IOWA CITY, Ia. — In a week, there will be no more imaginary circles keeping them at bay. It’s just seven days until the Iowa Hawkeye defensive line can try to get their mitts on a living, breathing quarterback.
When the Iowa football team kicks off its season next Saturday against Miami of Ohio, few units will be more eager to test themselves than the defensive ends. They’ve spent the entire offseason listening to the questions about whether they’ll be capable of applying pressure to opposing passers. They’ve spent the past couple of weeks in practice being discouraged from getting too close to their own quarterback, C.J. Beathard. For good reason.
“It seems like it’s getting bigger and bigger,” sophomore Parker Hesse joked this week when asked about the imaginary circle around Beathard that defenders dare not cross, before rationalizing: “When he’s in there, he gives us a chance to win. We’re trying to keep him on two feet.”
Beathard missed two days of practice this summer after a teammate rolled into his left knee, leaving a bruise and necessitating the wearing of a balky brace. Not injuring your own quarterback is an obvious goal of training camp.
But how is a young group of defensive ends supposed to monitor its progress?
“Coach (Kelvin) Bell has been tallying up disruptions and things like that — either putting your hand up, tipping the ball or getting within that imaginary circle,” junior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said, referring to a motivational tactic devised by his assistant defensive line coach.
And who has been getting the closest to Beathard?
“I’d say Parker Hesse,” Bazata answered.
Hesse, a sophomore from Waukon slated to start at right end, said it’s his onetime backup, Anthony Nelson, who has made the most progress on the pass-rush front this summer. Nelson is a 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman who played at Waukee. When the team's initial two-deep chart was released Friday, Anthony Nelson was listed as a co-starter at left end with Matt Nelson.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker also took pains twice to praise Anthony Nelson when asked about his front line this week.
“He’s a very intelligent pass rusher. One thing about him is he’s not afraid to fail. And that’s probably one of his best qualities is he’ll go out and he’ll try new stuff he sees and it doesn’t matter to him if it doesn’t work,” Hesse said of Nelson. “But then, in turn, he also finds a lot of new stuff that does work for him. Just talking with him, I sit next to him in the meeting room, and he’s doing a great job and pulling us all along with him.”
Still, there will be no way to gauge how effective Iowa’s top three defensive ends can be this season until the RedHawks come to Kinnick Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff. Pass rush is one of Iowa’s biggest question marks after defensive ends Nate Meier and Drew Ott exhausted their eligibility last season.
“I’m really comfortable with the four guys there right now that are going to play a lot of football for us,” Parker proclaimed, a list that included sophomore Sam Brincks.
Hesse knows fans won’t be comfortable until he and his cohorts start making opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable.
“We’re just trying to bring energy, bring energy to the defense, to the team. And by doing that just elevate the play of all the groups around us,” Hesse said.
He has the most experience but the least size of the bunch. The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder started nine games last season when Ott was injured, with 44 tackles and two sacks. Matt Nelson added nine tackles and one sack. The next tackle Brincks or Anthony Nelson makes in a college game will be his first.
Hesse, who relies on his quickness more than the others, said he spent the summer working on developing a faster first step while learning to shed blocks better. He estimated that he added about nine pounds of muscle as well.
The playing time he earned last fall was invaluable, but just an initiation to college football, Hesse said.
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“It’s the realization that you can do it, you belong, you can contribute,” he said. “Once you have that belief you can work on improving and work on your weaknesses.”
Bell, a former defensive lineman at Iowa himself, tried to help build on that confidence with his “tally of disruption.”
“That’s something just kind of putting numerical evidence to stuff that might not be recorded as statistics in practice. And to kind of see where we’re at and to give us a baseline to improve on as we went through camp,” Hesse said.
“It’s just physical evidence that you can kind of show and measure and go off to improve.”
But it’s nothing like the real thing. And that begins next week.