Four Downs: Iowa's 2017 Defensive line

Hawkeyes searching for D-tackles, getting to know a mile of D-ends

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Taking a look at the 2017 Hawkeyes. Today it’s the defensive line, where Iowa is taking applications at tackle and trying to sort through a barrel of ends.

Returning scholarship tackles — Nathan Bazata (6-2, 287, sr.), Cedric Lattimore (6-5, 295, so.), Brady Reiff (6-3, 260, so.), Garret Jansen (6-2, 280, so.), Jake Newborg (6-3, 290, so.)

Returning scholarship ends — Parker Hesse (6-3, 257, jr.), Matt Nelson (6-8, 292, jr.), Anthony Nelson (6-7, 260, so.), Chauncey Golston (6-5, 255, #fr.), Romeo McKnight (6-5, 250, #fr.), Brandon Simon (6-1, 240, #fr.), Austin Schulte (6-4, 258, #fr.)

Incoming freshmen ends — A.J. Epenesa (6-6, 270, fr.), Levi Duwa (6-3, 235)

Returning walk-on tackles — Daniel Gaffey (6-2, 285, sr.), Jake Hulett (6-3, 289, sr.), Dalles Jacobus (6-0, 280, #fr.)

Returning walk-on ends — Sam Brincks (6-5, 270, jr.), Jack Kallenberger (6-5, 250, jr.)

Key losses — DT Jaleel Johnson, DT Faith Ekakitie

*Incoming freshman defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon didn’t meet academic requirements and has enrolled at Iowa Western Community College, according to HawkeyeReport.com.

Quick Look Back

By Iowa standards, Iowa wasn’t great at stopping the run last season.

The Hawkeyes finished seventh in the Big Ten, allowing 149.7 yards a game. That’s the most since 168.3 in 2014, which, if you remember, ended with “That’s football” and a whole lot of unhappiness in Hawkeyeland. Yards per carry somewhat mirrored 2014, with the Hawkeyes allowing 3.96 in 2016 (4.42 in ’14).

Key phrase in this is “by Iowa standards.” In 2015, Iowa allowed just 121.4 rushing yards a game. In 2013, it was 128.4.

Iowa’s standards on defense are high. Since taking over in 2012, defensive coordinator Phil Parker has had the Hawkeyes in the top 25 in the nation in total defense the last four seasons (sixth was the high in 2013; it was No. 23 last year).

Staff / The Gazette

And yet, with a fourth-round draft pick in tackle Jaleel Johnson, Iowa’s run-stopping numbers were average in 2016. In victories, the Hawkeyes held teams to 109.4 rushing yards and 3.25 yards per carry. In losses, it was a whopping 214.4 yards a game and 4.81 yards a carry. Yes, the 359 yards Penn State put on the Hawkeyes kind of skews things, but the 1,076 yards Iowa allowed at Kinnick Stadium last year is the most in the last nine years.

This team still won eight games, an above-average season historically for Iowa (although not terribly satisfying coming off 12-2 and a Rose Bowl in 2015 and with a loss to an FCS team at home). How did it do that?

Iowa was a top-10 team in the nation in several scoring defense categories.

The Hawkeyes were sixth nationally in opponent yards per point (18.9), ninth in points per game (18.5) and 10th in points per play (0.261). Teams had just 2.8 red zone entries vs. Iowa and the 2.0 red zone scores per game had Iowa fifth in the nation. Teams averaged just 2.2 TDs per game vs. Iowa, ninth in the nation.

 

The defensive line had a lot to do with that. Johnson turned it on at the end of the season. He probably would’ve been a third or maybe even second rounder with a better combine performance. Tackle Nathan Bazata was his usual steady self until a high-ankle sprain took a major bite out of the second half of his season.

Faith Ekakitie jumped in and after a rough performance at Penn State (just like everyone), Ekakitie held up his end of the deal.

At defensive end, Anthony Nelson came out of nowhere and was the Hawkeyes’ most consistent disrupter. Or at least Nelson made it a debate for “Iowa’s most consistent disrupter.” Johnson led the Hawkeyes with 7.5 sacks and 10.0 tackles for loss, but Nelson was right there (6.0 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss). Nelson had 11 QB hits and 32 QB hurries compared to eight and 27 for Johnson.

For 2017, Johnson is a Minnesota Viking. Nelson is a sophomore end whose play should continue to rise. Finding tackles and deploying a small army of ends will be the major assignment for Iowa’s defensive staff this year.

4th Down — Critical Questions

What’s up at tackle?

Johnson and Ekakitie were seniors, so this is a transition year.

 

As it stands right now here in early July, the one bona fide starter is true sophomore Cedrick Lattimore. He was one of the few true freshmen in Kirk Ferentz’s going on 19 seasons as head coach to play on the defensive line.

Credit the Iowa staff for some foresight. Any projected depth chart for 2017 defensive tackles was going to include Lattimore. So, the decision was made to get him out there as a true freshman.

Lattimore played just 86 snaps in 2016. Johnson played 668 snaps last season, with the majority of those coming at nose tackle.

