How four native Iowans formed unique bond and became Hawkeye starting defensive line
IOWA CITY, Ia. — “People would be extremely surprised at the type of conversations we have. We get into some very hotly debated intellectual arguments.”
Parker Hesse is laughing as he says this. He’s talking about the four starters on the Iowa Hawkeye defensive line and the bond they’ve formed over four seasons in black and gold.
All are from Iowa. All have a lot of things on their mind beyond football.
“We’re all constantly sending YouTube videos that are explaining theoretical physics and stuff to each other and trying to make arguments,” Hesse continues, before pausing.
“It’s kind of annoying sometimes, honestly.”
Iowa’s defensive line goes eight players deep and is one of the biggest reasons for the team’s No. 18 national ranking and 6-1 record heading into Saturday’s showdown at No. 16 Penn State (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten Conference). Hesse will be making his 42nd start at defensive end in that one.
But take a close look at all of the starters when they jog through the rain and onto the field at Beaver Stadium for the 2:30 p.m. game on ESPN. Two years ago, Hesse, Sam Brincks, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson were a quartet of friends vying for playing time at defensive end. Matt Nelson moved inside to defensive tackle a year ago. Brincks followed suit this spring. Somehow, they’ve become Iowa’s front four, side-by-side-by-side-by-side, just like they’ve always been off the field.
You’d better believe they’re savoring these moments.
“It’s like a dream,” Brincks says. “You never think that you can play at this stage with all of your best friends. But this is what we’re doing.”
A convergence, and history, in Iowa City
Brincks and Matt Nelson were the first two to arrive. They even took their official recruiting visit to Iowa together, a month before their senior seasons of high school. At the time, they were the only two local sons in the Hawkeye defensive line room. Hesse was a linebacker that first year.
“We instantly connected,” Brincks recalls. “We were two Iowa kids kind of living the dream. And we’ve just been on this journey together.”
Brincks was lightly recruited out of Carroll Kuemper High School. Nelson was literally a big prize in that recruiting cycle, a 6-foot-8 two-time all-state selection at Cedar Rapids Xavier.
No one was originally certain at what position Hesse would end up. He was just a winner at Waukon High School, playing quarterback and leading the defense.
Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday there was uncertainty about whether Hesse would even wind up at Iowa. He didn’t commit right away, preferring to wait until after the high school championship game. Hesse’s pause caught Iowa’s coaching staff by surprise.
“He didn't want to take attention away from his team. That's how he's wired,” Ferentz said. “It's another guy from the '50s. Guys don't do that right now, but that's how he was thinking all the way through. Being around him for four-plus years, you can see how he thinks. That's just how he is.”
Anthony Nelson got to Iowa the next year, another tall (6-7) and highly recruited defensive end with a high ceiling. The Waukee High School graduate quickly fell into a rapport with the three older Iowans in the room.
Trust, playing time and deep thoughts
On Iowa’s media day two years ago, it was that young group of defensive ends that was considered one of the team’s biggest question marks. They were all asked about it constantly.
“We’re in the process of, right now, just bouncing stuff back off each other and helping each other along the way,” Hesse said then.
Much has changed since, but that camaraderie has not.
Brincks credits Matt Nelson with helping him make the transition to defensive tackle this season, his first as a starter.
“If you’re going to have a good defense, I think you need two guys in the middle who can trust each other,” Brincks says.
The Hawkeyes rank third in the nation in total defense, allowing only 258 yards per game.
Hesse, meanwhile, pays Brincks the highest of compliments.
“He’s extremely selfless. He’s a team guy,” Hesse says. “He’ll never get enough credit for what he’s done for the program. Just a guy in the locker room and on the practice field each and every day showing up with a positive attitude.”
The all-Iowa-native defensive line starters have combined for 77 tackles, 14 behind the line of scrimmage. They have nine of the Hawkeyes’ 22 sacks. They are not the flashiest group, but every player will tell you how much their locker-room presence has set the tone for what is shaping up to be a special season.
But when they’re together, things take a more playful turn. They enjoy trying to get under each other’s skin. This is what sparks the off-kilter conversations Hesse referenced.
Matt Nelson has been accepted to medical school; his intent is to be a surgeon. Anthony Nelson is a top-notch student who’s a whiz at finance.
“Me and Parker are more on the common-sense side,” Brincks says. “More of the street smarts.”
The group is constantly quizzing Matt Nelson about their everyday aches and pains. Brincks and Hesse say there’s no question he will be their doctor down the road. He’s kind of filling that role already.
“We always ask him medical questions as if he were our doctor,” Brincks says, a hint of mischief in his eyes. “A lot of scientific theories he knows, so we’ll bounce crazy ideas off of him.”
Hesse jokes that a surgical career might not be in Nelson’s future, however.
“We’ll see what this whole defensive line thing does to his fingers,” Hesse says, echoing a statement Brincks made earlier. “We’ll see how his body and brain are doing after football.”
The defensive linemen say they’re too caught up in preparing for a game each week to spend much time dwelling on how their careers have played out. But there are moments of quiet on the field when it hits them.
“There are times we’re out there at a media timeout and you just think, ‘This is pretty cool.’ There’s no real way to describe it except appreciate the moment,” Hesse says.
“It’s something that I’m going to really hold on to and think dearly of.”