Iowa Football

Iowa 2020 depth chart projections: The D-line is the work in front of them

The portal came up, but you know the Iowa staff isn't going to hope and punch the F5 key waiting for gold to drop out of the computer

Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston (57) reacts after intercepting a pass against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston
Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston (57) reacts after intercepting a pass against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (Associated Press)
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IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz met the media recently to talk about the February signing day for recruiting and spring practice and a little whatnot.

Part of the whatnot was 2020. A lot of the Hawkeyes’ expectations next season rest with a defensive line that has lost seven starters in the last two seasons. The Iowa head coach outlined the 2020 defensive line conversation with this:

“Guys like Parker (Hesse, a 2018 grad), guys like Chauncey Golston (DE1 going into 2020), you just see them growing and maturing every year,” Ferentz said. “That’s the work that’s in front of us right now, the guys who are on our roster.”

The question was if the Hawkeyes would sort through the transfer portal for help.

“If someone is out there who makes sense, we’ll certainly look at it,” he said.

Here’s how easy that isn’t: Remember Mike Danna? He was a pass rush specialist who exhausted his eligibility with a fine senior season at Central Michigan. He wanted to grad transfer and, of course, he heard from the Hawkeyes. And Florida, UCLA, Michigan State, Virginia Tech and Arizona State. Michigan finally called. Danna grew up a half-hour from Michigan Stadium and that was that.

The 2020 D-line and the guys on Iowa’s roster are the work in front of the Iowa staff right now.

Stopping the run always will be No. 1. Of course, when your D-line loses that much production and experience, including a pair of early NFL draft entries, that will be a question.

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It brings up the question of strengths and weaknesses and how you want your defense to look and function.

Everyone craves consistency and stability. You want the button to work when you push it.

When it comes to defense, the easiest button is pass rush. Yes, it’s one of the most difficult chores in football and those who are good get paid handsomely. It also gives defenses the idea that it has something to count on, something that’s exposed to fewer variables than anything else in the passing game.

Well, A.J. Epenesa is off to get paid, handsomely, and the Iowa defense will look different in 2020.

The “look” thing, you’ve had some time now for that to settle in. Epenesa announced his decision to leave a year early for the NFL in January. You already knew defensive tackles Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore were seniors.

Couple Epenesa’s departure with natural attrition and the NFL, the Hawkeyes have lost massive amounts of production on the D-line in the last three years. From 2017, Iowa has waved goodbye to Matt Nelson, Hesse, Anthony Nelson, Epenesa (all four are or will be in the NFL), Lattimore, Reiff and Sam Brincks.

That’s a lot of snaps and sacks and bodies that did the D-line things Iowa football wants, the two-gap wrestle with guard or beating an OT off the edge or playing assignment football against spread-run teams. That’s goodbye to a lot of weight room-matured bodies, too.

So, now for the real work of spring and camp. The Iowa staff has to know what it has and has to find out who can do what and then shape itself for 2020, which is yet another variable,

Iowa’s 2020 includes Ohio State and QB Justin Fields, Penn State and QB Sean Clifford, Minnesota and QB Tanner Morgan, Nebraska and QB Adrian Martinez and Iowa State and QB Brock Purdy. Oh yeah, the Hawkeyes also face Minnesota six days after Iowa State. Two trophy games in six days is a lot.

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That’s a lot of variables, but defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s defenses have been the beasts of burden. You know what they always say. They don’t ask who started the fire, they just put it out.

Maybe Iowa relies a little more on coverage in ‘20, where it has a few openings and a bunch of bodies. Maybe the “edge defender” concept defensive line coach Kelvin Bell introduced last season morphs into something more than a handful of downs. Maybe a couple of pass rushers drop out of the transfer portal, but does that seem like a sound option? It does not.

The bar is high for Iowa’s defense. The Hawkeyes’ defenses in 2018-19 were among the best of the Ferentz era. Iowa’s 14.0 points allowed in ’19 was the second-best of the KF era. These also were amazingly disruptive defenses. The 33 sacks the Hawkeyes had last year was the fourth-most of the KF era.

