Iowa Hawkeye analysis: Can a deep defensive line soar in 2018?
CHICAGO — Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz brought two of his defensive linemen to Big Ten Conference media days this week.
He left two more back in Iowa City that are already among the best pass-rushers in the conference. Four others saw action in all 13 games last season.
And then there’s sophomore Chauncey Golston, who is rising both on the depth chart and in the esteem of the seniors he plays alongside.
“The depth of our room is something we’re excited about,” Hawkeye senior defensive end Parker Hesse told reporters at the Marriott on the Magnificent Mile here.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have the potential to make a play that breaks open the game. And that’s something that we’re going to try to focus on, is no matter who’s in there, you’ve got a guy champing at the bit.”
That’s as good a motto as any for this year’s group of Hawkeye defensive linemen. Get the T-shirts ready: “Nine Guys Champing at the Bit.”
We’ve heard much of this before, of course. The Iowa line seemed poised for breakthrough seasons the past two years, and has shown signs. The Hawkeyes are averaging 28.5 sacks over the past four falls, and came up with 29 during an 8-5 campaign in 2017.
Could this really be the year it all comes together? And how does one truly measure the impact of a defensive line, whose members are asked to do a lot of essential grunt work that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet?
“I think sacks can be overrated,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “I mean, I’m all for them, don’t get me wrong. Love to have them.
“But being disruptive, getting pressure on the quarterback, can be every bit as important or effective. Sometimes it’s even better. It forces an errant throw, leads to a turnover.”
Iowa was credited with 35 quarterback hurries last season. The defense picked off 21 passes, two by defensive linemen (Hesse and Brady Reiff).
All of that was good.
But Hesse acknowledged it wasn’t consistent enough. Senior defensive tackle Matt Nelson, a former defensive end and future doctor, said he could point to certain key plays last season when the Hawkeyes didn’t get enough pressure on the quarterback and paid the price.
“We need to come up when it matters,” Hesse said.
Ferentz and his coaching staff have been committed in recent seasons to deepening the pool of defensive linemen used. In a pass-first era of football, that’s essential in keeping those athletes rested and ready to charge the quarterback when called upon.
A closer look at Iowa’s top nine options on the defensive line entering fall camp, which is an intriguing mix of veterans, rising stars and hungry understudies:
Parker Hesse: The senior from Waukon has carried the “undersized” label (6-foot-3, 261 pounds) so long that he openly jokes about it. “I’m frequently bullied in the D-line room just because we’ve got all these freaks,” Hesse said of an unusually tall group of teammates. Still, Hesse led Hawkeye defensive linemen with 10.5 tackles for loss last fall. He had four sacks, three quarterback hurries and even three passes broken up. He’s the leader of this pack. “I don’t want to put numbers out there,” Hesse said of the unit’s goals for pressuring and sacking opposing quarterbacks. “But just get to the quarterback multiple times a game as a unit.”
Matt Nelson: “I’d still like to think of myself as a pass-rusher first,” Nelson said of his transition inside. “But it’s a little bit different path” to the quarterback. Nelson had six sacks as a sophomore, when he saw a lot more open grass while muscling his way around opposing tackles. At tackle, it’s all about handling traffic and sliding sideways looking for a crease that might get you a free shot at the quarterback. Nelson had only one sack a year ago. His goal is at least five this season, a big number for a tackle. The good news? “It’s probably the best I’ve felt in a few years,” said the 6-8, 295-pound Nelson, who has battled injuries the past two seasons. “I just feel real good going into camp.”
Sam Brincks: Brincks has been biding his time the past two seasons, picking up spot duty and seeing his role increase a year ago. He was credited with his first two quarterback hurries. He’s still looking for his first sack. Defensive line coach Reese Morgan experimented with Brincks at tackle some this spring. He’s big enough (6-5, 275), but probably more at home on the outside, where he’s a reliable option to handle a series or two of plays each game. That first sack is likely to come this season.
Anthony Nelson: The 6-7, 271-pound junior is just beginning to show how forceful he can be. Nelson led the Hawkeyes with 7.5 sacks last season. He was second with seven quarterback hurries and third on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. He broke up four passes and even blocked a field goal. Nelson is too quiet to feed into the hype, but he’s earned it. There’s no reason to think he won’t get double-digit sacks this fall. The NFL almost surely awaits.
A.J. Epenesa: How good was the five-star recruit in his rookie season? Despite not being a starter, Epenesa led the Hawkeyes with eight quarterback hurries. He was credited with 4.5 sacks, second among defensive linemen only to Anthony Nelson. Epenesa is listed as a backup to Hesse again, but there’s little doubt that he’ll see a lot more snaps this season. “Being a freshman, he just (said), ‘Yeah, I’ve been a super talented guy all my life. My 50 percent is better than this guy’s 100 percent in high school.’ Whereas, (now) he’s got to get his motor up and running,” Matt Nelson said of Epenesa. It’s a message Nelson said the 6-5, 277-pound Epenesa has heeded. Everyone expects a breakout year from Epenesa, which makes you wonder what last year was considered to be.
Cedrick Lattimore: The junior is actually a starter, coming off a season in which he had 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks. At 6-3, 295 pounds, Lattimore projects as more of a run-stuffer than a quarterback-hunter. That’s a vital enough role. But graduated senior Nathan Bazata had three sacks a year ago, and that’s a number Lattimore is capable of reaching, while still doing what he can to free up space for a new trio of Hawkeye linebackers to do their thing.
Brady Reiff: The South Dakota native entered the summer figuring to be the primary backup at the tackle spots, having gradually bulked up to 272 pounds. The junior showed a high motor last year with a sack and three passes broken up. The question now is how much larger can his role be, and whether he can work himself into a starting spot once Matt Nelson graduates. Reiff will be suspended for the Sept. 1 season opener after being cited for public intoxication last week, but then will get ample opportunity to prove himself.
Chauncey Golston: As a redshirt freshman, he didn’t get the chance to make a big impact a year ago, with two unassisted tackles in 11 games as a little-used end. But the 6-5, 265-pounder was impressive enough this spring to be moved inside, where he starts camp listed as the backup to Lattimore, his former teammate at East English Village High School in Michigan. Hesse and Matt Nelson both immediately mentioned Golston when asked about young players to keep an eye on. This was in the same sentence as Epenesa. This is probably telling. So, you’ve been warned: Keep an eye on the versatile Golston. He’s pushing for a larger role somewhere along the line this fall.
Garrett Jansen: The junior from Pella sits just outside the depth chart entering August. But, at 6-2, 280 pounds, he showed flashes of his ability last fall, playing in every game and ending up with four tackles, one pass broken up and one quarterback hurry. He’s a quick defensive tackle and will force Iowa’s coaches to make a decision on how deep they want to extend that rotation up front. Eight players is usually ideal. Jansen could easily turn that into an entire baseball team worth of worthy linemen.
No Hawkeye wants to put a number on how many sacks the defense can accumulate this season. And, as Ferentz said, that’s not the ideal way to measure a defensive line anyway. Still, if you’re wondering, the team Iowa is chasing in the Big Ten West Division (Wisconsin) recorded 42 sacks a year ago. For what that’s worth.