116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — This might surprise you, but it's rare for a Kirk Ferentz-led team to stray from the status quo.
That's by design, of course. There's a prevailing notion within the Iowa football program that if it's not broken, don't fix it. That's been especially true when it comes to Iowa's front seven, which has followed a pretty specific formula since 1999 — first under Norm Parker, and now under Phil Parker.
So what the Hawkeyes have planned for this season on the defensive line may not seem all that rare in general football terms, but in Iowa football terms, it sure is.
Hawkeye fans can expect to see guys like Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse rotate between defensive end and tackle. Only three players in Ferentz's time as head coach have started at both positions — Steve Bigach in 2011 and 2012, Christian Ballard in 2010 and Ed Saidat in 1999.
Hesse and the group already have admitted they're in the land of misfit toys. They're toys that defensive line coach Reese Morgan said will work well as a collective.
'It varies from day to day and we rotate guys in and out,' Morgan said. 'I think anybody that's listed in the two-deep and there's a couple other guys that are going to be in the mix. There's nobody that everyone's going, 'Wow.' But the sum of the parts is what we're looking for. The unit together is stronger than any one individual.
'We try to have guys play at one spot, right or left, and we've done that for years. But there are guys who flip flop. Typically ends play end and tackles play tackle, but we're going to cross train a few guys until we really get a good feel for what's the best combination.'
The players don't seem to care. They're not concerned with what was, only what will be. Of course, that's what you'd expect a Hawkeye player to say, but to a man, none of them hesitated when saying they believe this will work.
With Jaleel Johnson trying to latch on with the Minnesota Vikings currently, senior Nathan Bazata is the lone defensive tackle left with starting experience, which has left him as the dean of the defensive line. While he'll tell you even his starting spot is up for grabs, his leadership in bringing along the guys trying their hand at tackle for the first time has been vital to their improvement — and his.
'You come out here and tell guys what they're doing wrong,' Bazata said. 'It's fun to see guys grow. It helps me grow because I'm concentrating on the stuff I'm telling them.
'We keep guys fresher. It's going to help us out in the long run.'
Matt Nelson is listed as an OR with Anthony Nelson at defensive end, but at Kids Day — while freshman A.J. Epenesa announced his arrival as a disruptive defensive end — the elder Nelson played far more tackle than end, forcing a denial from Ferentz that he's exclusively a tackle.
Morgan said Matt's biggest challenge inside, at 6-8, is keeping his securing vertical leverage and keeping his pad level low. But for his part, Matt said his biggest adjustments have been vision and alignment — 'it's different but yet the same,' he said.
Iowa kind of has to be versatile this year, with the exit of Johnson, but with starter-level talent in both Nelsons, Hesse and now Epenesa, the want is there, too.
'If you've got guys playing inside and out, it can help you in the long run,' Matt Nelson said. 'Coach Morgan and Coach (Kelvin) Bell will settle on the rotation in the future.
'I like a challenge. I like (the depth) a lot. We've got a lot of guys competing and trying to get better. If you've got more guys competing, it's better for the team, better for the d-line.'
THE DEPTH CHART
LE — 1. Matt Nelson, jr., 6-8, 285 OR Anthony Nelson, so., 6-7, 260
LT — 1. Cedrick Lattimore, so., 6-5, 295; 2. Brady Reiff, so., 6-3, 260
RT — 1. Nathan Bazata, sr., 6-2, 287; 2. Garret Jansen, so., 6-2, 280
RE — 1. Parker Hesse, jr., 6-3, 257; 2. Sam Brincks, jr., 6-5, 275
NEXT MEN IN
A.J. Epenesa isn't listed on Iowa's initial two-deep, but no one with eyes on him at Kids Day — or really any time ever, to be honest — believes he won't be heavily involved in the rotation when the season kicks off against Wyoming.
Ferentz said after Kids Day how impressive Epenesa was and, tongue-in-cheek, said 'he definitely belongs on the varsity.' Epenesa has impressed everyone — Morgan and his teammates — so far while dominating attention from media and fans.
He's not the whole story, though, even if he's a huge part of what the Hawkeyes will be in 2017.
Cedrick Lattimore, listed opposite Bazata on the first two deep, got high marks from Morgan, citing he's 'bigger, tougher inside, grittier,' now. Also mentioned was Chauncey Golston — 'he's really coming around. He's becoming more physical and we really like that,' Morgan said — Brady Reiff, Brandon Simon Garret Jansen and Sam Brincks.
With Epenesa and the aforementioned ends-potentially-turned-tackles, that's 11 guys in the plans, with eight or so having a leg up.
'We have a first group and a second group,' Morgan said. 'We've been fortunate to have Jaleel, who's a dynamic game-changer; Faith (Ekakite), who really emerged into the player we thought he'd be when we recruited him. We've got guys in the group who are going to be approaching that. They're still trying to get their legs stronger and keep moving forward.'
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