Iowa's defensive line has been a pleasant surprise. Will that continue in Big Ten play?
IOWA CITY — It didn't happen overnight.
There wasn't a secret formula or a "pixie dust to make it happen," according to Iowa assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann. But through three games, Iowa's defensive line has grown from an area of concern to a position of strength.
After two solid showings against ranked Indiana and Iowa State, the defensive line put on their best performance of the season against Kent State: 28 combined tackles, seven tackles for loss and the most impressive, seven sacks, the most in a game since 2000 against Northwestern.
The defensive line had significant holes to fill in 2021, with the departures of Daviyon Nixon and Chauncey Golston. So, how is this early success happening? As fun as a pixie dust would've been, the actual answer is much more mundane.
"It's a day-to-day process that started in the spring," Niemann told reporters Wednesday. "I think the biggest thing that (defensive line coach Kelvin Bell) and I have tried to do is impress on these guys the importance of building a fundamental base.
"It's really a matter of corrections and reinforcements. When they make a mistake, you have to explain what it was and why it happened: 'This is what you need to see differently.'"
That, along with the three core elements of their room — attention to detail, all-out effort and honest self-evaluations — created a unit that, at the moment, isn't ripe with star power in name, but effective nonetheless. The nine-man rotation includes five defensive ends in Deontae Craig, Joe Evans, Ethan Hurkett, Zach VanValkenburg and John Waggoner, and four defensive tackles in Yahya Black, Logan Lee, Noah Shannon and Lukas Van Ness.
They did suffer a significant loss last Saturday. Hurkett, a redshirt freshman who was averaging around 15-20 snaps per game, suffered a lower-leg injury against Kent State and will miss an "extended period of time," head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The five-man defensive end rotation likely shrinks down to four in Hurkett's absence. But Niemann didn't rule out Van Ness moving outside some and allowing for a reserve tackle to enter the mix.
"He's really a unique guy physically," Niemann said. "He's got good explosiveness and is even being used some on special teams at 6-foot-5 and 265-270 pounds. He's got a good knack for rushing the passer and he's also coming along in the run game."
More help is on the way, too.
Niemann confirmed on Wednesday that redshirt freshman Logan Jones, a former U.S. Army All-American product of Lewis Central, is back on the practice field after recovering from a leg injury of his own. It's unknown when Jones will make his debut, but Niemann said it will be sooner rather than later.
"This week he's actually done everything," Niemann said. "He's been out there in the same equipment as everyone else, doing the same drills, everything. He's got some rust to knock off, I'm sure, to get him settled back up to where he was prior to the injury, but he's doing well."
Niemann also confirmed the deep defensive line rotation will continue through the rest of Big Ten play. Iowa's opponent on Saturday, Colorado State, will prepare them for what's ahead in a way their previous opponents haven't.
Colorado State's offensive philosophy aligns much closer to Big Ten teams. Bigger offensive lines. Physical, downhill rushing attacks. And multiple tight end sets. That will present a challenge, particularly to Iowa's undersized interior defensive line.
Shannon compares the Rams to Iowa's main Big Ten West rival.
"I see a very similar offense to Wisconsin," he said. "I understand that (former Wisconsin quarterbacks coach and current Colorado State offensive coordinator Jon Budmayr) is there so I understand there're some similar schemes. It's a lot of downhill stuff. It'll definitely be our most physical game so far."
Saturday's game will be another opportunity for Iowa's defensive line to take another step forward. So far, so good says Niemann, and there's room to grow more.
"The biggest thing with these guys is they've worked hard and wanted to be coached," Niemann said. "I think that has a lot to do with the progress they've made and, as long as they're open to that and we got the needle pointing in the right direction, we're in good shape.
"We're far from a finished product but we certainly like the start that we're off to."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org