Rick Brown: Iowa's defensive line about to show its muscle

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa's defense a year ago was defined by linebackers Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens. If someone in the defensive line made a mistake, the linebackers were usually there to erase it.

This fall, the roles are reversed. The line is the strength of this defense heading into Saturday's 11 a.m. opener against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa defensive linemen Carl Davis, left, and Louis Trinca-Pasat pose for a photo during Iowa football media day on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014.

Senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat are the anchors. Ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy are also back, joined by an improved Nate Meier.

Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens are all in NFL camps now, with a group of eager but inexperienced successors trying to fill their void. The new crew will make first-game mistakes. It's guaranteed.

And it will be up to the defensive line to help erase them.

"We're the ones with more experience now," Trinca-Pasat said. "We've got to play our defense and do our jobs, and that's to make the linebackers' job easier."

Northern Iowa's David Johnson will test Iowa's defense Saturday, both carrying the ball and catching Sawyer Kollmorgen's passes out of the backfield.

"He's a great back," Trinca-Pasat said. "We have to make sure we wrap him up. The guy's got speed. He's an NFL prospect. We've seen him many times on film. The dude can break tackles."

The defensive line will make the linebackers' initiation much easier if they can control the line of scrimmage.

If they can't, there will be trouble in River City. If they can't, Northern Iowa's offense will be to move the ball, both on the ground and through the air against the Hawkeyes' new-look secondary, and put the Panthers in prime position for an upset.

Meier, who played eight-man football at Fremont-Mills High School, is the wild card in that defensive line. He was inserted in the third-down package last season, but his improvement has earned him more playing time at defensive end. Don't let his size – 6-foot-2, 244 pounds – fool you at a position where the prototype player is bigger and taller.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do in the first game," Davis said. "Any mistake he does make, he can make up for it with speed. He's tough and hard-nosed. He loves to get to the ball, and make plays."

There are a lot of questions about this Iowa team. Linebacker play, the kicking game and the secondary are at the top of the list.

The defensive line, a weak spot just a few seasons ago, is not one of them. And that edge at the point of attack is why Iowa, unlike a year ago, starts the season 1-0.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.