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IOWA CITY — A lot of Iowa’s defensive players, specifically along the front seven, hit a wall late last season and had a hard time running through and/or around it.
Five of the seven defensive linemen and linebackers were first-years starters in 2015. Players have to make that leap as a starter at some point in their careers, but, of course, it’s easier said than done.
Defensive tackle Nathan Bazata went from a redshirt freshman who played a little to a starter. He hit a wall, or it hit him, whichever way you look at it, in November.
“Toward the end of the year, it (the workload) really affected me,” said Bazata, who’ll be a second-year starter as a junior this season. “At the end-of-the-year meetings with coaches, we talked about it. It seemed to wear me down.”
Bazata and defensive line coach Reese Morgan sat down and watched video from week 2 vs. Iowa State and week 11 vs. Minnesota. Yes, the contrast was jarring and it certainly did drive Bazata nuts.
“Yes, yes, it did,” he said. “It just seemed like I was slow. Coach Morgan pointed it out to me and then I went and watched a few games from Iowa State and a few from Minnesota. You could tell I wore down. That’s what I’m trying not to do this year.”
After preparing his starting four D-linemen for the rigors of 2016, Morgan’s next order of business will be finding the next two D-linemen and, if that’s checked off, then another two. Building depth and creating a rotation of six to eight D-linemen are high on Morgan’s list going into the Hawkeyes’ season opener on Sept. 3.
“I think in a perfect world, we’d like to have eight kids,” Morgan said. “I think we feel pretty good about having six right now and I think we can get to that point.”
Bazata and senior Jaleel Johnson return to the tackle spots. Parker Hesse jumped into the starting lineup at end last season after Drew Ott suffered a torn ACL in week 6. Sophomore Matt Nelson will be a new starter at end, replacing Nate Meier.
That’s the four.
The next two are tackle Faith Ekakitie and end Anthony Nelson. Ekakitie started seeing more action as 2015 progressed, as did Matt Nelson. Anthony Nelson took a redshirt last season.
Nos. 7 and 8? That’ll be a wait-and-see thing.
When Iowa held its open scrimmage on Aug. 13, the possibilities at tackle were walk-on Daniel Gaffey (6-2, 285) and true freshman Cedric Lattimore. Junior Jake Hulett (a mature 285-pound junior) suffered a broken ankle early in camp, but could be a possibility when he returns. At end, walk-on sophomore Sam Brincks (6-5, 270) and true freshman Chauncey Golston looked to be in the hunt.
Lattimore and Golston played with technique beyond their years during the Aug. 13 scrimmage. They are true freshmen, so are their bodies (Lattimore is 6-5, 260; Golston is listed 6-5, 227) ready for this?
Anthony Nelson just went through a serious round of the rigors of building the body. The 6-7, 253-pounder packed on 30 pounds last winter. He feels he’s ready to contribute.
“You’re going to see him on the field, you’re going to see this young man on the field,” Morgan said. “He can do that (fill in as a pass-rush specialists), but I think he’s going to get on the field and play some substantial snaps. He’s got great quickness and great leverage. He’s a smart player. I think he’ll be an excellent pass rusher, but I think he’ll play the run as well.”
The Iowa staff absolutely tracks the workload of its players. Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle has Hawkeyes wearing GPS units that read everything their bodies say during a workout and a game. Snap counts and practice workloads are closely monitored during the season. This isn’t breaking news and a course of action, beyond finding more depth, is what’s on deck.
“We have to be smart,” Morgan said. “The players have to be smart. Coach Doyle does a great job during the offseason preparing them physically and mentally for it. And then we have to be smart rotating guys during the course of a game and even in practice.
“If we’re smart with them, the guys will really rise.”
Here’s an example of players being smart: Johnson was an honorable mention all-Big Ten defensive tackle last season. He could be protective about his playing time. Pride always kicks in and, probably, you’re usually the last one to know or admit that you’re tired.
“If you need to get a rest, they’ll take you out and put someone else in,” Johnson said. “If I need to come out, coach Morgan will put the right guy in. They can tell from afar that if you need a blow, they’ll take you out.”
So, the point has been made by now. Tired D-linemen = D-linemen who are a step slower and that = danger zone. Bazata walked you through some of how that showed up toward the end of 2015. And, sure, the solution is finding more D-linemen and building that rotation.
Still, Morgan isn’t going to shuffle players in who aren’t ready just to kill a few snaps.
“We’re still going to play the best players,” Morgan said. “It’s got to be earned on the practice field. When you’re playing an up-tempo offense, like an Indiana, you have to play a guy who sometimes maybe doesn’t show as much in practice but who is fresher than a player who’s been out there for a number of snaps and who’s fatigued.”
They don’t want to compromise, but they also know 900 snaps are a lot to ask out of a D-lineman. Now, it’s finding players they trust. How does a young defensive lineman rise to that point?
“Nothing more than performance,” Hesse said. “In the game of football, the only way to earn respect, to be a leader, is to play well. That’s the only currency there is, really.