Iowa Football

Checking in with Iowa D-line coach Reese Morgan

Iowa's D-line has changed some since December, and the answers might already be lifting weights in the Hansen

Iowa defensive line coach Reese Morgan speaks with players during Kids' Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive line coach Reese Morgan speaks with players during Kids' Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Iowa defensive line was different when coach Reese Morgan spoke to reporters in December.

Then, the Iowa D-line coach had three senior starters going into the bowl game. Anthony Nelson and his NFL early entry was already out there, but it had yet to become official. That’s official now.

There were questions about Daviyon Nixon, too, but Morgan gave him positive reviews. Nixon has put his name in the transfer portal and head coach Kirk Ferentz said Thursday “we’ll see how that goes.”

Reserve D-linemen Brandon Simon and Garret Jansen were still on the roster. Now, they’re in the portal.

So, a lot has changed.

In the last three seasons, Iowa has rotated as many as eight D-linemen. Ferentz said he’s hoping for six in 2019 and doesn’t see eight happening.

That’s a lot of stuff. One thing that probably won’t be stripped out in one season is the culture that seniors Parker Hesse, Sam Brincks and Matt Nelson helped instill.

Yes, that is one of those magic football words that you can’t quantify or make an analytic out of, but you see the results.

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It’s why A.J. Epenesa has 5-star ability and the work ethic of a player trying to prove himself. Chauncey Golston was a slower build, but he’s certainly the bookend at defensive end to Epenesa next year.

Morgan articulated last season’s culture within the D-line. You can thumbs up or thumbs down it. In the end, it’s not what they say, it’s what they do.

Last season, the results were there. The 35 sacks were the most for the Hawkeyes since 2000. In the Outback Bowl, Iowa’s pass rush was the equal to Mississippi State’s tremendous rush defense.

“You have to arrive here whether you’re from Iowa or anywhere else with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder,” Morgan said. “You can’t act entitled, you can’t act like you’ve got it made. There’s a whole growth process, and it starts with the weight room, starts with the training, starts with your demeanor, your body language, everything around the building goes toward a certain goal.

“Coach Ferentz has got expectations on and off the field. Once those guys understand — I use the word culture — the ‘environment’ here and the guys embody that, that’s when they start stepping forward. It means a lot.”

Last season, the phrase that kept popping up in the Iowa defensive line room Morgan said was “Are you playing football or are you a football player?”

“There’s a big difference. A lot of our guys are football players.”

Numbers-wise on the snap counts, against Mississippi State, Brincks, Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson played between 42 and 55 snaps. Seniors Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff, the two likely starters at tackle this spring, played 23 and 21, respectively, backing up Brincks and Matt Nelson.

Epenesa and Golston played 34 and 32, respectively, in rotational roles with Hesse and Anthony Nelson.

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After the 2016 season, then-Hawkeye defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson finished with 668 snaps, around 51 per game. With a projected starting lineup of Epenesa, Golston, Lattimore and Reiff, who currently on the Iowa roster is capable of picking up 20 to 30 snaps a game?

It’s all projection. Dalles Jacobus and Nathan Nelson, two walk-on possibilities on the inside, didn’t practice during Outback week because of injuries. Austin Schulte, another possibility on the inside, began bowl practices as an offensive lineman, moving over from the defense. Schulte is now back on defense. Sophomore Levi Duwa (6-3, 270) is back on the D-line after spending last season working as a center.

Redshirt Noah Shannon has the size at 6-1, 300, but he’s not played a snap. Same for redshirt freshman John Waggoner, whose 6-5, 245-pound frame might make him a candidate for inside or outside.

More true freshmen have played on the defensive line for Iowa in recent years. Lattimore played nearly 100 snaps as a true frosh in 2016. Epenesa also played as a true freshman in 2017.

In December, Iowa signed three defensive linemen in the first round of recruiting. Chris Reames (6-7, 225), Jake Karchinski (6-4, 245) and Jalen Hunt (6-3, 260) are probable redshirts. Could tight end commit Logan Lee try defensive end? Let’s not start that, at least not yet.

Last year, under the new rule that allowed freshmen to play four games without losing a redshirt, Iowa played just one (Tyler Linderbaum) lineman. Shannon and Waggoner didn’t see snaps. Linderbaum has since moved to center and that’s where he’s likely staying, Ferentz said Thursday.

Now, player acquisition isn’t over. Iowa has five or six scholarships for the Feb. 6 signing period. Also, Nixon could have his status clear and he could still be on a depth chart this spring and finally see the field after two years of clearing academic hurdles.

“You have to look at every possibility,” Ferentz said. “That’s a position of opportunity for the younger guys, for them to really grow and develop. ... Anyone out there has an opportunity.”

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Ferentz isn’t banking on a recruiting miracle. You know the names of the four starters along the D-line for 2019, and you probably know the names of Nos. 5 and 6. Are they Shannon and Waggoner?

That’s what the 15 spring practices and the seven months of college football run-up are for.

Yes, of course, Ferentz and the Iowa staff will be checking out the transfer portal. As you can imagine, that is a bit of a feeding frenzy.

“The bottom line is the roster we discussed as a staff when we went through our personnel evaluations, those are the guys we’ve got to coach,” Ferentz said. “Those are the guys we’ve got to really invest in. That’s been the tradition of our program.

“We’ve lost some really good players, but we also have some guys who are really good players right now and we also have some guys we hope are Josh Jackson (who had one big year at cornerback in 2017 and then went pro). Where a year from now, we’re saying ‘What a story that was.’

“When we have good teams, that’s how it works. The real work will get done in this building. If we can fortify our overall roster, that’s great. We can’t bank on a wish and a prayer right now, we can’t do that.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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