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IOWA CITY — Iowa senior defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg stuttered on a question about the defense winning the day Saturday at the team’s final open spring practice.
“It was back and forth throughout spring ball,” VanValkenburg said.
The defensive line’s overhaul has been the talk of the offseason for the second year in a row, seeking to replace Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Golston and Jack Heflin. But it seemed off to a good start during spring ball on Saturday, threatening starting junior running back Tyler Goodson and the passing game by all three quarterbacks, who were simultaneously struggling with a menacing wind.
But VanValkenburg, the second-team all-Big Ten starting defensive end who led the nation with four fumble recoveries, said there’s still work to do.
“I think there are some areas where we're short on the depth chart,” VanValkenburg said. “I think we did a really good job. There weren't very many scheme mistakes, missed executions or assignments. The biggest challenge is a lot of these younger guys are on the scout team the first year, so they're executing the defense of the teams we play. Spring ball is a really good opportunity for them to get acquainted with our defense.”
Notable younger guys who stepped up were players like sophomore defensive tackle Louie Stec and junior defensive end Joe Evans, who saw significant reps against the first- and second-team offenses in both games.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz commended the 6-foot, 261-pound Stec the previous practice as not being the tallest, but having good leverage as a defensive tackle. Because of injuries, Stec took advantage of the playing time he was given, and it showed once again on Saturday when Ferentz brought up his contributions.
“Kudos to Matt Fagan and Louie Stec, they were the ironmen of the spring on our lines,” Ferentz said. “I don’t think those guys missed barely anything, so they enabled us to go.”
Fagan, a 6-foot-5, 294-pound junior offensive lineman, like Stec, has yet to play in a regular-season game. Another young face on the defensive line’s interior last Saturday was redshirt freshman Lukas Van Ness, who played with first- and second-team defenses.
Former walk-on and now scholarship junior Joe Evans, who has shifted position groups throughout his time at Iowa, traded with John Waggoner at times on the edge, sharing time with VanValkenburg on the other side, and saw some action at the tackle position on Saturday.
“He’s one of my favorite guys in the room,” VanValkenburg said. “He goes hard every day.”
VanValkenburg said Evans arrived on campus as a quarterback out of high school and has gained at least 30 pounds since.
The 6-foot-2, 248-pound defensive lineman started out in the linebackers group before shifting to the defensive line. He’s seen action in eight games in each of his past two seasons. During his 2020 shift, Evans recorded three solo tackles, two for loss, one sack, four pressures and one pass break-up.
Ferentz referred to him as a “total player” during Saturday’s news conference.
Ferentz still was hesitant to express confidence in his defense after just 15 days of spring ball. But he said he’s seeing the progressions Nixon made from 2019 to ’20 in VanValkenburg.
Where he does feel confident is in the backfield. He said there were at least six starters established, especially since the defense tends to put a player in the cash position, a linebacker and defensive back hybrid.
Some of the backfield faces mentioned included junior safety Kaevon Merriweather, senior safety Riley Moss, junior corner Terry Roberts and linebackers Jack Campbell and Jestin Jacobs.
“(Junior) Kaevon Merriweather has emerged as not just a good player, but a leader,” Ferentz said. “He was kind of a project when we recruited him.”
Merriweather’s background was rooted in basketball when he arrived on campus, but the junior who started five games last season has shown not only coaches, but fans, he’s a potential playmaker, grabbing interceptions at both open practices.
But Ferentz also mentioned Jacobs as an emerging piece of the linebacker unit out of spring football.
“Jestin Jacobs has made huge improvement, he’s needed this work so badly,” Ferentz said. “He’s always been a good prospect but he's gotten some confidence.”
Ferentz noted the cornerbacks are developing into a position he feels more confident about, listing sophomore Sebastian Castro, sophomore Jermari Harris and junior Terry Roberts, who was out on Saturday due to injury.
“The only negative I see right now is we had a lot of guys out right now,” Ferentz said. “We didn’t experience that in the fall. Not dramatic or as a result of trauma, just those things happen sometimes.”
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