Iowa football recruiting: Defensive line

Croot Loops: This wasn't a huge need, but potential to contribute now and later is there

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Defensive line wasn’t a huge need for the 2017 class, but there was a legacy with uncommon finish just waiting to be a Hawkeye, so this group has a chance to make significant contributions.

A.J. Epenesa probably plays as a true freshman next season. Where? Don’t worry about that. If Epenesa can provide quality snaps, you add his contributions to ends Matt Nelson, Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson (who’s coming off a terrific redshirt freshman year). If Epenesa can hold his own on the inside, he probably joins the rotation with Nathan Bazata, Cedric Lattimore and Brady Reiff.

The point is that he’ll probably help somewhere.

Levi Duwa and Daviyon Nixon probably redshirt to get their bodies to a Big Ten level. They’ll come into situations where they won’t be expected to contribute right away. They might want to and that’s what you want, but they’re also not 6-5, 272-pound 5-star recruits.

Overall, it’s a mix of athletes that, if you’re Iowa, you totally dig. You have a 5-star, a homegrown and a massive body with a ton of potential.

Next year is when the Hawkeyes probably need to round up a few defensive tackles.

Levi Duwa

Iowa football offered Mid-Prairie prep Levi Duwa a scholarship sometime after Iowa’s spring scrimmage on a Saturday last April.

Around 9 a.m. Sunday, the 6-3, 225-pounder tweeted that he was committing to the Hawkeyes.

“I want to thank everyone who recruited me throughout this whole process,” Duwa wrote. “It has been an honor to go around and meet a lot of awesome people and coaches and see a lot of amazing places! I also want to thank everyone for all of the support that I have gotten over the last couple of years. It means a ton!

“After a lot of thinking and talking to my parents I have made my decision. I’m excited to announce my commitment to the University of Iowa.”

His family wore Iowa gear to the spring game. You kind of knew this would be a quick turnaround.

“We came home and couldn’t believe it was happening for real,” Duwa told HawkeyeReport.com. “We kind of talked it over and made sure that is for sure where I wanted to go.”

Was it was a quick conversation?

“Yeah, I’d say so,” said Duwa, who was a state runner-up as a 220-pounder in the 2016 Class 2A state wrestling meet. “We pretty much all knew that was my main goal and it was pretty easy to figure that out.”

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: “Holds school records for sacks in a season (11.5) and career (19).”

Noteworthy offer: Minnesota

Depth chart in 2016?: No. Duwa suffered a ruptured tendon in his left foot during a loss to Williamsburg in late September. The injury ended his football season, kept him out of wrestling and also might take him out for track season (he finished third at the Drake Relays in the shot put and discus last year). Duwa will come in at 6-3 and around 240 pounds. He’s headed toward defensive tackle at Iowa, so, for those reasons, he’s a good bet for a redshirt in 2017.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Mitch King/Matt Kroul

King and Kroul were two very different players. King was quick and disruptive. Kroul was an avalanche at the point of attack and needed to be bodied every snap. Maybe Duwa doesn’t end up at defensive tackle. I’m not sure what the compare could be for him as a DE. Maybe Parker Hesse? Does the Iowa staff see Duwa as a Karl Klug?

Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell (this is more the conversation I had with coach Bell on the prospect)Me: Levi is a guy you’re going to end up working with. I look at him and think ‘Mitch King starter kit,’ but that’s my simple thought. It sounds like you guys want him to play tackle. He’s a multisport guy and tough.

KB: Multisport guy and tough. There are guys you recruit who will play above and beyond their star ranking because of what they’re wearing. Levi Duwa wants to wear the black and gold. He wants to wear the Tiger Hawk. He will be Superman on Saturdays, because of what he’s wearing and what it means to him. Unfortunately, he got hurt this year (foot injury). But the things we saw in camp and on the junior tape, he fits the prototype. Smart, tough, physical guy who’ll come in ... you say Mitch King, I think he can play another guy, I think he’ll be able to play up and down the line. He’s got a great frame. He can play end and if he eats enough he can grow into a tackle. He’ll make us better.

