Pass rush is a priority item for the Hawkeyes

It was a work-in-progress during camp, plus some notes on the defense

  • Photo
  • Iowa DT Nathan Bazata
  • Iowa DC Phil Parker

IOWA CITY — To the absolute surprise of no one, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard had an "imaginary circle" drawn around him after he suffered a sprained knee early in fall camp.

You know that quarterbacks already wear red jerseys in practice as a "stop" sign for potential hits, but, clearly, it needed some reinforcement with Beathard, who couldn’t play in the spring game because of an injured shoulder he suffered from a hit in practice.

This made measuring disruption for Iowa’s defensive linemen a challenge. Recruiting coordinator and defensive line assistant Kelvin Bell found a few workarounds.

“Coach Bell has been tallying up disruptions and stuff like that,” defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. “That can be putting your hand up and tipping the ball or getting within the imaginary circle, that’s how he’s been counting disruption.”

Off the top of his head, Bazata said the leading scorer in the disruption derby was sophomore defensive end Parker Hesse. In a way, this is good. You wonder about disruption with young defensive ends and Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s hope that the front four can provide pressure, and here’s a young defensive end piling up disruption numbers in camp.

“That’s putting some numerical evidence to something that might not be recorded as a statistic in practice,” Hesse said. “It’s given us a look to see where we’re at and what we need to improve on. It’s physical evidence that you can see, measure and go off and improve on.”

On paper, the Hawkeyes might be a little healthier in sack numbers than you might think. Iowa did lose its top two pass rushers from last season (ends Nate Meier and Drew Ott combined for 11.5 sacks, with Meier’s 6.0 leading the way), but defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson had 3.5, linebacker Ben Niemann had 3.0, linebacker Josey Jewell had 2.5, Bazata had 2.0 along with Hesse.

Asked where the pass rush might come from with his defense, Parker went right into talking about personnel packages and sophomore linebacker Aaron Mends (6-0, 223).

“Aaron Mends is a guy we used in sub packages toward the end of the year last season,” Parker said. “He’s doing a good job this year. (Redshirt freshman D-end) Anthony Nelson is another guy who can give us a pass rush. He’s playing very well. (Sophomore D-end) Matt Nelson on the other side looks good. I think if we use our sub packages between our bandit and our nickel stuff, I think we have both covered.”

“Bandit” usually means the strong safety, in Iowa’s case Miles Taylor, but it also could mean a hybrid-type like Niemann, who plays outside linebacker and was used effectively in pressure situations at times in 2015.

As of Tuesday, Mends trailed junior Bo Bower in a battle for the outside linebacker spot.

“(Bower) has been here for a while,” Parker said. “He understands the defense and it’s a lot easier going in there and playing and understanding the calls and making a play faster. Some of the other guys are still learning. It’s a little harder, sometimes he can see a little bit better than the other guys.”

Mends is a physical marvel and could see success on the line of scrimmage in pass-rush situations. Size would be an uphill battle for regular duty at defensive end.

Hesse, Matt Nelson (who missed some camp with an undisclosed injury) and Anthony Nelson likely will be Iowa’s top three defensive ends this season. Where does pass rush fit on their list of priorities?

“It’s No. 1 or 2, I would say,” Hesse said. “It’s something I’ve tried to emphasize this offseason, so it’s something I hope I’ve significantly improved on.”

How do you work the pass-rush muscle in the offseason?

“Just watching film of yourself in practices and games past,” Hesse said. “Watching people who do it well. Watching film of Drew and older guys and guys in the NFL.”

And then in camp, the Iowa staff devised a way to track progress that didn’t include hitting Beathard, the quarterback, the second-team all-Big Ten returnee and pretty much the most important player on the team.

“Seems like it’s getting bigger and bigger,” Hesse said of the “imaginary circle” around Beathard. “Obviously, C.J. is a great player who’s so important to this team. I don’t have to tell you guys that.”

— Asked if the weakside linebacker battle between Bower and Mends was the only defensive spot on the two deeps up for grabs, Parker said, “Up front, we’re moving some guys around. On the back end, obviously, we have three or four guys who can play back there at certain positions. I don’t feel totally comfortable with everybody and where they’re at.”

The “up front” part was interesting.

— Parker said personnel packages for defense have been installed, and note that above he mentioned Mends for third-down, pass-rush packages. “We think we have good guys in the right positions,” Parker said.

If the nickel package works similar to the way it did last season, you’ll see sophomore cornerback Joshua Jackson in as the fifth defensive back.

— As far as true freshmen go on defense, Parker mentioned tackle Cedric Lattimore and corner Manny Rugamba. He also mentioned linebacker Amani Jones as a special teams player who has potential to play from scrimmage. Lattimore was initially listed as a defensive end when he arrived in camp. He’s now 285 and in contention to back up both tackle spots.

“He’s a 285-pound kid and that worked out best for us right now (moving Lattimore inside),” Parker said. “We need some guys inside to help us.”

Lattimore’s rise could help ease some concerns with depth along the defensive line.

“We’re always looking for more guys,” Parker said. “We like to have four and four, a solid two deep. We’ll probably take 10 or 11 guys on (road) trips. We’ll have sound guys who we feel comfortable can go in there and play, at least three rotating on the inside and at least three on the outside. We have enough guys and we’ll obviously rotate them with up-tempo offenses.”

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

Iowa DE Parker Hesse

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