Amid a few injuries, Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell is focusing on building depth
Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell knew expectations for his room would be much higher in 2022 than the previous year.
The unit returned more than 75% of its production (total tackles, tackles for loss and sacks) from last season and added some freshman talent, most notably four-star recruit Aaron Graves.
The first two games have given Bell a small snapshot into how his group has grown in game situations. He admitted the loss to Iowa State was disappointing but added that the group is meeting expectations overall.
The Hawkeye defense ranks sixth nationally in total defense and scoring defense.
"Guys are playing hard," Bell said. "I think everybody has embraced their role and really trying to find a way, whether it be through defense, special teams or whatever title. Any time they get a chance to get on the field, they're trying to affect the game."
Bell said mental maturity is where he's seen the most growth. Veterans such as Joe Evans, Logan Lee, Noah Shannon and John Waggoner have become "smarter than the call," meaning they can discern between sticking with the calls from the coaches or making an audible based on what they see pre-snap. It allows them to play faster and take more calculated risks.
"Just their ability to recognize things," Bell said. "Not individually, but together for them to recognize things collectively. I think that's what sets us apart this year from last year."
Bell touched on several topics during his Wednesday Zoom call with reporters. Here are three takeaways:
Bell is prioritizing building depth at defensive tackle
Despite early success, there have been a few bumps in the road. Rotational defensive tackle Yahya Black is out for an extended period of time after foot surgery. Bell noted that Shannon has been "in and out of the lineup" during practice this week because of an injury.
Amid injuries and understanding that it's a long season, Bell is working to develop the next wave of options at tackle.
"You have to make sure that guys are ready to go in behind them," Bell said. "And you don't just put guys out in the field just to take reps. They know that when they're out there, they've got to be productive. They know that there's a standard to uphold and the guys that we put out there, I'm fully confident that they are ready to do it."
One player who has cracked the playing rotation for the first time is junior Louie Stec, filling in for Black. Stec entered the program in 2019 as a walk-on and has steadily risen through the program. Bell recalled 2021 spring practices, when Louie was one of a few healthy defensive linemen and never missed a snap. He received an increased workload during this year's spring practice due to injuries as well.
"The highest compliment that I can give is that I trust him," Bell said. "That's why he's in the position that he's in. Is he tall enough (listed at 6 foot)? No. Is he big enough (listed at 268 pounds)? No. Is he fast enough? No. All those things aside, he's a guy that I trust to do the job when it needs to be done."
Bell mentioned that sophomore Lukas Van Ness, last season's co-sacks leader at defensive tackle, helps with depth as well. He's rotating at defensive end but his familiarity with tackle concepts is an asset. That allows Iowa to continue developing true freshman Aaron Graves and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Pittman.
"Both of those guys are doing a really good job," Bell said. "They take a lot of practice reps, that's the only way that they're gonna get better. That's the only way that they're going to gain their confidence, is doing it in practice. I've been pleased with what I've seen, and hopefully both those guys will get a chance to show their work (Saturday vs. Nevada).
More details on Lukas Van Ness' increased role, special teams dominance
Back to Van Ness. Bell mentioned how impressed he is with how Van Ness is managing his workload. He's splitting time at defensive tackle and end, playing a major role on special teams, and carrying 14 credit hours in school this semester. So far he's handling it well.
"It wouldn't be there if the guy couldn't handle it," Bell said. "The impact that he's having for us defensively, being able to play up and down the line of scrimmage, helps me with depth. And the impact that he's having on our team from a special teams standpoint, you can't overstate that enough."
Van Ness was named Big Ten special teams player of the week after blocking two punts Saturday against Iowa State, tying a school record. One of Bell's major selling points to his defensive linemen is how much special teams can impact their potential professional careers. He credited Van Ness for being an eager participant under special teams coordinator LeVar Woods.
"The way (Woods) runs the special teams, everybody on the team has an opportunity to contribute," Bell said. "I talk to the guys about playing in the NFL, there's only 53 guys on those rosters, then only 48 get to dress. So if you're not (Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald) or (Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Khalil Mack), then you're probably contributing on special teams when you hit that level. (Van Ness) has taken that message to heart."
Updates on true freshmen, including Aaron Graves
Iowa signed three talented freshmen in the 2022 class: Graves, an All-American and four-star recruit, and three-stars Brian Allen Jr. and Caden Crawford.
Graves is the closest of the three to consistent playing time. He impressed Bell and head coach Kirk Ferentz through fall camp, so much so that Ferentz said he wouldn't redshirt this year. He played a handful of snaps against Iowa State but still has some work to do to become a consistent rotational player. Bell mentioned getting used to better competition and breaking bad habits are among those steps.
"He's trying to understand where he fits in the defense," Bell said. "He comes from a system where he made a lot of people right. In this system, you just need to do your job. You need to focus on doing your thing to the best of your ability because we have other guys that are trying to take care of their job, too. So it's a process, just like it is with all freshmen."
That doesn't mean Allen and Crawford, two early enrollees, aren't doing well; it's just that there's more depth at defensive end. Bell noted that Allen won scout team player of the week last week (he filled the role of Iowa State's Will McDonald IV). That's a sign of a player showing improvement.
"It's always good when your young guys are being recognized by the offense for their performance through the week on scout team," Bell said. "That makes me feel good as a coach. I know the future's bright."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.