Four Downs with the defensive line (spring edition)

Iowa D-line 2012 is a whole new deal

Junior defensive end Dominic Alvis is coming off a torn ACL suffered against Michigan last Nov. 5. He'll be held out most of spring, but coach Kirk Ferentz expects him to be ready for summer drills in June. Iowa needs him. (Gazette file)
Junior defensive end Dominic Alvis is coming off a torn ACL suffered against Michigan last Nov. 5. He'll be held out most of spring, but coach Kirk Ferentz expects him to be ready for summer drills in June. Iowa needs him. (Gazette file)

QUICK LOOK BACK: The Iowa defensive line just kind of gutted it out last season. The results were just below standard, but the effort and determination were admirable and kept the Hawkeyes in a lot of games.

You knew tackle Mike Daniels was injured even though he missed very little time. The truth came out at the combine when Daniels revealed that he fought through two sprained ankles and a torn labrum in his shoulder during the 2011. He's had offseason surgery on the shoulder.

Broderick Binns rebounded from a difficult junior season to rack up 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. A lot of Iowa's opponents ran away from Binns, especially after Dominica Alvis' torn ACL against Michigan on Nov. 5. Many of Nebraska's 61 rushes in a dreary 20-7 loss were Rex Burkhead to the left, leaving Binns alone on the backside.

The heart of Iowa's gutty D-line last season was seniors. Daniels and Binns were joined by Tom Nardo and Lebron Daniel. Nardo was a late find, with six tackles for loss as a first-year scholarship fifth-year senior.

Alvis gained experience -- 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks in nine games -- but the ACL is a setback. Coach Kirk Ferentz said he will practice some this spring, which has to be an encouraging sign.

The only other underclassmen to pick up any real experience were seniors Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione. Bigach (6-3, 282) played 12 games and had a sack. Gaglione (6-4, 264) had seven tackles in nine games.

Tackle Carl Davis (6-5, 310) was held back by a knee injury that was repaired in January. Ferentz said he'll play less than Alvis this spring if at all, but he also said Davis is "a guy we’re really counting on next year to step in . . .”

FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: As it stands right now, this spring, Iowa has three 19-year-olds in the starting lineup.

Riley McMinn, a 6-foot-7, 245-pound D-end, will turn 20 before the season. Why are you bringing up age? Maturity matters on the defensive line. Whether McMinn, tackle Darian Cooper or end Dean Tsopanides end up starting or not in the fall, Iowa will be counting on their 19-year-oldish bodies to battle 21-to-23 year olds who've three or four years in a Big Ten strength and conditioning program.

Take it a step farther on Iowa's roster: Redshirt freshman Melvin Spears could be the first D-end off the bench. Incoming freshmen Jaleel Johnson (6-4, 300) and Faith Ekakitie (6-3, 275) could be counted on to contribute as 18-year-olds. The only true freshman [that I know of, I might be missing one] to play D-line for Iowa in the Ferentz era is Christian Ballard, who's now with the Minnesota Vikings.

The word "young" is blithely thrown around a lot in any sort of football preview. This is what it means to be young.

"We're counting on Steve Bigach, we're counting on him to keep improving, kind of leading the group," Ferentz said. "Joe Gaglione, another senior capable of doing some good things. This is his time to step it up and get going.

"After that we're a very young group. Some of the guys you mentioned, redshirt freshmen, Riley, guys like Darian Cooper that we saw last year, Dean Tsopanides, did a nice job on the scout team. Now, it's a chance for them to learn what we're doing in our scheme, putting some things to use."

And take it another step farther, Reese Morgan will be in his first season coaching defensive line after nine seasons coaching Iowa's O-line. Ferentz has mentioned that Morgan is a "builder" and will be a guiding hand for what's basically an entirely new batch of D-linemen.

This has set Morgan, 61, whose closest brush with defense was as head coach at Iowa City West before moving to Iowa in 2000, on a bit of a vision quest for technical knowledge (check this link for a few details).

Iowa D-line 2012 is a whole new deal.

THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Daniels and Binns leave with numbers that stack up with some of Iowa's better recent grads on the D-line.

The duo combined for 28.5 career sacks at Iowa (Daniels 15.5 and Binns 13). That's the same amount that Adrian Clayborn (19) and Karl Klug (9.5) had for the Hawkeyes.

