WEST DES MOINES — This round of Iowa spring football might be more accurately and simply named “staging.”
As far as legit football, the Hawkeyes showed very little during their practice Friday night at Valley Stadium. The three players on the 2017 fall schedule poster — wide receiver Matt VandeBerg, linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley — had more crutches than practice reps. (VandeBerg is out this spring recovering from a foot injury, while the other two seniors were held out so younger players could get a longer look.)
The Hawkeyes’ spring “staging” did however offer a couple of different views of the world from a pair of defensive linemen.
Sophomore defensive end Anthony Nelson made noise in his first season, finishing second on the team with 6.0 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss. He earned Big Ten freshman of the week after his first start, picking up 2.5 sacks in last year’s season opener against Miami (Ohio).
Clearly, Nelson wants to build off that. He put on 10 pounds in the offseason (6-7, 260) and feels quicker.
“So far, I’ve got the quickness, so hopefully that continues,” Nelson said. “I’ve been trying to work with that so far this spring.”
Even with a rotation of three defensive ends, Nelson has his spot. That’s obviously not the case for everyone plugged into Iowa’s D-line.
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Sophomore Brady Reiff has seen his profile grow since late last season when he was moved from end to tackle. With senior Nathan Bazata sidelined so far this spring with an ankle injury, Reiff finds himself in a starting role.
He’s a hungry player, just maybe not literally. Part of his deal is pounding calories. With his weight hovering around 260, Reiff knows gaining size is part of his assignment.
“I gotta gain weight,” Reiff said. “The strength coaches are stacking calories on me. Every week, I have a different goal weight, I’m just trying to get my weight up.”
During this round of staging, junior defensive end Matt Nelson has been out with a lower leg injury, but the position remains one of the deepest on Iowa’s roster. Matt Nelson had 5.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Parker Hesse had 4.0 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss. Defensive line coach Reese Morgan said junior walk-on Sam Brincks has had a solid spring. Five-star freshman A.J. Epenesa reports in the fall.
Anthony Nelson is very much a part of this. Go beyond the traditional disruptive stats for defense. Last season, according to Pro Football Focus statistics, Nelson led the Hawkeyes with 32 QB hurries and 11 QB hits. PFF also graded out Nelson as Iowa’s best run-stopping defensive end.
Nelson, whose dad, Jeff, played defensive line for the Hawkeyes, was a relatively quiet recruiting pickup. Iowa, Iowa State and Eastern Michigan were his only FBS offers.
Iowa knows it has something here.
“You like to think a guy’s going to improve as he gets older and keeps going, but what he did today is really what he does in practice,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said after Nelson’s debut last fall. “He’s not near at the physical maturity that he will be before he graduates, but he’s a good football player and I thought he made a real nice account of himself today.”
Of course, that was then and this is now. If a football player doesn’t shed the exoskeleton from the previous season, that player isn’t growing, isn’t gaining ground.
Nelson is keenly aware of this.
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“I’d just like to improve overall as a player,” Nelson said. “I obviously need to get stronger and improve fundamentals. I’ve been working every day to improve against the run game and pass game and just keep moving ahead.”
In contrast, the world is just getting to know Brady Reiff. Yes, he is the brother of former Hawkeyes all-Big Ten offensive tackle Riley Reiff, who this offseason signed a five-year, $58 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Better get to know Brady Reiff. Right now, the 6-3, 260-pounder is at least the No. 3 defensive tackle for 2017.
“He’s a guy inside that when you think about it, he’s a little bit undersized for a tackle,” D-line coach Reese Morgan said. “But, you know, you don’t measure a guy by his size. He’s very explosive. He’s productive. He’s disruptive. . . . I think he’s going to provide a lot. I think he’s a guy to really get excited about for a younger player.”
This spring is as much staging as practice for Iowa and Reiff. Part of that for him is simply eating. He said “it’s part of the job.” If he hits his goal weight every two weeks, Reiff gets bumped up. His calorie count? He doesn’t know it. He eats until his stomach feels bloated, he said. Of course, the weight goals and gains are heavily monitored and geared toward Reiff becoming a competitive defensive tackle and not a competitive eater.
“That’s just the way it has to be if I want to be a defensive tackle or if I want to gain weight,” said Reiff, who has enjoyed the move inside.
“Things happen a little bit faster, you don’t have to think as much,” he said. “It’s fun, I love it. There’s not as much space, you’re right there.”
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