Anthony Nelson makes a big splash in Iowa debut

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the record, Anthony Nelson’s first appearance in an Iowa football play-by-play recap reads as follows:

“BAHL, Billy sacked for loss of 7 yards to the IOWA15 (Nelson, Anthony), fumble by BAHL, Billy recovered by IOWA.”

Billy Bahl is the Miami of Ohio quarterback. Nelson is a redshirt freshman defensive end who twice planted him and relieved him of the football Saturday in a 45-21 Hawkeye victory at Kinnick Stadium. It was Nelson’s collegiate debut, and it showed what a high motor combined with a high ceiling can bring.

Anthony Nelson (right) had a terrific Hawkeye debut Saturday after Parker Hesse (center) went out with a muscle strain.

“I got a wide set and I was able to get free,” Nelson said of his first strip-sack, which came immediately after the RedHawks converted a 67-yard pass play that was their longest of the game. “I thought the quarterback was going to throw it, so I just kept going and kept trying to go and he ended up pulling it back and I was just able to be there at the right time.”

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Nelson, an Urbandale native who played at Waukee, got extensive playing time Saturday after sophomore starter Parker Hesse went out early with an injury. He lined up at both left and right defensive end, finished with six tackles, including 2.5 sacks, and even broke up a pass. At 6-foot-7, 253 pounds, he showed tremendous athleticism. But, like the defensive line as a whole, there were also times when he got pushed around — particularly in the run game.

Nelson redshirted last fall and has put on 33 pounds in the past year, he said. This year, he was one of the most talked-about players during August training camp, showing a talent for pass-rushing that would fill a vital need for Iowa.

By game week, he was listed as a co-starter at left end with Matt Nelson, who ended up taking the first series of snaps Saturday. Anthony Nelson went in on the second series, then moved over once Hesse departed. It was Matt Nelson who recovered that first fumble that Anthony forced, when he charged in from Hesse’s right end position.

“I’ve been training for a year basically to get my body bigger and stronger. It’s just a result of a lot of days in the weight room, a lot of eating,” Anthony Nelson said last week, anticipating his first college game.

“Hopefully (being listed as a co-starter) means I’ve been making progress and trying to get better like everybody else on the team. Just as a unit, we’ve gotten a lot better. That’s good. That’ll show and pay dividends in the game.

“I think we’ll be all right on pass rush. We’ve been working on it. … That’s one of the things that has been really good this camp.”

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“All right” was a fitting description of what fans saw Saturday. Iowa finished with three sacks (Jaleel Johnson shared the other one with Nelson) but also let Bahl get very comfortable for much of the game. He passed for 266 yards and was able to keep the RedHawk offense on the field for 36 minutes, an unacceptably high number for a Hawkeye defense that should have been able to dominate a younger opponent from a non-Power Five conference.

Nelson and his group have an opportunity to take a big step forward this Saturday, when Iowa State visits for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff. Nelson has a personal stake in this one as well. He originally committed to the Cyclones before changing his mind in January 2015 and joining up with the Hawkeyes. Nelson’s father, Jeff, was a starter on the defensive line at Iowa in 1991 and ’92.

The Cyclones are coming off a 25-20 loss to Northern Iowa and are still trying to piece together an offensive line. Junior quarterback Joel Lanning threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns in that game, but was sacked three times and intercepted twice late to seal Iowa State’s fate.

The starting offensive tackles against Iowa figure to be Jaypee Philbert Jr. and Julian Good-Jones. Philbert started his first game Saturday; Good-Jones will be making his collegiate debut against Iowa after being suspended for the season opener.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday that Hesse’s injury was a muscle strain and “hopefully it’s nothing that’s going to last too long.” Regardless, this is a matchup that the Hawkeyes must control with more consistency than they did Saturday.

Ferentz was encouraged by what he’s seen of Anthony Nelson.

“What he did (Saturday) is really what he does in practice. He’s a guy we have been excited about, going back to the spring,” Ferentz said. “He’s not near the physical maturity that he will be before he graduates, but he’s a good football player, and I thought he made a real nice account of himself.”

Nelson has certainly gotten the attention of senior cornerback Desmond King, who was heaping praise on the young player after Saturday’s win.

“That’s one of the guys that is going to make a big impact on our season this year. And I feel like he has a great three seasons ahead of him,” King said.

“He’s the most versatile guy I’ve ever seen. He’s out there looking like a defensive back/safety type guy and linebacker, and he’s just playing the D-line.”

Plenty of items to target when analyzing Iowa victory