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IOWA CITY — Iowa is used to replenishing its defensive line with new faces every year.
After losing Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin to the NFL, the hope is that this year will just be the same song, different verse.
“When you're in a program where your head coach has been in place 20-plus years, your defensive coordinator in place 20-plus years and you have a system that's proven to be successful, you don't change a lot from year to year,” Iowa assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann said on Wednesday. “That’s in terms of schemes, fundamentals and techniques taught.”
Iowa returns second-team All-Big Ten senior defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg on the edge. VanValkenburg tied for first nationally with four fumble recoveries last season and tallied 30 tackles, including 14 solo, 8.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks.
During the spring, Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said the older guys up front, including VanValkenburg and juniors Noah Shannon and John Waggoner are the current leaders of the group. Junior Joe Evans, a former walk-on, was also put on scholarship in 2020 for his performance.
Having spring football back was something noted as an advantage going into this season as opposed to last. It took Iowa a few games to build consistency on the line last year.
“By the time you start in fall camp, it had been a whole year since we played and we were rusty,” VanValkenburg said following the final spring practice on May 1. “No matter how many drills you do on your own, nothing can simulate full contact like football. You get a lot better cohesion when you're able to practice together.”
This offseason, VanValkenburg said he’s been working on better flipping his hips to the outside in his blocking to garner more power and control in fending off blockers on the edge. He hopes he can become more consistent on either side.
Waggoner saw action in three games with three assisted tackles and one quarterback pressure last year after battling COVID-19 midseason. In 2019, Waggoner played in 10 games with one solo tackle, two assists and 1.5 for loss. But this season, he expects his role to increase, and he has to be ready for it.
“I tried to look at those opportunities in the past as opportunities to learn from guys who have done it before,” Waggoner said. “Anthony Nelson, a big thing for him was always his hand placement was always precise and so that's how he could defeat blocks so I always looked up to that and tried to emulate that.”
Many of the younger players expected to play increased roles on the defensive line were out with injuries during the spring, including redshirt freshmen Yahya Black, Lukas Van Ness and Logan Jones and sophomore Logan Lee. All are expected to play a role this fall.
“Those guys are now going to be asked to step up into roles where maybe they played 15-20 snaps last year, and they're going to have to go up to 45-50 snaps,” Niemann said. “I think they're on pace to do that. They just need to have a good summer and a good fall camp.”
That did allow for 6-foot, 261-pound sophomore Louie Stec to make a case for his potential as a regular at defensive tackle. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz mentioned him as one of two “iron men,” of the spring to allow the defensive line to develop. The other was junior Matt Fagan.
Stec, a walk-on from the Nazareth Academy out of LaGrange Park, Ill., was an unlikely star who took advantage of a line riddled with injuries by making the most of every rep.
“You won't find a guy who gives you a better effort, and you won't find a guy who's a better team guy with a better attitude,” Niemann said. “We did have some injuries in the D-line this spring that weren't long-term injuries, but it just afforded people like Louie more opportunities to get on the field. It was a real pleasant surprise. We found out some things about him that we wouldn't have known had those other guys been healthy the whole time.”
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