Me: You’ve mentioned that a few times now (D-linemen being able to play inside and outside), are you guys looking to be more flexible? Could there be a time where Matt Nelson is at defensive end and then all of the sudden, he’s a tackle, maybe on a passing down?

KB: That’s the ultimate dream, that’s where you want to get to. I think back to 2009-2010, that great defensive line they had. You had a guy like Christian Ballard who moved up and down the line. What was he? He was a defensive lineman. That’s ultimately what you want to get to. You don’t want to typecast guys and say, ‘This guy has to play on first down.’ I want four guys who, regardless of the down and distance, are going to get it done.

ESPN scouting report excerpt: Plays on both sides of the ball and shows good effort and willingness to play to the whistle. Can be more consistent, but when he wants flashes he can impose his will. ... Duwa is a prospect with some good raw tools. Needs to continue to develop physically and technically, but rangy player that displays some upside as a defensive end. We feel he will need and benefit from red-shirt, but prospect that could grow into a good contributor at Power-5 level.

My take: I watched the Hudl video from Duwa’s junior season. He showed terrific closing speed, identified ballcarriers extremely quickly and was physical and disruptive. Had a great sense of technique. At some point, he learned and perfected a diabolical rip move. The competition is going to leap drastically, but Duwa might have the athleticism to play inside or outside.

A.J. Epenesa

When his son committed to the Hawkeyes, Eppy Epenesa was surrounded by family. A.J. wore an Iowa jersey with No. 99 on it. The six family members smiled and posed for a picture with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.

Everyone was in Ferentz’s office in the Hansen Performance Center. This was very much coming through the front door. A.J. Epenesa is 6-5, 270 pounds. He’s a 1,000-point scorer in basketball. He can throw a discus more than 200 feet. He played in two January football all-star games like he had something to prove.

A.J. Epenesa is a 5-star recruit who everyone wants. And so it’s a good thing his dad didn’t go to Iowa State.

Epenesa Epenesa (“Eppy”) came to Iowa from American Samoa, which is south of Hawaii fairly close to Australia. He went from living where he could hear the Pacific Ocean to Mount Pleasant, where he played defensive line at Iowa Wesleyan (and met his wife Stephanie, who was a volleyball player at Wesleyan).

“There was a lot of stuff that was new to me, a little culture shock, but it was new in a good way,” Epenesa said before signing day.

Eppy Epenesa went from playing with his brothers and dad in the island cricket championships to playing defensive line at Iowa Wesleyan. Soon, the 250-pounder decided he wanted a bigger challenge and so he looked to transfer.

“When I went to Iowa Wesleyan, I thought this was it, this was college,” he said. “When I went to visit the University of Iowa, I was in awe. I wanted to go there. I wanted to find a way and show everyone I could play the game. I wanted to compete at the next level.”

Iowa’s then-defensive line coach John Austin was Epenesa’s first contact with Iowa’s staff. There wasn’t a scholarship waiting for Epenesa, so Austin asked if he would be interested in walking on.

“I asked him, ‘What’s a walk-on?’” Epenesa said with a laugh. “He said you come over and show us you can play the game and maybe we’ll work something out.”

This was spring 1994 and it was kind of a tryout.

“I kept thinking, ‘Man, this is Division I,’ and then I was thinking, ‘I can beat this guy, I can beat this guy,’” Epenesa said. “I can beat these guys, seriously. So, I told him, I’ll come in and tryout. I earned my scholarship before the semester was over.”

A.J. Epenesa is coming in the front door to Iowa, but his father’s journey shows the toughness is embedded.

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: “Led prep team to state playoffs four straight years, with overall record of 40-6. Helped prep team win three straight conference championships.”

