Iowa's defensive ends grew up fast

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central
Matt Nelson led a young trio of Iowa defensive ends with 42 tackles this year, and you'll be seeing his No. 96 for two more seasons. But will he move inside to defensive tackle?

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa’s football season dawned with questions about a young corps of defensive ends.

If you want a hint of how the Hawkeye coaches feel about that position now, just look at who’s sliding down the line.

Heralded freshman Cedrick Lattimore was moved from end to defensive tackle during training camp. Redshirt freshman Brady Reiff was slid inside during the season. And defensive line coach Reese Morgan told reporters last week that even sophomore Matt Nelson – who leads Hawkeye ends with 42 tackles heading into the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl – might be on the move as his career progresses.

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“You want to put your best four guys out there and in some cases maybe the guys have to change positions,” Morgan said. “Inside, you’re looking for a certain kind of guy. Outside, you’re looking for maybe a little more speed on the edge. “

Iowa settled on a rotation of three defensive ends, and the tight-knit trio has produced remarkably similar statistics.

Matt Nelson, a 6-foot-8, 282-pounder out of Cedar Rapids Xavier, is playing his best football at the end of the season, with five sacks among his tackles.

Sophomore Parker Hesse, the smallest at 6-3, 250 pounds, also has the most experience, and the Waukon native produced 33 tackles and 3.5 sacks despite missing one game with an injury.

Iowa's Parker Hesse puts pressure on Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

Anthony Nelson, a 6-7, 253-pound redshirt freshman, burst on the scene early and faded a bit in the middle of the season. The Waukee graduate has the most speed among the group and recorded 32 tackles and five sacks.

With five-star recruit A.J. Epenesa slated to arrive in the summer, suddenly defensive end is looking like a stacked position for Iowa. In contrast, two of the three defensive tackles who played the bulk of the snaps this year – Faith Ekakitie and Jaleel Johnson – will be playing their final college game against Florida on Jan. 2.

“We’d like to have more depth. It would be really nice to play eight,” Morgan said. “You have to show us in practice that there’s enough trust by your actions and your knowledge of the defense and your execution, production, that you deserve the opportunity to go out and play on Saturdays.”

That’s what Hesse and the Nelsons (no relation to each other) have done.

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Morgan said Matt Nelson’s finest hour may have been in Iowa’s regular-season finale, a 40-10 whipping of Nebraska. He had five tackles in that one.

“He’s hard on himself, which is really good and that’s what most good players are. They have high standards for themselves,” Morgan said.

“(Nelson was) getting his hands inside, getting separation and getting off blocks. He was sloppy with his hand placement and just things that most people don’t notice (earlier in the season). We see it on tape. The daily simple things that you do over and over and over time (were) more precise and more detailed.”

Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson puts pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Morgan indicated Anthony Nelson is just beginning to reveal his star power. The standout prep basketball player has terrific footwork and is developing the strength and stamina needed to hold up as an every-down Big Ten Conference lineman.

“He’s getting so much better in the run game,” Morgan said. “He’s got great leverage and does a good job with his hands.”

Hesse, who had 44 tackles and three sacks as a valuable freshman player, comes across as the elder statesman of the group, at age 21. Together, they’ll get one more game together in Tampa, Fla., and then will come an interesting offseason of growth and potential movement.

Behind the top three, Morgan praised defensive end understudies Sam Brincks, Chauncey Golston and Brandon Simon. Epenesa will push for immediate playing time as well, although it’s possible the 275-pounder also could move inside.

In any event, what 2016 has proved is that the front edge of Iowa’s defense is well-anchored for now and in the near future.