Waukee alum Anthony Nelson learning on fly with Iowa’s D-Line

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. – TV announcers are saying his name less, but Anthony Nelson swears he’s doing more.

The Waukee grad started his Hawkeye career like a future star: Snagging 2.5 sacks against Miami of Ohio and another one against Iowa State back in early September.

Statistical production has since slowed for Nelson, who rotates at defensive end with with Parker Hesse and the unrelated Matt Nelson. Still, the redshirt freshman feels like he’s moved forward in Iowa’s last few games.

“As much as I’d love to have three sacks a game, I knew after the first game that it wasn’t going to be like that,” Anthony Nelson said.

Redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson is tied for Iowa's team lead with 4.0 sacks through six games.

“There are a lot of things I saw on film in the first game that I wasn’t really happy with and I knew I’d have to get better at. I’m just trying to get better and help the team.”

Nelson has been gaining experience on the fly this fall. The 6-foot-7, 253-pounder was thrust into a regular role when Hesse hurt his hamstring against Miami. They now share a starting line on the weekly depth chart and split snaps in a young defensive end trio. Hesse and Matt Nelson can offer a bit of advice as redshirt sophomores.

“The majority of guys come in undersized,” Hesse said in September. “The way Anthony has grown physically and confidence-wise, he’s a tremendous player. I think he’s got huge upside.”

Anthony and Matt Nelson are co-leaders of Iowa’s individual sack list, with four each at the halfway point of the regular season. That gives Anthony 13 tackles and 0.5 sacks over the last four games, but his grades on film are more impressive.

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“I’m playing the run better than I was,” he said. “But I’m also understanding the defense as a whole. Knowing where guys are going to be and being able to do my job and help people out. Being where I’m supposed to be every time is the biggest part of it.”

That defensive awareness has paid dividends on following his assignment. Whether he lines up on the wide or short side of defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s unit, Nelson is getting more comfortable with the duties asked of him just two years removed from an all-state career at Waukee.

“Both Nelsons are really fun to play with because they get after it and hustle,” Hesse said. “When both ends are trying to run to the ball and compete with each other, it makes it fun.”

Improvements the run game were tangible for Iowa’s entire defense at Minnesota last Saturday. They allowed just 102 yards on 29 carries in the 14-7 win and repeatedly hurried quarterback Mitch Leidner when the Gophers decided to pass. Nelson shared a sack with tackle Nathan Bazata and the Hawkeyes (4-2, 2-1) held Minnesota to 4-of-16 converting on third and fourth down.

“Stopping the run is hard,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “It’s not glamorous. You have to be tough-minded, you have to take care of your spot, which a lot of times means you’re doing the heavy lifting and the linebackers get to trot over and make a tackle.

Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson hits Northwestern running back Justin Jackson on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

“It starts up front.”

It’s a collective mentality that the son of former Hawkeye starter Jeff Nelson -- a defensive line letterman from 1990-92 -- now shares after six weeks of college football.

“We didn’t have anybody that had an outstanding game,” Nelson said of the win over Minnesota, “but we had a good game as a group, which is special to see. That’s just a product of everybody doing their jobs.”