OK, why do I mention snap counts so much, especially for defensive tackles? It’s pretty obvious. Defensive tackles’ main job is wrestling, especially the way Iowa plays its defense (4-3 that adjusts to what offense is in front of it, two-gap technique for inside linemen). That taxes the gas tank.

In 2015, Iowa’s defense hit a wall in November. For the first half of the season, the 2015 Hawkeyes were historically good on defense. Snaps caught up with the tackles (Johnson and Bazata). They started rotating more in November. Last year, with a little better depth between Johnson, Bazata and Ekakitie, Iowa’s defense held up and had a great November, finishing 3-1.

Can Iowa get to three defensive tackles this year?

Lattimore knows he’s next up. He realizes the opportunity in front of him. If he thrives, he’ll play 500-plus snaps this year.

“As long as he’s productive and we can go out there and play, we’re going to play him,” Phil Parker said. “Sometimes, it’s getting the guy reps through a series and a series count, pitch count, whatever you want to call it. I think that’s always good to make sure that, hey, he reaches a certain point, let’s give him some rest so he can be effective out there playing. We don’t want somebody out there being tired. We’ll put somebody else in. I think we’re building depth there, so that’s going to help us more when we start getting into the season.”

It’s still unclear how much Bazata is doing. Beyond the high-ankle problem, he’s battled lower-leg injuries that kept him out of spring practice and have him limited in summer workouts.

“I want to be there for my team and my position, but right now I’m not able to,” Bazata, who was limited to 459 snaps last season, lowest among starters on the D-line, said in early June. “I’m able to help them out mentally but not like show them through drills and that frustrates me. As long as I’m helping in some way, that’s the biggest point.

“It’s not there yet, but by August I’ll be good.”

Is there a safety net if Lattimore needs development and if Bazata is only kind of ready by August? Sophomore Brady Reiff, all 6-3, 260 pounds of him (and 52 snaps in 2016), seemed to position himself as the third DT during the spring.

“Brady Reiff has been a standout when he’s been in there,” Parker said. “I think he has a future to help us out and take a lot of reps this year.”

Video: Nathan Bazata on his foot/ankle injury
 

Sophomore Garret Jansen has made a move for the fourth tackle spot. He’s also undersized (6-2, 280) and played just a few snaps in 2016 (27), but the theme here is everyone starts somewhere.

“I think Garret Jansen has done a good job,” Parker said. “The last couple days he’s played well inside as a one technique and a three.”

Jake Newborg jumped from the OL to defensive tackle last season. The sophomore is 6-3, 290 pounds. He suffered a knee injury late last season. He didn’t play a down in 2016 and didn’t get a lot of mention from coaches this spring. Still, he’s a third-year player at 290 pounds. That might get him somewhere.

Senior walk-on Jake Hulett lost last season to a broken leg. The 6-3, 289-pounder likely will push for rotation time.

This is a lot of names to learn. There will be fewer to know after August camp.

3rd Down — Additions/Subtractions

Johnson and Ekakitie are big losses. No shock, though. They were seniors and everyone saw this coming. When you have tackles like Johnson, Bazata and Ekakitie — players with the requisite size, who establish themselves relatively early in their careers and who eat snaps — it can choke recruiting at that position. That might help explain the gap between Johnson and Lattimore.

Johnson’s contract with the Vikings is four years and worth $3,078,360, with a $678,360 signing bonus. According to 3 Down Nation, a website that covers the Canadian Football League, Ekakitie was the No. 1 pick in the Canadian Football League draft going to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He’ll make $88,000 in guaranteed money this year. The CFL has a salary cap that sits at $5,150,000.

OK, we’ve touched on the potential lack of depth at defensive tackle for the Hawkeyes. On the other hand, defensive end has a ton of bodies, with four redshirt freshmen coming online and that one guy from the 2017 recruiting class.

A.J. Epenesa, a 5-star defensive end recruit from Edwardsville, Ill., is here. The 6-6 (I’ve actually heard 6-6), 270-pounder is Iowa’s highest-rated recruit since Illinois OL Dan Doering in 2005. He’s also a Hawkeye legacy. His dad, Eppy Epenesa, was a D-lineman for the Hawkeyes in 1996-97.

Yes, there’s a tentative plan for A.J. Epenesa in his first steps as a Hawkeye. But mind you, this is a Phil Parker quote from before Epenesa was in Iowa City.

There are going to be some curves — learning, technique, speed of the game, size of the opponent.

“He has a lot of things to learn and to ask a true freshman as a defensive lineman to come in, and, hey, you’re going to be our starting defensive end and we’re going to move you inside and play a three-technique or one-technique. I think that’s a little too much right now,” Parker said.

The key word is “incoming.”

“I think get him in here in the summer when we do have some time, get him in the weight room with coach (Chris) Doyle, and see how he progresses and see if we can catch him up to speed to make sure,” Parker said. “If we can get 15, 20 plays out of him during the game, I think that would be, you know, very good if we can do that.”

