Putting it on the lines
Iowa's D-line looks for answers; O-line focuses on depth
IOWA CITY -- The are realities to face with Iowa's defensive line.
It again will be a young, inexperienced group this fall. Many of the players will either be in development or will have short resumes. This group also will be in charge of contain and pressure against quarterbacks who've gutted defenses for a couple of seasons, including Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Northwestern's Kain Colter, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, Michigan's Devin Gardner and, in the opener, Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch.
Iowa D-line coach Reese Morgan put the onus on himself to put his players in position for success during an interview Wednesday.
"I think we have who we have, OK," said Morgan, who's in his second year with the D-line after nine coaching Iowa's offensive line. "We have to create a situation where those guys can be successful, not ask them to do something physically that they can't do but have them understand that with great technique, awareness and then using angles, you can put yourself in a much better situation."
Iowa's second-year offensive line coach Brian Ferentz has a pretty good idea who four of the starting five will be. He also has seven players return who started games in 2012.
Instead of kicking into cruise control, Ferentz points out that there's a difference between returning starter and quality starts.
"I think those numbers are a little misleading," he said. "Really what we are dealing with is we have one guy coming back who has played significant time for us at a high level and that's [right tackle] Brett Van Sloten, and he's a guy I think can do a lot better for us in the future and I think he can agree with that statement. That's what we expect out of him.
"The other six guys that have started ballgames for us, but they've been sporadic at best. So, there is some experience there but it's not a total wealth of experience."
Let's stay with the defensive line. That's the unknown in the equation.
Spring depth charts are fluid, but senior Dominic Alvis is a given at right defensive end. After him, there are strong candidates -- junior defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat (out this spring rehabbing a shoulder surgery) and sophomore DT Darian Cooper -- and some players you're still getting to know.
The defensive end opposite Alvis, who has 5.5 career sacks, is a mystery. In February, head coach Kirk Ferentz called the DE position a miss in recruiting.
Sophomore Drew Ott is first in line there. The 6-4, 265-pounder played as a true freshman last season because injuries left the DE spot a
nub. After Ott, sophomore Riley McMinn, junior Mike Hardy, sophomore Melvin Spears and redshirt freshman Faith Ekakitie, who saw action at DE for the first time last Sunday, are all on the ballot.
"I think that's an area that we feel we need to really get some guys," Morgan said. "That's why we put Faith out there. You'll see Mike Hardy playing out there, Dean Tsopanides. You have Riley McMinn. So we have got a number of guys."
When Iowa competes for Big Ten championships, its defensive line puts pressure on the quarterback. In 2009, Iowa’s D-line combined to collect 28 sacks and the Hawkeyes won 11 games. In ’08, that number was 13 and Iowa won nine games. Last season, that number was 8.5 and Iowa won four games.
The 8.5 sacks from last season is the fewest by an Iowa D-line in the last six seasons.
"When you're playing the defense that we play, there are certain liabilities in a pass rush because we're playing heavy techniques [two gap] and so forth," Morgan said. "When we get the green light to go ahead with pass rush, we have to get there and that's an area statistically we have to improve upon, technique -wise, fundamentals, emphasis-wise."
Morgan is intrigued by Davis, a 6-5, 310-pounder, but needs to see completeness and that's the push this spring.
"All of the things we are asking him to do are a little bit out of his comfort zone," Morgan said. "He's worried about fatiguing . . . We said, play yourself into shape and we'll do some extra stuff to do that."
At the end of last season, Iowa rotated eight D-linemen, two different groups, into games. Morgan would like to do that again.
"We think with the up-tempo offense, we need to do it," Morgan said. "A tired guy who's out there with that first group is probably not as effective as a fresh guy who's coming in. That's our feeling and experience and so we're committed to doing that."
The biggest questions for Iowa's O-line are identifying the top five and deciding where they best fit. Junior Andrew Donnal might be the answer to both questions. The 6-7, 305-pounder started three games at guard last season before suffering a torn ACL. So far this spring, he's played both guard positions and No. 2 left tackle. The idea is to build depth through versatility, so if two offensive linemen go down one play apart in a game (Donnal and left tackle Brandon Scherff vs. Penn State last season), the roster can handle it.
"Who are our five best players? And what are their five best positions?" Ferentz said. "Sometimes, those two things don't always marry."
So far, so good, Ferentz said, for sophomore Austin Blythe at center. The 6-3, 300-pounder moved inside after starting nine games at guard last fall.
Ferentz was asked about the identity Iowa built during its two biggest wins last fall, Minnesota and at Michigan State. In those games, running back Mark Weisman (6-0, 236) rushed 47 times for 293 yards and two TDs. Iowa morphed into an offense driven by a fullback.
Ferentz cautioned against offenses becoming too tied to any one position group or scheme. His point was physical is good, very good. When all else fails, physical is a pretty great button to be able to push."I think, to your question, what we need to do to be successful is we know we have to run the football, however we're going to do that," Ferentz said. "So, I think that part of the identity, if that's what you're asking, yes, as an offense, to be successful, we have to be able to run the football and run it when we want to run it and run it when they know we're going to run it, which is the real trick."