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Morgan offers some insights on DE recruiting, a difficult proposition at Iowa

Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Sam B. Richardson (left) releases a pass under pressure from Iowa Hawkeyes defensive lineman Drew Ott during the first half of their NCAA game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker James Morris intercepted the pass. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG) ¬
Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Sam B. Richardson (left) releases a pass under pressure from Iowa Hawkeyes defensive lineman Drew Ott during the first half of their NCAA game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker James Morris intercepted the pass. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG) ¬

IOWA CITY — Last winter when the Houston Texans hired former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, there were a few reports that had Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz on the move to become O’Brien’s O-line coach.

The two were on the same New England Patriots staff when Ferentz was in New England from 2008-11. O’Brien was New England’s offensive coordinator before moving on to Penn State in 2012. Ferentz was the Patriots’ tight ends coach.

Ferentz said Wednesday it wasn’t happening.

“I never made a public comment, and the reason was very simple,” Ferentz said, “there was no need to make a public comment. I’m the offensive line coach of the University of Iowa, and I’m very happy to be the offensive line coach of the University of Iowa. I have a great job.”

New view on pass rush — The principles of pass rushing have changed. Iowa is no longer able or willing to sit back, play zone coverage and wait for pressure on the quarterback to come from the four defensive linemen.

That worked really well from 2008 to 2010 when Iowa had NFL-caliber D-linemen. Offenses have continued to evolve and most now throw the ball in around two seconds. So, Iowa has re-thought pass rush.

Defensive line coach Reese Morgan said Wednesday the Hawkeyes defensive staff first want its defensive ends, traditionally the premier pass rushers, to play the run and set an edge for rush defense. On third down, you’ll likely see more of the “Raider package” that defensive coordinator Phil Parker broke out last season.

That’s three down linemen who might not be D-linemen — last year, linebackers Quinton Alston and Reggie Spearman, projected starters this year, played DE in this role — and more linebackers in coverage.

“I think we have the group of guys who are going to be out there primarily down situation, and then you’re going to have a special unit or group of guys, which may comprise people outside the D-line, who go in on passing situation, and I think that’s really helped us.”

Left guard-o-rama — Redshirt freshman Sean Welsh is getting first crack at left guard this spring. The 6-3, 285-pounder made Iowa’s travel team once or twice as a true freshman last season.

“He needs to get more experience and continue to grow, and the only way to do that is to play,” Ferentz said. “That’s what he needs to do right now. That’s what’s happening in the spring. That’s what will happen in the fall. . . . Obviously, he needs to continue to compete as well. We’re not ready to anoint anyone.”

Last season, Iowa rotated players at right guard. Junior Jordan Walsh started games, but senior Andrew Donnal rotated in. This year, they’re poised to start, Walsh at right guard and Donnal at right tackle.

“Where we’re really trying to figure out something is probably at that left guard position,” Ferentz said. “I think what will happen is what you saw last year, if we could play six guys, if we could play seven guys, if we feel like we have that kind of depth, we’ll play those guys because we feel like that’s very good for our football team, not just for the guys or for the unit, but for the team to have that kind of depth, be gaining that kind of experience. If we can do that again, we’d love to do that.”

Some of the names Ferentz mentioned along with Welsh were sophomores Ryan Ward and Mitch Keppy and redshirt freshman walk-on Boone Myers.

“There’s a whole tier of guys who are really competing to earn some playing time,” Ferentz said.

On recruiting OT and DE — The two areas where head coach Kirk Ferentz has noted a deficit in recruiting the last few years has been offensive tackle and defensive end.

The 2013 class was about an upgrade in speed at wide receiver, with five WR signees. The ‘14 class included five defensive backs who were higher up on Iowa’s board than any OTs or DEs.

“We’re always trying in recruiting to make our football team better, so if you compare it to the NFL Draft, we want to take the best available, and unfortunately for us, at the offensive line position over the last few years, really we haven’t been able to develop some of the depth perhaps we’d like from a scholarship standpoint,” Brian Ferentz said. “To me, where we’ve been fortunate is we’ve had some guys who have walked on to our program and paid their dues the hard way. They’ve really improved and elevated.”

The No. 2 tackles on Iowa’s depth chart are walk-ons, Myers and sophomore Cole Croston.

Morgan is happy with DE starters Drew Ott and Mike Hardy, but acknowledged that they’ve filled the role when perhaps they weren’t totally built for it.

“We are playing with guys that in a lot of programs would be defensive tackles,” said Morgan, in his 14th year at Iowa and third with the D-line. “Mike Hardy (6-5, 280) was a defensive tackle a year ago. We moved him out because of our needs.”

Later, he compared Ott (6-4, 270) to a pickup truck. He meant it in the nicest football way possible.

“Reliable, he starts every day, he’s tough, he works hard, you can load him up, he’s not afraid of anything,” Morgan said. “You can take him on the interstate. You can take him on a dirt road. That’s the kind of guy he is. And I think Mike Hardy is in that boat as well.”

Morgan said he’d love to have three Jadeveon Clowney models. He’s the 6-6, 266-pound DE from South Carolina who might well be the No. 1 NFL draft pick.

But . . .

“Clowney isn’t in Springville, Iowa. He’s not there,” Morgan said.

Before Wednesday’s news conference, Morgan said coaches had a meeting about recruiting needs. Defensive end was a topic.

“We just sat in this very room three hours ago and went through our top defensive ends [in the ‘15 recruiting class],” he said. “They’re great athletes, but they also have offers from a lot of different places, so we do have to be realistic about who we can get and how we can develop him and what we can do within our framework to play our team defense because ultimately it’s all about the team.”

Iowa does have one defensive end in the 2014 class, Cedar Rapids Xavier’s Matt Nelson (6-8, 255). Morgan said he would have trouble projecting a true freshman in the DE rotation.

“We hope that we don’t have to, but if there is a freshman, him or somebody else, who comes in and demonstrates that they’ve earned the opportunity, the right to at least take a look at and get some reps with the first or second group, that certainly could be a possibility,” Morgan said. “It would be a disrespectful for our current players to say we’re counting on a guy who’s a freshman coming in and playing because everything has to be earned.”

As far as a No. 3 DE goes for 2014, the names to know are juniors Nate Meier (6-2, 244) and Riley McMinn (6-7, 265).

“Right now, there are probably 11 guys where you say I think in some way, shape or form these guys have an opportunity to get on the field and be successful, but they have to demonstrate it in practice situations, scrimmage situations,” Morgan said.

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