IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team rotated eight defensive linemen last season and ended up with 35 sacks to lead the Big Ten Conference.
That will not be the case this season. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Thursday that he is hoping to merely find six quality linemen during spring practices.
Attrition has hit that position group hard. Starters Sam Brincks, Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson have graduated. Junior defensive end Anthony Nelson is entering the NFL Draft a year early. Garret Jansen is transferring. Daviyon Nixon and Brandon Simon are considering doing the same. Tyler Linderbaum has been moved to center, and that’s where Ferentz intends to keep him. Jack Kallenberger decided Monday to give up the sport.
“I think we have four pretty good front-line guys. But can we develop the depth where we can get a six-man rotation? That would be a great starting point,” Ferentz said. “As opposed to thinking we could have eight again. I don’t see that happening at this point.”
The starting four would appear to be last year’s backups — A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston at the ends, Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff inside. They combined for 105 tackles and 16 sacks. Epenesa and Golston were key in the Hawkeyes’ 27-22 Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State. Epenesa was named all-Big Ten Conference and has an NFL future after his junior season.
“It’s open for everybody at this point,” Ferentz said. “Anybody that’s out there has an opportunity.”
No other defensive linemen recorded a tackle last season. The potential backups include redshirt freshman John Waggoner at end, junior Austin Schulte, sophomore Levi Duwa and redshirt freshman Noah Shannon inside.
Ferentz compared the situation on the defensive line to what happened at linebacker the year before. The Hawkeyes had to replace three senior starters.
At least Ferentz knows he has two high-caliber players to man the ends in Epenesa and Golston. But keeping them fresh during games could be an issue. Ferentz wants them to eventually become the leaders of the group. That will take time.
“The first focus is just learn how to be a starter, play your position really well,” Ferentz said of Epenesa and Golston, both entering their junior seasons.
“It’s just about establishing yourself and really conducting yourself as if you were a starter. Work with that kind of consistency and awareness and maturity.”
Two tight ends? Maybe not anymore
“It’s going to be tough to play without defensive linemen, so that’s not an option,” Ferentz quipped.
The situation at tight end is not quite as dire. The Hawkeyes lost Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson to the NFL Draft after three seasons. Those two combined for 88 catches, 13 touchdowns and one Mackey Award (Hockenson).
Iowa’s next options are Nate Wieting (two catches last year), Shaun Beyer and Drew Cook (zero apiece).
Or, as Ferentz indicated, the Hawkeyes could adjust their offensive scheme to minimize usage of tight ends. They have frequently played two at a time.
“You can play with three wideouts and a fullback and a running back,” Ferentz said. “There are ways to bob and weave on that. But we feel like we have some tight ends on the roster that will be able to play well.”
Wieting has shown that he is an effective blocker. Beyer, a converted wide receiver who stands 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, would seem to be the best pass-catching option. Beyer missed the final five games of his sophomore season due to injury. Ferentz said Beyer is close to being able to return to practice.
“It was disappointing that he couldn’t practice. December is such an opportunity for guys to really grow, especially in his category, that are playing behind good players,” Ferentz said of Beyer. “He was really coming along, doing a lot of nice things. … Hopefully, he ‘ll be one of those guys that continues to improve.”
Iowa also has high hopes for three incoming freshmen tight ends — Sam LaPorta, Logan Lee and Josiah Miamen. They have a significant opportunity to play right away.
Ferentz doesn't vote in coaches' poll, and that isn't going to change
Iowa finished 9-4 last season and ranked 25th in the Associated Press writers’ poll. The coaches had a slightly different opinion, putting the Hawkeyes just outside the top 25, one spot behind 8-5 Mississippi State. That raised some eyebrows in Iowa. It got a rise out of Ferentz as well.
“That’s a great illustration of why I don’t vote or chose not to vote in that. … The only guys that would be good at evaluating the top 25 are coaches that watch a lot of TV and I don’t know many of them,” Ferentz said.
“For me to talk about anybody on the West Coast or the Big 12 during the season, I’d be fabricating. I don’t know if anybody realizes we actually played Mississippi State in the bowl game. We beat them. And I’m a coach, so the way my mind works is they were 18th. We’ve got a better record than them. We beat them. Why aren’t we 18th? That’s how my simple mind would work. I would put us at 18. But I think it just illustrates people don’t really look at what they’re doing.”
Ferentz was quick to answer that he has not reconsidered his decision not to vote. He also felt the snub of his team illustrated a larger point about the college football playoff’s dominance of the national conversation.
“We’re all so fixated on the top four, and five and six that got screwed. So everything after that is kind of insignificant,” Ferentz said. “That’s one of my fears in college football is everything has become meaningless outside of the top four.”
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