Nardo was a great story and a chapter in Iowa's book of overachievers. Lebron Daniel deserves points for backing up Clayborn for his entire career at Iowa. Also, as a second-team DE, he went head-to-head with Bryan Bulaga and Riley Reiff, which couldn't have been fun. His production wasn't what he probably would've liked it to be, but he made it five seasons and fifth-years are becoming more and more rare.

Of the four D-linemen Iowa brought in with the '12 recruiting class in February, Johnson and Ekakitie have the best chance of seeing time early (as in this fall).

"I think playing time is realistic," Ferentz said of the two on signing day. "Starting, hopefully, won’t be the case. I think that’s a tough challenge on either side of the ball up front, but that [D-line], you know, clearly is a big concern for us.

". . . Two of them are a little bigger and more developed than the other two, but I think all four have great upside. And I think the two bigger guys, certainly Jaleel and Faith have a better opportunity to come in and contribute next year because of physical maturity."

Said recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson, "Faith and Jaleel are guys we targeted from the get-go. They’re bigger bodies, good-looking guys. I think Jaleel is like 320 right now. He’s a big cat. Those guys from a size standpoint have an advantage over those other guys [other D-line recruits], but we’ll have to see when they get here on campus."

Drew Ott and Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara are D-end prospects signed in February. They are likely redshirt candidates.

SECOND DOWN -- BATTLES BREWING: There really is no battle. Iowa likely will have to rotate everyone for a couple of reasons: 1) Who knows who is capable of what? The only way to find out is give them a taste of playing time. 2) The youth of this group probably means everyone is in the same boat talent and technique-wise. If there isn't a lot of separation, again, a rotation might at least maximize energy and effort.

Cooper is an intriguing prospect. The only snapshot Iowa fans got of him from his true freshman year was as a late arrival to Iowa's August camp. When he finally arrived, he wasn't able to practice in full gear the first few days due to NCAA rules. So, he showed up at the open scrimmage in a helmet, shoulder pads and shorts. He played low and, at times, sparked. He fits a Mike Daniels mold, but it will take a few years to reach that level of strength.

The clue that coaches like McMinn, and Cooper for that matter, was the fact that they dressed for road games late last season. McMinn is serious about this. He showed enough to be named a No. 1 (at least this spring, Ferentz did say the two deeps could change after a week of spring practice) and grew his body from 219 to 245.

Tsopanides and Spears should be an interesting battle at the other end. Both are stocky and physical written all over them. Spears made the switch from linebacker early last season, so the technique might start to feel natural for him.

FIRST DOWN -- PREDICTIONS FOR 2012: With so many new players and a new coach, any predictions here would be ridiculous. Well, more ridiculous than usual.

So, let's go with an assignment.

Since 1988, when Iowa's defense allows more than 2,000 rush yards, the Hawkeyes have a 36-55-4 record. When Iowa has allowed 2,000 rush yards in its history, it has an overall record of 65-136-6.

Last season, the Hawkeyes allowed 2,028 rush yards. It was the third time in the Ferentz era that Iowa allowed plus-2,000 (1999 and 2000 being the other two). The records of those teams is 11-25.

The 2,000 yards isn't a telltale sign, but you can argue that it's an indicator of success for the Hawkeyes. It's certainly a marker for the strength of a defense and explained the "one dimensional" philosophy Iowa carried under Norm Parker.

It doesn't all go on the defensive line, most of which is closer to its high school proms than its sophomore year. It's a team thing, it's a leverage thing with Iowa's defensive philosophy.

That's another unknown here. Iowa will be a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Phil Parker, but will it be a two-gap or a one-gap philosophy? Two gap asks a D-lineman to control gaps through stacking and shedding a blocker. It's a tough task, relying on technique, power and experience. A defender is asked to read the play and pick the more vulnerable gap that they are responsible for.

One gap is simpler: The defender attacks the gap and takes care of business in that area.

Does that philosophy switch?

"If all you do is throw fast balls, you better be throwing it up near a hundred coming in, but if you can't throw it up that high, you better have a couple other things in your repertoire, at least one other good pitch," Ferentz said. "You get a guy off guard a little bit. I think that's what we'll have to do."

The translation there is Iowa football '12 is under construction and nowhere is that more evident than the defensive line.    

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