Iowa Football

Iowa football stars and new faces punch into a wide-open Big Ten West

Everyone is eager on media day, so let's tour some new names

IOWA CITY — Daviyon Nixon soon will cross off the two biggest things he’s looked forward to since he jumped on the path to Iowa.

The 6-4, 305-pounder was listed as an Iowa recruit during two different signing periods as an incoming recruit. In 2017, the sophomore defensive tackle from Kenosha, Wis., committed to the Hawkeyes out of Indian Trail High School. He failed to get into Iowa and then went to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs.

Nixon again was listed as an incoming recruit in the 2018 class.

He sat out 2018 as an academic redshirt. So, Nixon has seen a couple of Kids’ Days and two home openers.

Those are Nos. 1 and 2 on his list, he said Friday at the Hawkeyes’ annual media day.

“What I’m looking forward to most this fall is Kids’ Day, which is tomorrow, and the first game,” Nixon said. “Everyone is looking forward to the first game.”

The Hawkeyes begin 2019 predicted to finish first or sixth place in the Big Ten West Division, depending on which guess you throw any weight into. And that’s basically everyone in the Big Ten West. Everyone is picked to finish first and/or sixth. Except Illinois, which is a universal “seventh place.”

Where the Hawkeyes land depends on the stars playing like stars. That’s quarterback Nate Stanley, defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson.

With four underclassmen departing early for the NFL Draft, including a pair of tight ends, Iowa has a few more new faces in the two deeps than usual.

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If the stars have to be stars, the new faces have to hold up their end. Whatever level of contribution that may be.

Nixon is a backup defensive tackle. If the Hawkeyes want to hit the optimum rotation of eight players on the D-line, something defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said Friday that he’s starting to see, Nixon will need to be one of those eight.

“I bring a lot of energy and I try to bring a lot of happiness,” Nixon said. “The defensive line is always angry, so I try to make them laugh.”

Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said he loves his wide receivers room right now. The group does have a healthy stratification of experience and first-year exuberance. Juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette bring the experience with 51 combined receptions and five TDs. Redshirt freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy bring the exuberance.

“We have a highly competitive atmosphere in the wide receivers room,” said Tracy, a native of Camby, Ind. “We always compete at everything. Who’s the fastest? Who has the best feet? Who can catch the ball? Everything is about who’s the best. I think that’s been very healthy for us. If I’m pushing myself and he’s pushing himself, we’re pushing each other.”

Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson came out of spring practice as the No. 1 cash safety. He’s held on to that through the first week of camp. Last season, defensive coordinator Phil Parker went full-time with the “cash” safety. He picked strong safety Amani Hooker. Hooker showed range, fantastic open-field tackling, ball hawking and then he went to the NFL.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz has said the cash position now is in Iowa’s “DNA.” Johnson is ready to roam.

“No pressure, no pressure. The coaches set you up for success here,” Johnson said. “I’ve been around the ball a lot. I like that. This position lets you run around and get to the ball.”

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Believe it or not, center Tyler Linderbaum is technically a new face. Yes, he played in games last season, but he’s still a redshirt freshman and he was handed the keys to the center position before he even shed his ... well, he’s still wearing the No. 65 he wore last year as a defensive tackle.

It’s a build from the ground up and it started something like three days after the Nebraska season finale last fall.

“The next day I took snaps at center with one of the quarterbacks and coach Ferentz was out there helping me with the stance,” said Linderbaum, a Solon native. “This is what coach Ferentz wanted me to do. He’s been around for 20 years. I’m going to take this role and attack it, that was my mentality.”

One last new face is a really old face you just haven’t heard much from yet. Bell said he thinks he sees eight D-linemen. It’s a good bet junior Austin Schulte is one of those eight.

The 6-4, 287-pounder from Pella arrived at Iowa with the 2016 recruiting class. He suffered a torn ACL in the first game of his senior year at Pella. He tore it again during rehab.

It’s been a climb.

“The strength coaches were really helpful,” said Schulte, whose journey also included a stop on the offensive line (during bowl prep last December). “They basically took me from scratch and said, ‘We know your injuries, we’re going to build you back up to where you’re feeling as good as you can and be productive on the football field.’”

Schulte has made it this far. Nixon still is ticking. Tracy and Johnson are ready for blast off.

They’ll have roles. How well they perform will help the Hawkeyes land somewhere in the Big Ten West.

No one said Friday that a division championship window is open. But it is.

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

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