IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa star defensive end A.J. Epenesa had a quick and telling answer when asked to compare his past and present position coaches.
“Really, the only difference is the way they look and their age,” Epenesa said Tuesday.
Those would seem to be two significant differences, however, between the recently retired Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell.
But Epenesa clarified.
“They have the same high expectations and the same drive. And they love the game of football, both of them,” Epenesa said.
“Coach Morgan’s like a father figure, grandfather figure. He’s a very inspirational person. KB’s got more that kind of friend and mentor to him.”
Bell was promoted this spring after spending three years assisting Morgan, the gray-haired sage beloved by players and peers alike.
“He is everything that I want to be,” Bell said of Morgan when meeting with reporters for the first time in his new role Tuesday.
“I’m exactly where I want to be in terms of my career.”
Bell came from Mississippi to Iowa in 2000, his playing career as a defensive lineman cut short by injury. He stayed and earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He stayed some more, coaching the junior high team at Iowa City Regina, then heading to Cornell College.
The coaching merry-go-round brought him back to his alma mater seven years ago as a graduate assistant. And now, Bell is charged with replacing four starting defensive linemen off of last year’s 9-4 team.
No one is more aware of the stakes.
“There’s a standard to uphold,” Bell said.
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It helps Bell that he has a pair of defensive ends in Epenesa and Chauncey Golston, who proved themselves in reserve roles a season ago. Bell’s job as Morgan’s assistant was to work specifically with the ends.
Golston said he was never worried when he heard about Morgan’s retirement, because he knew Bell was going to get the job and be up to it.
“He can be laid-back at times, but he’s still in your face. Which is what you need,” Golston said of Bell.
“He’s kind of brutally honest. Why wouldn’t you want a coach to be honest with you?”
At tackle, the Hawkeyes have seniors Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff atop the depth chart. Both saw extensive action a year ago, as Morgan was able to rotate eight players on the defensive line.
Bell saw that development as a significant step forward. But he wants more.
“I’d like to increase that. I’d like to increase the versatility of the guys,” said Bell, adding he doesn’t want his players to distinguish themselves as merely ends or tackles, but as linemen. “We just want to make sure that everybody is doing what they can do to help us move along as a group, not necessarily as individuals.”
One of the changes Golston noted was how Bell runs the meetings of the defensive line, which includes only 13 athletes this spring.
“He’s putting more of an emphasis on your accountability to the defense, watching film on your own,” said Golston, a junior challenged by Bell last summer to become a true leader.
“’You’re going to have bring the younger guys along. They haven’t played in these games. They don’t really know the true tempo,’” Golston recalled Bell telling him.
“It felt like you got kicked to the front of the room.”
Golston likes the view from the front. He knows Bell has his back as well.
Bell said he wants his players to have a larger voice in the meeting room. He doesn’t want to be the only one talking.
“If those younger guys aren’t saying anything, I’ll call on them, because it’s an open forum,” Bell said.
He is trying to make the group as tight-knit as last year’s starting line of Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson, Sam Brincks and Anthony Nelson. That’s what Bell saw as their greatest strength. They were inseparable, even when not at the football facility.
“He’s a wonderful guy, wonderful coach. Love what he’s doing with us,” Lattimore said of Bell. “He pushes me to be the best I can be. Even when I’m wrong, he’s pushing me. Even when I’m right, he’s pushing me.
"Ever since my freshman year, he told me, ‘I’m going to be hard on you. But it’s going to be for the best.’ That’s good.”