No. 43 ... Faith Ekakitie and Jaleel Johnson seemed to be on the fast track to the starting lineup. The two came in together with the 2012 class and were able to redshirt. The duo has looked the part from day 1. Ekakitie is 6-3, 287. He showed enough athleticism to try some defensive end last season. He’s been moved back to tackle since with the rise of junior Drew Ott. Johnson has your prototypical Big Ten defense tackle body at 6-4, 310. What has happened the last two seasons has had less to do with Ekakitie and Johnson and more to do with the upperclassmen ahead of them. Carl Davis went from 60 snaps a season to 60 a game in 2013. ESPN’s College Football Live ranked him as one of the top five defensive tackles in the country. Louis Trinca-Pasat has gone from a player looking to bolt in December 2011 to an all-Big Ten caliber DT. Junior Darian Cooper has remained a starter-level player. In short, the Iowa defensive tackle depth chart is ridiculous with talent and potential right now. It’s probably as healthy as it’s been in Kirk Ferentz’s 16 seasons.
Case by case ... Here’s what defensive line coach Reese Morgan said when Ekakitie moved to defensive end before 2013: “Faith we think is a guy for the future, because he’s very athletic, he can run, he’s smart,” Morgan said. “He’s just young, really young. We’ve been working with him, but he’s got some unique abilities.” Even with starter Dominic Alvis suffering an injury, Ekakitie never saw time as a DE and switched back to tackle before bowl prep.
Also during Outback Bowl prep, Davis talked about his journey and how long it took for him to matter at Iowa. It finally happened for him as a fourth-year junior (and, yes, we’re skipping all the work that went into reshaping a 340-pound body). Johnson will be a third-year sophomore this year. Morgan was asked this spring how you temper a young player’s expectations without smashing their dreams.
“I think the tape is probably the best way to do that,” Morgan said this spring. “Hopefully, in the classroom we’re doing a good job of identifying this is what we’re looking for. These are the techniques, the production. This is a good play. This isn’t a good play. This is how we want to do this as compared to that. And then do your responsibility.
“Over time, a young guy like Jaleel, who really has ability and desire to get on there, just understands that, ‘Hey, I’ve got to demonstrate in practice on a consistent basis that I can do this job. Once I get to the point where I understand that, I can execute it, and I can be productive within the team framework of the system.’ That’s really good. We want guys who are hungry. If that young guy is better than a guy that started for three years, he’ll play if he knows what to do.”
And even beyond Ekakitie and Johnson ... Iowa has two more scholarship DTs in the system in Nathan Bazata (6-2, 284) and Brant Gressel (6-2, 280). This is what a healthy depth chart looks like. That eight scholarship running backs deal? That’s healthy if you’re expecting another plague of attrition, not so much if it doesn’t happen. Iowa’s DT situation is the picture of health. (Jinx.)
Morgan is quick to point out with Bazata and Gressel, “Both of them are projects, please. They really are.”
Outlook ... Davis and Trinca-Pasat are seniors. If Davis duplicates 2013, he has a chance to be a high NFL draft pick. Trinca-Pasat could work himself on the draft board. Cooper is the next DT in. Realistically, Ekakitie and Johnson need to be ready for 2015. One or both has a chance to start. Both will be counted on.
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