Phil Parker bullish on Iowa's defensive front

Hawkeyes defensive coordinator sees 'best we've been up front' in tenure, freshman A.J. Epenesa as part of the rotation, 'no question'

Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker runs players through drills during Kids' Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker runs players through drills during Kids' Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — If you were looking for someone on the Iowa football coaching staff to douse the flames of excitement over a defensive front seven that features a wealth of experience and a five-star recruit, keep looking.

If anything, defensive coordinator Phil Parker fanned the flames Tuesday morning.

Speaking on freshman A.J. Epenesa and the almost certainty everyone will see multiple players playing at defensive end and tackle, Parker put Epenesa in the rotation from Day 1 “no question,” and heaped some — for him, anyway — bold praise on a group that has traditionally produced a lot for the Hawkeyes.

“I think (Epenesa is) going to be one of the guys in the top four defensive linemen with Anthony Nelson, Matt Nelson, Parker Hesse and A.J., I think those guys are a good rotation,” Parker said. “I think we’ve got four or five guys there and three or four guys inside that can play.

“I think it’s the best we’ve been up front as a whole since I’ve been the coordinator here.”

Parker clarified that doesn’t necessarily mean Epenesa will start against Wyoming, but that he’s without a doubt in the two-deep now — a place he wasn’t listed at Media Day.

Epenesa was impressive at Kids Day, and both Parker and head coach Kirk Ferentz continued with that praise on Tuesday. His prototypical size at defensive end doesn’t mean he’s locked in there necessarily, though. As the defense has worked through fall camp, Parker said Epenesa has stayed at defensive end “to keep it simple,” but that, “I think he’s shown some promise for us.”




Getting him used to the system and to play within it, as opposed to just using his physical skills to attack the ball, is the work being done now. But even with the present agenda, Parker left the door open to Epenesa moving inside, in addition to Matt Nelson and Hesse, who have taken reps there this fall.

“I think he has a chance, whether he plays inside or outside,” Parker said. “We don’t know exactly when the game starts and you’re in front of 70,000 people in the stadium that things are going to go that well, but I think he can handle that. We try to put them in pressure situations, whether that’s scrimmages or competitions or drills that we have, and I think he’s done a good job.”

Parker reiterated nothing is set in stone among the front four yet, because in his estimation the talent — and its versatility — dictate there doesn’t have to be a decision made.

Matt Nelson played a lot of defensive tackle at Kids Day, but Parker attributed that to the fact that he’s so comfortable at end, he doesn’t need as much work there right now. Hesse, too, has seen reps inside, though fewer than Matt Nelson, and when he’s been there, Parker said “he takes control. He’s a commander inside with the other guys being out.

That also frees Epenesa up to get more reps outside and fast-track his path to the field.

“(Matt) already knows outside; he’s played outside for such a long time,” Parker said. “He’s been a great team member, saying, ‘Hey let me take some reps in there.’ It’s a little harder to take a young guy and say, ‘Hey you can play two positions.’ I think Matt can play two positions because he already knows one of them. It’s easier to move Matt inside a little bit and leave A.J. where he’s at and let’s see if we can gradually move in at some point and time.”


While quarterback and defensive line get the most attention among positions still needing sorted out, one group that has largely been looked over has been the Iowa safeties — which will be without Brandon Snyder, who tore his ACL in the spring.

In his place, joining Miles Taylor, is Jake Gervase, a former walk-on.

Parker said Tuesday Gervase and Taylor have shown promise and ability at the position, while a few others — including freshman Geno Stone and sophomore Amani Hooker — have progressed nicely through camp.

“I’m really pleased with what Jake has done; I think Miles is really starting to focus in on how to slow down his reaction and play within himself,” Parker said. “I think Hooker has done a good job coming in, whether he’s going to be a free or strong (safety). I think he can play both positions. I’ve been trying to work him at both positions. The young guys, Geno Stone is a guy we’re trying to bring him along because obviously Brandon is out.


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“You can say (Gervase is) similar to a Snyder or Derek Pagel or a Sean Considine type of guy who works hard, walked on here, earned everything he’s been getting here. He commands the back end. I’m really pleased with where his progress has gone.”

Stone is a player Parker said could see the field this season, probably in a special teams role, similar to Hooker last season, and said his instincts are the primary reason why.

There’s a risk of younger guys getting sped up or pursuing too hard without technique, but Parker said he’s seen them “understanding how to do that better.”

“I think there’s some plays in practice that are a natural thing (and) obviously (Geno) doesn’t know all the calls and stuff, but he knows how to run to the ball,” Parker said. “It was just a natural thing. It’s just a natural thing for him to do. It’s no big deal for him to be out on the field. He knows how to play the game of football and just went out and did it.”


Josey Jewell’s preseason honors got another big addition on Tuesday. The Associated Press named Jewell a Preseason First Team All-American, joining three other Big Ten players on the list in Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki of Penn State and Billy Price of Ohio State.

Jewell is coming off a career season in 2016 in which he led the Hawkeyes and was second in the Big Ten with 124 tackles and was a finalist for the Butkus Award for the nation’s best linebacker.

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