Hesse becomes Iowa's leader on the defensive line

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It wasn’t long ago that Parker Hesse would sweat as much when watching film of his Iowa football practices as he did during them.

A two-way star at Waukon, Hesse was initially penciled in as a linebacker with the Hawkeyes while sitting out as a freshman. Late that year, coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff decided that Hesse’s future would be as an undersized but speedy defensive end.

The spring of 2015 found Hesse re-living every misstep he made in slow motion and on repeat, his position coaches providing the voiceover of his nightmares.

“I would get so nervous for practices, I would be uptight,” Hesse said last week. “I’d get nervous to go to meetings and watch myself mess up. You want to perform well and a certain level of anxiety comes with that.”

Hesse can let out a slight chuckle while recalling that now. Two years later, he’s up to 255 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. But he carries the weight of experience, and that’s the most vital ingredient on a Hawkeye defensive line that has been stripped bare by injury this spring.

Hesse, a junior with 21 starts under his belt, was the only battle-tested defensive lineman on the field when reporters got to witness a window of Iowa’s practice Wednesday. Tackles Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie have graduated. Senior Nathan Bazata, who has lined up next to Hesse throughout his career, was out with a lingering ankle injury. Ends Matt Nelson and Anthony Nelson also were on the sidelines, the former with a big boot covering his right foot.

Hesse, a quarterback in high school, was a natural leader for his position group anyway. This spring, he’s had to embrace that role.

“As you get older in the program, you get more experience, it’s kind of your job to set the standard for not only how you play, but how you go about things in the meeting room,” Hesse rationalized.

“The No. 1 thing is just competing, being a good teammate, being there for the team no matter what.”

Hesse was in awe of the sneer that Hawkeye defensive ends Drew Ott and Nate Meier were able to inculcate in the defensive line two years ago. That’s what he is hoping to build again with a young group that includes redshirt freshmen Chauncey Golston and Brandon Simon at the ends and Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff inside.

“That spring ball our defense kind of had an attitude to us. Just the way they went about things and the way that they every day strove to dominate the offense,” Hesse said. “I think that’s something that is important as a defense. You have to have kind of an identity as a whole. And that’s something we’re trying to create right now.”

Defensive line coach Reese Morgan said last week that Golston and Simon have flashed potential, but aren’t yet ready to be mentioned alongside Hesse and the Nelsons, let alone Ott and Meier.

“They probably maybe are a little bit ahead in the pass-rush game than they are in the run game. We ask our guys to play heavy techniques and to … take on a big offensive tackle, tight end or double team. So that would be an area they continue to work on,” Morgan said. “Before we anoint them, we should make sure that they can line up correctly and do the things that they have to do in our team defense.”

Morgan’s line has to plug a sizable hole in Johnson, a 310-pounder who is headed for the NFL. Morgan acknowledged that the 2017 group, typified by Hesse, might need to do more stunting to create havoc.

“We'll probably have some things that we'll package and have movements or shifts or something to put some pressure on a guy,” he said. “We probably won't just have a 250-pound guy line up across (from) a 330-pound guy and say, ‘OK, beat him 72 snaps in a row.’”

Not that anyone expects to be playing 72 snaps anyway. Last season, the Hawkeyes rotated six defensive linemen into the four spots, with Hesse starting 12 of 13 games (he missed one with a hamstring injury) at right end. He responded with 37 tackles and four sacks. The Nelsons added another 11.5 sacks.

This season might bring more depth, led by one highly anticipated rookie arrival. A.J. Epenesa, a five-star recruit out of Illinois, figures to find a home somewhere along the Hawkeye front line. Hesse said he’ll be happy to have the help.

“Any time you can get more good football players, that’s never a problem. It’s going to help each one of us improve,” Hesse said. “Everyone’s fresh every series. That’s something that can be a problem for opposing offenses.”

But Epenesa’s not in the room yet, and Hesse is. He feels much more comfortable now watching film than he did two years ago. But you can never be completely at ease.

“There are certain times every meeting where I cringe,” Hesse said of the caustic comments from Morgan and assistant defensive line coach Kelvin Bell. “They don’t let anybody rest in there. They’re coaching you up every chance they get.

“And that’s what you want.”