Iowa football's defensive linemen using 'honest self-evaluations' to pace play early in 2021 season

The Iowa defensive line unit had questions entering the 2021 season. Three key players from last year — Chauncey Gholston, Jack Heflin and Daviyon Nixon — are on NFL rosters now. The current group is following in the footsteps of past teammates and relying on the standard in place for success.

The three pillars of Iowa's defensive line room are attention to detail, all-out effort and, lastly, honest self-evaluation. This year, the final pillar's significance is huge.

"When you get back to the film room, you have to be honest about what you're seeing on tape," veteran interior defensive lineman Noah Shannon said. "We talk about being a 'thumbs teammate,' so we have to hold ourselves accountable before we can tell our teammates what to do."

The defensive line passed their first test last Saturday against a veteran Indiana offensive line. The defense held the Hoosiers to just 233 total yards, 77 of those rushing for only 2.5 yards per carry.

"We've seen Zach (VanValkenburg) play a lot of football for us, and he's a good player," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I felt fairly confident that Noah would play well, that John Waggoner would play well, Joe Evans — because those guys have been out there on the field.

"But the other guys, I was really pleasantly — I don't want to say 'surprised,' but I was pleased with what we saw."

Iowa freshman defensive lineman Likas Van Ness, left, and senior end Zach VanValkenburg were two of the top three snap getters on the defensive line against Indiana. VanValkenburg led with 48 snaps and Van Ness was third with 35 snaps.

Nearly one month ago, the confidence wasn't as high in the entire group.

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Their first opportunity to showcase themselves to spectators fell flat. In the Kids Day scrimmage on Aug. 14, the group was generally dominated by the offensive line. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker called several blitzes throughout the day to try and simulate pressure for the offense that the line couldn't create on their own.

A lackluster performance provided a great opportunity for the unit to learn and grow before the season opener on Sept. 4 against Indiana.

"Kids Day was a great learning tape for us, as far as honest evaluation," defensive end John Waggoner said. "We had some things, schematically, that were iffy — just missed assignments — and I think we could've played with more energy that day."

Uncertainty about the group loomed entering the Indiana game: how would they fair and, most importantly, how many would be in the rotation? During fall camp, Ferentz hoped that they could have a solid six to eight players in the mix, but last Saturday's game exceeded that total.

Nine players played at least nine snaps against Indiana: VanValkenburg (48), Waggoner (42), Lukas Van Ness (35), Logan Lee (28), Shannon (27), Yahya Black (25), Deontae Craig (21), Ethan Hurkett (15) and Joe Evans (9).

How did so many Hawkeyes earn that trust? It's part long-term preparation from spring and part flip switch post-scrimmage.

"You see a guy giving everything they have," Evans said. "In the film room, just studying as hard as they can, you see that and, obviously, you'll gain trust for them — you're going to trust that they're going to do what they're supposed to do and you saw that in the Indiana game."

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Iowa junior defensive lineman Noah Shannon credits the three pillars of the defensive line room: attention to detail, all-out effort and lastly honest self-evaluation as the key to their success.

When Ferentz reviewed the tape, he saw the all-out effort that was missing in the Kids Day scrimmage.

"Again, it wasn't always pretty," Ferentz said. "But they were playing hard, and they looked aggressive and they didn't look like they were like timid or playing on eggshells, and that was really good to see."

The honest self-evaluations continue for the Iowa defensive front. As a unit, they combined for six quarterback hurries, three tackles for loss and only one sack last Saturday. They're looking for a more disruptive effort against the Cyclones' 1-2 punch of Brock Purdy and Breece Hall.

Iowa State's offensive line also presents a great challenge: Four starters have an active start streak of at least 12 games. But Iowa's strength in numbers might serve as an advantage. The weather forecast for kickoff is in the low-mid 90 degrees; the more fresh legs to keep energy up, the better. 

"Being about to trust about 10 of us," Evans said. "I think that's an advantage and a good thing. We just need to play our keys, play with good pad level and really good fundamentals and do the best we can."

More:Iowa's offense passed its first test. What are the keys to a successful Cy-Hawk game?

Which leads back to the first two pillars: attention to detail and all-out effort. The defensive line is far from a finished product, and open lines of communication will be critical to extracting the most potential out of them.

In Ferentz's eyes, the fact they have so far to go is encouraging.

"They did a lot of really good things," Ferentz said on Tuesday about the Indiana game. "So I think those are all things that we can build off of, hopefully, and keep pushing forward with.

"One thing I've been optimistic about is we have a chance to really improve, as a football team — hopefully daily and weekly — but that's all talk and rhetoric if you don't make it happen. That's what we've got to do."

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com.