thought trailing off. “Now, there might be some spot areas, maybe on third downs, that we might be able to get some of those younger guys in there.”