116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Two years ago, a redshirt freshman Joe Evans faced the media after a breakout performance against Northwestern.
The young walk-on from Ames had just tallied his first career statistics as a Hawkeye, one solo tackle and one assist, while also adding a QB pressure and 1.5 sacks.
“I’ve never played defensive end before, so just figuring out the moves to work and whatnot,” Evans told reporters after the game. “Being a linebacker, you’re about 5 yards behind the ball, now you’re just one-on-one against the offensive line.”
In his half-sack, which forced a holding penalty on the Wildcats, Evans maneuvered his way to the outside of an offensive lineman, bursting around the edge before hooking quarterback Aidan Smith, who collapsed under additional pressure.
“I think I worked a stab club,” Evans said. “As I got around him, I saw the whole defensive line swarm around him.”
The game that stood out to Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, though, was against Minnesota that same year. Evans once again had 1.5 sacks, two solo stops and one assist.
“I think I speak for everybody when I say we have total confidence in Joe,” Ferentz said following this year’s first spring open practice in April, adding that his skill level was in line with that of fellow lesser-experienced, high-potential defensive linemen John Waggoner and Noah Shannon.
That 2019 season was enough to earn Evans a scholarship, which was announced in front of the whole team, but not caught on video. Ferentz likes these moments to be private and not flaunted like others that go viral on Twitter.
“Nobody jumps out of a cake and hands a scholarship paper to guys,” Ferentz said. “Joe has just been going hard ever since he got here. He just has such a high motor. The question was: is he going to be big enough to do some things? I'm thinking of the Minnesota game in '19, he helped give us a little juice out there.”
Evans finished the 2020 season with three solo tackles, four assists, two tackles for loss, one sack, four pressures and one pass break-up. From joining the team as a quarterback-turned-linebacker-turned-defensive lineman, Evans is now a regular competitor for the left end position.
Defensive line a work in progress
Senior Zach VanValkenburg commands the right edge as the most seasoned player on the defensive line after the departure of three players last year. The hope is, with the spring and fall camps, the defensive line won’t experience the learning curve it did in the first few games last year.
“When you come into camp, you don't want to be making the same mistakes twice,” VanValkenburg said. “Hopefully, by the time the first game comes around, you’re ready to go. John Waggoner, Noah Shannon and Joe Evans have all been great leaders and that’s really what's going to form the core of this unit.”
Evans and Waggoner played left end with the first-team offense in all three open practices. During the 2020 season, Waggoner recorded three assisted tackles and one quarterback pressure through four games of action. In 2019, he had one solo tackle, two assists and one sack.
“I feel like I'm prepared,” Waggoner said. “I try to pick out things each day in my game, so today it was pad level. I write that down and see how I did.”
The biggest questions remain on the interior, which seemed to struggle during the Kids Day scrimmage on Aug. 14. Starting defensive tackle Shannon wasn’t playing and, in his place, redshirt freshman Lukas Van Ness took the first-team reps. Yahya Black and Logan Lee were playing at the right tackle position.
Shannon is an undersized, 6-foot, 289-pounder, but makes up for it in other areas. Van Ness is 6-5, 264 pounds while Lee is the same height at 277 pounds. Black, the largest of the interior linemen on the depth chart, is the same height at 287 pounds.
“I feel for some guys like Yahya and Logan, like they're 6-5 in middle, so I believe it does help me staying low, keeping my pads low,” Shannon said. “I’m not the tallest guy, don’t have the longest arms, so my technique has to be spot-on every play.”
To get to the level of consistency the line needs, players focus on Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell’s four fundamentals: leverage, blow delivery, separation and locating the ball.
“We focus in the D-line room on attention to detail and honest self-evaluation,” Evans said. “I really just wanted to focus on improving in the weight room, whether that'd be my speed or my strength. I'm not the biggest guy in the world, but trying to work on the run game, getting my pads down and getting faster as I come off the edge.”
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