Beyond Epenesa, Chauncey Golston (6-5, 255), Romeo McKnight (6-5, 250), Austin Schulte (6-4, 258) and Brandon Simon (6-1, 240) will be redshirt freshmen defensive ends this fall. McKnight and Schulte sat out last season with ACL injuries. Simon had an excellent spring game, beating No. 1 tackles with pressures. (Here’s Parker talking Simon: “He’s a guy that’s kind of getting better, but he’s got great quickness. He’s got some good pass rush. So I could see him maybe in two-a-days, us putting him in there and getting another guy over there. Not as tall a guy, but he’s a very effective pass-rusher.”)

One big question for any of the newbie D-ends is can they play the heavy run technique that Iowa’s defense demands them to play? We’re talking taking on the big offensive tackles, tight ends or double teams in the run game.

2nd Down — Battles Brewing

Iowa has a bunch of defensive ends. All shapes and sizes. How will the Hawkeyes deploy these guys?

 

D-line coach Reese Morgan was quizzed on this during the spring.

On Matt Nelson possibly playing defensive tackle: “Actually, Matt brought it up. ... Matt just says, ‘Coach, I just want you to know I’ll do whatever I can to help this football team. I’ll move inside, outside, you just tell me where to play.’ You just love that attitude. He’s been like that from day one. He had a couple snaps inside. He’s played outside. The plan would be to utilize him in both positions if we can.”

But then Nelson had his spring wiped out by a foot injury and it’s not entirely clear if he’s healthy this summer. But it’s at least on the white board.

Can a player like Epenesa or Simon show enough pass-rush skill to see the field on third down while moving Matt Nelson or (maybe) Hesse inside to tackle? By the way, Hesse is playing at 257. He’s a fourth-year junior. You probably won’t be seeing a huge jump in his weight, but that, of course, doesn’t mean he couldn’t be an effective pass rusher from a tackle spot on a third down.

The beauty of Parker’s raider package (the third-down nickel personnel group) is it can be anything up front. It’s three or four stand-up D-linemen and then one or both linebackers trying to hit a gap to provide some pressure. This probably is where a few of the young DEs see their first action.

You can see a two-down defensive line and then a line change on third down, if there are pass rushers worth getting on the field. That remains to be seen.

1st Down — In Summary

Five finishing thoughts on what needs to happen for the best-case scenario.

1. Defensive tackle depth shows up early and hangs around through November — You know how wide receiver is always mentioned with Iowa’s 2017 offense? Defensive tackle is the wide receiver spot for Iowa’s defense.

Lattimore has the attitude for the fight, but he’s a first-year starter with a lot to learn. A healthy Bazata is a big deal. Reiff had an active spring before missing the spring game. How much mileage can Iowa get out of him? The search for a No. 4 will probably be a big deal in fall camp.

2. Pass rush lives up to the hype — There’s not a ton of hype. It’s not like Iowa is returning the Big Ten’s top sack getter (sorry, I’m not using the term “sack artist”), but DE is the potential strength of Iowa’s D-line. Keep in mind, Anthony Nelson was just a freshman last year. He has the “squirm” — for lack of a better word — good pass rushers possess. Hesse (17 QB hurries, five QB hits and team-high four batted passes) definitely improved from freshman to sophomore. No reason to think more won’t be coming from him. Matt Nelson checked in with 5.5 sacks and 7 hurries.

We don’t know what Epenesa is capable of, but he’ll probably be the reason, one of the reasons, you’ll trek to the open practice in August. Simon is certainly intriguing.

Iowa might not have a single player with double-digit sacks. It might have a bunch of guys with five. That, and a whole lot of hurries and hits, can work, too.

3. Deployment — One of the reasons why Iowa’s defensive tackles were fresher and more effective late into 2016 than 2015 is Morgan’s masterful job at rotation. That showed up against Michigan. Johnson was unstoppable, picking up a safety that, you could argue, saved the Hawkeyes.

Every year is a puzzle in this regard. Let’s take Lattimore for example. What’s his physical limit? The staff probably got a really good read on that in the spring. It’ll be different in front of 70,585, but Morgan and defensive line assistant Kelvin Bell know their guys and will make the moves that keep the bodies fresh.

Another interesting facet here is usage. Morgan brought up Matt Nelson’s name at DE. Iowa might have too many good-looking DE bodies to leave in the toolbox.

4. Development — Two of the top three defensive tackles (Lattimore and Reiff) have 138 career snaps and zero starts. Iowa has a glut of DEs who might be able to put on tool belts and chip in somewhere, somehow. Iowa’s D-line will be this year’s test, at least on defense, for the staff’s development mantra. (QB and WR on offense, obviously.)

5. Star power — Johnson fit that bill last year. The fifth-year senior built himself into a star and an essential component on teams that went 20-7 the last two seasons.

Does Iowa’s D-line have a future NFL draft pick? Does it have that star? Don’t answer those questions yet. Someone could emerge this season. Maybe the bigger, better question is does Iowa need a D-lineman to hit star status this season? It’s always better when someone does, right? Right now, the important thing for Iowa is it has a bunch of intriguing D-linemen working toward that.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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