Noteworthy offer: Alabama

Depth chart in 2016?: Yes. When Epenesa went on his official visit to Iowa in late January, he weighed in at 272 pounds. He’s 6-5 and 272 pounds. Not long after the visit, a student at Edwardsville recorded a windmill dunk Epenesa put down during a game. That was 6-5, 272 pounds gliding to a two-handed, emphatic dunk during a game. Epenesa has the size, speed and work ethic. His dad, Eppy, is a former D-lineman at Iowa. He’s taught his son a ton of DL technique. The big question will be throwing down with B1G bodies. Epenesa will carve himself out a role and plenty of playing time.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Eric Steinbach

Weird, right? Here’s what I see: Steinbach was a 6-7 athlete who came to Iowa as a tight end in Hayden Fry’s final recruiting class. Kirk Ferentz didn’t wait around. He had Steinbach playing guard early in fall camp of 1999. Steinbach developed. He eventually put up record squats in the weight room and became a consensus all-American. During his run with the Cleveland Browns, Steinbach signed a seven-year, $49.5 million contract. Epenesa is not slated to play offense, but he is a tall athlete cut out of the same mold.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell (this is more the conversation I had with coach Bell on the prospect)Me: I think when you guys went 12-2 in 2015, Iowa showed it can still win big. You got his attention. He’s obviously a gorgeous athlete.

KB: The 12-2 helped. Having a mom from Iowa and dad played here, those things help as well. But probably the biggest trait I take away from A.J., being a 5-star kid and having a rap sheet of college suitors after you, he stuck with Iowa like he knew he wanted to go to Iowa. 12-0, he wanted to go to Iowa. 8-5, he wanted to go to Iowa. Regardless of what happened, he was coming to Iowa and we appreciate that. We appreciate that kind of loyalty. Not a lot of 5-star kids are like that, especially with the attention that you get. He knew exactly what he wanted, no frills about it. I loved that. I wish more kids were like that.

Me: I’m sorry (laughs)! KB: (Laughs).

Me: Where do you see him play? Everyone has an opinion on this. Is it get him in and see where it goes?

KB: That’s what I think. Ultimately, as a defensive line coach, we play a four-down front. I want all four guys to be able to play, to have four or five or six moving parts where you just say, ‘Hey, take so-and-so out and you play there.’ He gives you that type of flexibility, because he’s got the athleticism to play outside, but he was here last weekend for an official visit, he’s 272 pounds. I think once he gets here and starts eating and lifting, he’s going to bat an eye and be 300 pounds. I told him that. I just think that he has the flexibility to play wherever he wants to up and down the line. It just depends where his body goes.

ESPN scouting report excerpt: STRENGTHS: Big, imposing defensive end prospect who could grow into an interior lineman and valuable swingman. Strong charging, up-field presence that disrupts the off-tackle run play and causes good disruption. For his size he can make plays down the line and displays a good motor. AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: He’s currently a bit of a tweener lacking the size and leverage of an interior lineman and the speed and edge quickness of an end. Would like to see more pass rush polish and hand usage. BOTTOM LINE: If Epenesa can develop more size while retaining his current agility, we see a productive 5-tech end at the college level. High upside prospect with a lot of physical tools.

My take: Epenesa dominated his level of competition. The line of scrimmage was on an escalator moving backward. So, I watched U.S. Army All-American Bowl videos. Epenesa locked up with Stanford signee Walker Little (6-8, 305). Round 1: Little did a great job getting his hands inside and controlled Epenesa. Round 2: Epenesa won the rep off the snap, getting his inside shoulder under Walker’s outside and leveraging his way to the QB. Round 3: Walker withstood the initial punch and never lost contact with Epenesa. When he tried to reset his base, Walker was caught straight-legged and Epenesa drove him through the QB. Against Tedarrell Slaton (6-6, 339, Florida), Epenesa tried a spin move and was stopped. In another rep, Epenesa outlasted Notre Dame signee Joshua Lugg (6-7, 280). These reps were ridiculously fun to watch. Such good players. Strength will be something to monitor early in Epenesa’s development. You just can’t put a body into a microwave and set it on three years of training in a college strength program.

Daviyon Nixon

Daviyon Nixon was the signing day surprise for the Hawkeyes.

This rarely happens, but Nixon sent his signed letter of intent to Iowa before he announced where he was going. Usually, it’s one of the recruiting sites that breaks news. In this case, Iowa got the scoop.

