INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Maybe it was a bit of a surprise that Anthony Nelson left the Hawkeyes for the NFL a season early.
The 2019 draft class is full of defensive linemen who put up big numbers with blue-blood programs. Let’s start with Michigan’s Rashan Gary and then go to Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and, hey, let’s not forget Kentucky’s Josh Allen.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz picked up on this in December.
“Like this year, there are 8 million defensive linemen who are going to go high this year, so if you’re a defensive lineman thinking about coming out, you’d better handicap the field a little bit,” Ferentz said.
Maybe he wasn’t talking about Nelson, who announced in early January that he would skip his senior season at Iowa and enter the NFL Draft. Nelson had 23.0 sacks and 31.0 tackles for loss in 39 games for the Hawkeyes.
After the Outback Bowl, Nelson put on the parachute and jumped out of the Iowa airplane eyes wide open.
“Iowa means a lot to me. The people there, all of my teammates, all the fans,” Nelson said during his interview Saturday at the combine. “Just talking to my family, my mom, dad and my brother, and people in my life, coaches, coach (Kirk) Ferentz, both coach (Reese) Morgan and coach (Kelvin) Bell, I just decided it was best for me. I’m ready to compete at the highest level.
“I want that competition. That’s what I was going on, striving to be the best and this is the step I need to take.”
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Nelson’s family is a good one to lean on for football stuff. His dad, Jeff, played defensive line for the Hawkeyes in the early ’90s.
It was never a “stage dad” thing for Anthony and Jeff.
“He’s proud of me, man,” Anthony said. “All of my family is. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. I think it’s pride for him because he knows he’s a big part of this and he’s one of the main reasons that I’m able to stand here and do what I’m doing now. He’s just enjoyed it and watched it from afar and let the process unfold.”
One of the coolest things last season for Nelson was to be able to play football with this brother. Nathan Nelson is a 6-3, 230-pound walk-on who’ll be a redshirt freshman next fall.
“It was awesome,” Anthony said. “When I went to college, it was a big-time commitment and he was always playing sports, too, so we didn’t get as much time together as we wanted. Having him there this year was really nice, man, just getting to see him every day, being on the same schedule and helping him through drills, it was awesome.
“It was awesome to see how much better he’s gotten from day 1 to now. He’s excited for the opportunity to work.”
Part of the combine experience is a check on football IQ. NFL personnel staffs have players draw up concepts on a whiteboard during informal meetings. Nelson said Iowa had him ready for that.
Another element Nelson pointed to was the day-to-day in practice. During his time at Iowa, he banged heads with Ike Boettger (Buffalo Bills), Boone Myers and, the last couple of years, Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson.
“Those guys by far were the best that I played against, which was a huge advantage on Saturday,” Nelson said. “When you’re playing against better guys in practice, it’s easier in the game. But it is challenging, it’s something that makes you work. But those guys are incredible. I know those two and I know how they work, they’re going to be even better this year.”
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It’s easy to make this jump now because Nelson will soon be getting paid to play football, but if there was a position where the Hawkeyes could maybe afford an early departure to the NFL, you could make an argument for defensive end.
The Hawkeyes will return junior A.J. Epenesa, who led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks (one ahead of Nelson’s 9.5), and junior Chauncey Golston, who might’ve been one of Iowa’s most improved players on defense last season.
“A.J. and Chauncey, they’re going to be great,” Nelson said. “I expect nothing less than what they showed me every day in practice and in games.
“You guys saw it. There’s no worries at defensive end for the Hawkeyes. Those two are great guys, they’re going to be great leaders for the defense and they’re going to be making plays for you.”
Nelson has talked with a handful of teams here, including the Packers and Buccaneers. Nelson expects his versatility and range will help him slide into a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense.
He did what he needed to do at Iowa to get to the combine and, soon, into the NFL.
“I loved my time at Iowa,” the Waukee native said. “I hope I did enough to make Hawkeye fans proud and win some games for the black and gold. For me, it was just competing. I wanted to be the best and this is a step that I took because I want to play against the best. I want that opportunity.”
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