Leistikow's Thoughts: Hawkeyes dabble with 'little bully' at defensive end, Amani Jones

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Amani Jones has always brought physical toughness and energy to Iowa football practices. In games, he's been a core special-teamer.

The trick has always been to find where those qualities can best be used on the field from first through third downs.

The Hawkeye coaches may have landed on a solution.

Word got out Tuesday that Jones, a senior whose weight-room exploits are literally atop the charts at Iowa, has been dabbling as a defensive end during spring practices. 

At a position where Iowa is looking for difference-makers to replace the departed Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse, it makes perfect sense.

Amani Jones (right, along with Djimon Colbert) is shown celebrating Iowa's Sept. 8, 2018, victory against Iowa State. Jones was pulled in the first quarter of his only career start.

“I’ve seen a monster,” returning defensive end A.J. Epenesa said with a grin. “A little bully out there. So strong. So fast. Powerful, right off the edge. It looks pretty good.”

Linebackers coach Seth Wallace said discussions about a position change for Jones began a few months ago. Four practices into spring drills, it's looking like something that might stick.

Wallace termed Jones' role as a defensive end Tuesday. Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell thinks of Jones more as an "edge defender" that gives Iowa's defense a 3-4 look — with only three down linemen.

“He’s a high-energy kid, somebody who has a passion for his game," Wallace said. "You could argue, is he one of the 11 best true football players we could put on the field defensively? Maybe."

Jones is listed at 5-foot-11, 242 pounds. By comparison, Epenesa — a prototypical defensive end — is 6-5, 280. But Jones is known for his lower-body strength. He set the linebacker record for squat press last spring at 625 pounds.

He'll still take on defensive linemen. He'll just start closer to the football.

"I think he’s having fun out there," Wallace said.

Jones began the 2018 season as the starting middle linebacker, but lost that job after making early mental mistakes against Northern Illinois. He never regained it. 

It's too early to know what Jones' fall role could entail. Maybe he'll be a pass-rush specialist, maybe something closer to an every-down player. Figuring it out is what spring ball is for.

But Iowa's got the right idea of finding a home for Jones at a position of need.

“You’ve got power, you’ve got explosiveness, you’ve got quick-twitch. Those are all necessary at that defensive-end position," Wallace said. "What you don’t have is the size, but I think he makes up for it. It starts to give you a sense of a 3-4 when he’s out there. He’s got enough foundation and background at linebacker ... he knows how to cover the flat.

"It’s been a good transition for us.”

There is more optimism that Iowa’s defensive-line rotation can eventually get to eight.

Kirk Ferentz last week indicated he would be thrilled if the Hawkeyes could have a dependable six-man rotation. But it’s easy to see a scenario in which eight is possible.

The starting four: Epenesa, Cedrick Lattimore, Brady Reiff and Chauncey Golston. If Jones can add to that mix part-time, that’s five. Incoming graduate transfer defensive lineman Zach Van Valkenburg (of Division II Hillsdale College) could make six.

Bell made a crack that it was “refreshing” to recruit a college graduate against a high school senior.

“He didn’t care about the uniforms. He didn’t care about any of that stuff,” Bell said. “All he wanted was an opportunity to earn a quality graduate degree and play Big Ten football. That fits me.”

Bell called freshman backup defensive end John Waggoner (6-5, 267) a pleasant surprise.

“He doesn’t say boo, but all he does is work,” Bell said.

And then there’s freshman defensive tackle Noah Shannon (6-0, 294), who Bell described as hungry and willing to learn.

“He’s been everything we thought he was when we recruited him,” Bell said.

That could be eight. Plus, there’s also this guy named Daviyon Nixon.

Like Jones, Nixon (6-3, 306) comes with a lot of unrealized promise. The most talked-about Hawkeye who has never played a Division I snap is in good standing as spring practices get underway. He spent some time away from the team last fall while on an “academic redshirt,” according to Ferentz, and entered the transfer portal in the winter.

But he’s all-in with the Hawkeyes now, and Bell reiterated that Nixon is a good fit culturally.

That’s encouraging.

“It also speaks a little bit about the character of the kid, too, for us to want him here in this building,” Bell said. “… He’s the right kid here.”

The next steps, according to Bell? “Just physically, getting himself in shape and ready to play. And mentally, connecting with the guys, because he’s had some time away.”

Is it "cash" or "star" ... or both?

Wallace humorously clarified a terminology question mark about the new position in 4-2-5 base personnel that is part of Iowa's new defensive DNA.

“We’ve got to get that straight. Because we’re all over the place," Wallace said. "You guys are all over the place.”

In the base 4-2-5, it's the "cash" linebacker.

If Iowa goes to a nickel defense on third down, the fifth defensive back is called "star."

Got it? (Think of last year's Amani Hooker as "cash.")

The key is finding a replacement for Hooker. Wallace mentioned senior Michael Ojemudia (6-1, 200) and freshman D.J. Johnson (5-10, 183) as the top two candidates. Those are two totally different body types.

“If you’ve got a guy out there that’s got a little more size to him and can do everything you’re asking him to do coverage-wise, then you’ve got Amani Hooker," Wallace said, before adding this zinger. "And then with that, you’ve found a guy that’s going to leave after three years.” 

Pro tip: Eat a lot of steak and eggs, and become a coveted NFL player.

One of the comical moments of the day came when Keith Duncan (remember him?) was being interviewed about being front-and-center in the place-kicking competition with Caleb Shudak, now that Miguel Recinos’ eligibility has expired.

As Duncan was talking, a projected top-10 NFL Draft pick walked into the Hansen Football Performance Center: T.J. Hockenson.

“T.J.!” Duncan said, then turned his attention back to the reporters. “That’s my roommate. He eats a lot of eggs.”

The conversation had taken an interesting turn.

“At least 12 every morning,” Duncan said. “Scrambled, a lot of pepper.”

He explained how Hockenson asked him to pick up a dozen eggs from Walmart one day.

“So, I got him the jumbo ones, right? I thought he was going to eat four,” Duncan said. “He put all 12 of them in the pan. He ate all of them.”

Duncan also reported that the Mackey Award winner eats roughly two steaks per day.

That story begged another question: How does the backup kicker end up being roommates with an NFL tight end? Answer: They got paired up in the dorms early in their Iowa career.

“He’s about to be making a lot of money, though,” said Duncan, the 2016 Hawkeye starting kicker who remains a walk-on. “I told him I’ll be his agent if he needs me."