Nixon began January with Mid-American Conference offers. He committed to Northern Illinois early in the month before decommitting a few weeks before signing day. Upon that decommit, Purdue and Iowa offered. Nixon visited both and liked that Iowa had a criminal justice major.

“The players made it like a family environment as well as the coaches,” Nixon told HawkeyeReport.com. “I really liked all the people there and the fact that they had detailed information on what I want to study, criminal justice.”

Nixon led Indian Trail with 10 tackles for loss his senior season and was named first-team all-conference and first-team all-county.

In this Kenosha News post, former Indian Trail coach Mike McKay talked about the work Nixon put in to put himself in position to be a Power 5 player.

“Ever since we realized this was a possibility, I sat down and said, ‘There’s some things that we need to do,’” said McKay, who pointed to Nixon’s work both on the field and in the classroom. “He’s worked hard to get himself to this place.

“I told him (Wednesday night), ‘This is a step that isn’t the end. There’s going to be plenty of hard work to be coming.’ He’s going to be on a group of D-linemen that are all Daviyons.”

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: “Named Most Improved as a junior and senior. Earned Coaches Hustle Award as a junior and senior.”

Noteworthy offer: Purdue

Depth chart in 2016?: Probably not. Nixon is going to arrive in Iowa City a B1G-sized defensive tackle at 6-5, 290 pounds. Does Iowa need another tackle in the rotation, especially a first-year? It never hurts. Iowa D-line coaches Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell didn’t flinch when they inserted Cedric Lattimore into action as a true freshman last season. Some of this also might depend on where Epenesa ends up.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Jaleel Johnson

Johnson had more major offers than Nixon, but let’s look beyond the offers. Johnson came to Iowa City listed 6-2, 277 pounds and it didn’t happen for him right away. He went into his junior season (2015) with 11 career tackles. Johnson spent his first two seasons behind Carl Davis, who also had to wait his turn behind Mike Daniels and Louis Trinca-Pasat early in his career. Nixon will walk into a situation that offers a little more opportunity (beyond Nathan Bazata, the DTs are largely untested). If he lights up August camp, he could find playing time. But the more likely path will be development.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell (this is more the conversation I had with coach Bell on the prospect)KB: Daviyon Nixon is a guy who we talk about with fit. He’s the right kind of kid for us. Basketball player, does track. Came to camp last summer. We also know he’s in a state in which we have an archrival. We kind of laid low, kept the kid warm, kept the dialogue open and found the right opportunity to pounce on the kid.

Me: I was going to ask you how is a 6-4, 280-pound kid still out there just before signing day?

KB: It’s a credit to him. He knew what he wanted to do. As far as fit, I think he wanted to play in a four-down front (Wisconsin is a 3-4 and, at the time, was searching for a new defensive coordinator). It was the right opportunity to go in and get a defensive lineman.

Me: Probably tackle? KB: Probably starting out at tackle.

ESPN scouting report excerpt: Nixon didn’t get an ESPN evaluation, but the site did list some testing numbers (probably from a Scout combine). Here are those — 40-yard dash: 5.07 (best for DT was 4.90; worst was 7.10); 20-yard shuttle: 4.97 (best was 4.27; worst was 6.26); Vertical jump: 22.9 (best was 33.6; worst was 14.0); Power throw: 33.0 (best 50,0; worst 27.0); SPARQ rating: 63.27 (best 108.54. worst 33.81). Just going of this, Nixon appears to have above-average quickness and needs to work on strength/explosion.

My take: In Nixon’s Hudl video, I’m pretty sure there’s a play with him carrying the ball and, you know, he looked pretty natural. He has basketball quicks and closes extremely well. He also was a stand-up rush linebacker on a few plays. Looked good doing that, too. Nixon gets to bodies and throws them like pillows. But go back to what his prep coach said. Nixon is stepping into the ring of big bodies. He can’t let up.

More Recruiting

• Feature: Epenesas are back in Iowa City

• Interactive Map: Iowa's 2017 football recruits

• Croot Loops: Good mix of safety, corner types in Iowa's 2017 DB class

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

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