IOWA CITY — Let’s preface everything in the proceeding with the fact that it’s March and more than five months until the Hawkeyes play football that goes on their permanent record.
Keep that in mind. It’s March. This is the time to have three potential starters on your defensive line in an immobilizer boot or riding a stationary bike for a workout or in sweats. Obviously, there’s no good time for that, but March is better than September.
During Wednesday’s practice, junior defensive end Matt Nelson had his lower right leg in a boot. Senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata didn’t work out, still feeling the effects of an ankle injury he suffered against Wisconsin last October. Sophomore defensive end Anthony Nelson also sat out of drills and wasn’t in uniform.
So, the first question out of the chute Wednesday for defensive line coach Reese Morgan was depth and if his unit was making progress toward an eight-man rotation.
“Not yet,” Morgan said, smiling and shaking his head. “We’re just trying to get guys lined up right now.”
Right now, in March, junior defensive end Parker Hesse is the last starter from 2016 standing. Almost literally.
“It’s a time to learn, it’s an opportunity to get the young guys in there, get them more reps and more experience,” Hesse said.
Let’s use sophomore defensive tackle Cedric Lattimore as the snapshot example.
The 6-5, 295-pounder played as a true freshman last season. He didn’t play a lot, seeing just 86 snaps, but was in the action, getting that feel for the speed of the game first-year players talk about. This year, Lattimore is expected to be a starter. He’s actually kind of written in Sharpie on the depth chart. What’s ahead for him is maybe 600 more snaps (for comparison former Iowa DT Jaleel Johnson played 668).
Outside of quarterback, there’s probably no other player on the depth chart who’ll see his profile blow up more than Lattimore.
Is he ready? And keep in mind, it’s March, and so Morgan’s initial reaction to this question was “No one’s ready yet.”
“He’s getting a ton of reps. He’s being coached every single snap, and he’s really fun to work with and be around,” Morgan said. “But I think he’s going to be ready. He doesn’t have an option. What he brings is he’s got good size, he’s a competitive young man, and he’s a coachable kid.”
Bazata is the lone scholarship senior on the defensive line. A high-ankle sprain suffered against Wisconsin on Oct. 22 last season took a bite out of his junior year. He wasn’t 100 percent for the final five games of the season and still isn’t.
“I think it’s a lingering thing, an injury,” Morgan said. “When he had that high-ankle sprain in the Wisconsin game he really was never able to get back to 100 percent. He played, but he played limited. So, the medical staff and our training staff have a plan.”
So, as it stands right now in March, Iowa’s defensive tackle rotation is Lattimore, sophomore Brady Reiff (a 6-3, 260-pounder) and senior walk-on Jake Hulett.
Morgan is all-in on Reiff, the younger brother of former Iowa all-Big Ten offensive tackle and current Minnesota Viking Riley Reiff.
“He’s productive. He’s disruptive.,” Morgan said. “I think he’s going to provide a lot. I think he’s a guy to really get excited about for a younger player. You think of guys in his mold and he certainly can’t be compared to guys, but you look at guys like a Mitch King, Karl Klug, kind of a smaller guy inside that can move and do some things, and we’re hoping that he can do that.”
Morgan was asked about Matt Nelson trying some tackle. There were conversations and Nelson was receptive, even bringing it up to the staff in the offseason.
“We always interview our players right after the season, after recruiting’s over,” Morgan said. “So 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 1. He had a couple snaps inside. He’s played outside. The plan would be to use him in both positions if we can.”
Even with Matt Nelson’s injury and Anthony Nelson sitting out Wednesday, Iowa has bodies at defensive end. Morgan mentioned junior Sam Brincks and redshirt freshmen Chauncey Golston and Brandon Simon.
Hesse also talked about Brincks’ solid spring thus far (Iowa finished its fourth practice Wednesday). Golston and Simon are intriguing, but undersized at 255 and 240, respectively.
“We ask our guys to play heavy techniques,” Morgan said. “We ask those guys to take on a big offensive tackle, tight end or double team, so that would be an area they continue to work on. They’re still works in progress.”
A.J. Epenesa’s name came up, as it should.
Yes, he’s an incoming freshman. They don’t get talked about often the spring before their arrival. Epenesa is a different cat. He’s a 5-star recruit who played in the U.S. Army All-American game. He’s 6-5 and 272 pounds. He can throw down a poster dunk in hoops and throw the discus a world-class distance for a high schooler.
From head coach Kirk Ferentz to recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell, no Iowa staffer has said the word redshirt with Epenesa. And definitely yes, Morgan has thought about ways to use Epenesa.
“I realistically don’t think from a physical standpoint it would be a concern at all,” Morgan said. “Very few times does a true freshman play on either side of the ball. It’s just so physically challenging, but I think he is one exceptional athlete who would have the ability and mental attitude to do that.”
The mantra from the Iowa staff with young players or position races has been the best players will play. Realistically, this is probably jumping the gun on Epenesa, but let’s assume he plays (and that seems very, very likely). If he has defensive end skills, that’s probably where he begins.
But right now, Iowa needs help at tackle. Maybe Matt Nelson’s health solves this in August. This is March and it’s five months until Epenesa is even on campus and the permanent record starts to click.
“That’s one thing we’re really taking pride in in our room right now,” Hesse said. “First team, second team, third team, we have guys who are capable of playing and having an impact sitting everywhere in the room. That’s something we’re excited about and that’s something when the season gets going, we’re going to be taking a lot of pride in.”
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