But yes, a huge element of what brought that walked out the door in January and will be a first-round pick. The narrative will be “hey, look at how much the Hawkeyes lost on defense,” but Parker has earned the benefit of the doubt. Some assembly will be required for Iowa defense 2020, but you already knew that.

Defensive end

Chauncey Golston (sr.) — You probably don’t remember the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl except for the fact that the Hawkeyes beat Boston College in a close game. It was night and cold and Yankee Stadium. If you were paying super close attention, you saw redshirt freshman defensive end Chauncey Golston get some snaps.

Golston (6-5, 270) had 3.5 sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss as a sophomore part-timer. He barely left the field as a junior last season and had 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.

 

It begs the question of role and how Golston was used. First, Golston isn’t Epenesa. They have similar bodies, but Epenesa has high-end athleticism blended with an eye for technique and set up. His dad was an Iowa defensive lineman. That’s a great head start. There’s probably not going to be another one at Iowa.

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Beyond that, Golston lined up 77 times at defensive tackle in pass rush situations. According to Pro Football Focus, Golston provided pressure on 6.1 percent of his passing downs. For Epenesa, it was 13.4 percent. Golston finished the season with 29 pressures, while Epenesa had 60.

Don’t assume Epenesa impact and numbers for Golston. It could happen, but don’t assume it.

You saw a lot of growth from Golston in the running game last season. Iowa State QB Brock Purdy found space with the read-option game in the first half. Golston checked his eyes and shut that down in the second. Offenses averaged 4.5 yards per carry going Golston’s way.

Golston’s development has been a team thing. Coming out of East English Village Prep (Detroit, Mich., and Desmond King’s alma mater), he had to gain weight and learn the game on this level. He’s earned every inch of having a shot at doing something major as a senior.

Next DE in

If the left defensive end spot ends up being the strong technique run defender in 2020, you’ll probably see a rotation between Golston and sophomore John Waggoner (6-5, 270). The pass rush production will be wait and see, but that duo would play the run well and Iowa is good with that.

Of course, there’s opportunity at the other DE spot, and Waggoner probably has his eyes on that this winter. Is Waggoner really an inside D-lineman? Probably not this year, but with Bell introducing and actually using an “edge defender” concept in 2019, these guys seems less wrapped up in “where” they line up.

 
 

Defensive tackle

Daviyon Nixon (jr.) — Once in a while, we get to see the stories where the players go back to their schools and tell a good tale of perseverance.

In January, the Kenosha (Wis.) News covered junior DT Daviyon Nixon giving a speech at Lincoln Middle School in his hometown of Kenosha. He told the students about identifying and overcoming a learning disability. He talked about almost being held back in middle school and working hard to graduate from Indian Trail High School.

Nixon loves learning now. He worked hard to get there. Everything seems to be on a path now.

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What could “everything” look like for the 6-3, 309-pounder? Well, he did talk about chasing his NFL dream, along with his studies, at the University of Iowa.

After playing the 2017 season at Iowa Western Community College, Nixon took an academic redshirt in 2018. Nearly two years after signing with Iowa, Nixon hit the field for the first time last fall.

As a sophomore, Nixon played 336 snaps, seeing more than 50 percent of defensive snaps in five games. As a pass rusher, Nixon made some noise. He led Iowa’s defensive tackles with 21 overall pressures (Lattimore had 16). Nixon finished with three sacks and five QB hurries.

Nixon can move. That translated to some position flexibility. On a few passing downs, Golston lined up inside with Nixon switching to end.

Iowa needs Nixon to be a full-service defensive tackle. His stability could lead to some position flexibility somewhere else, but Iowa needs Nixon to be THE inside force for around 400-plus snaps next season. You know, if the Iowa defense is going to look like the traditional Iowa defense, and why would you not want that?

Next DT in

Noah Shannon (6-0, 294) is going into the football biological alarm clock year, the redshirt sophomore. This is three years in the program. He played 58 snaps last season, so he dipped a toe in and, theoretically, should be hungry for a ton more in 2020. Part of Shannon’s deal in 2019 was a stinger injury. It was serious enough that Bell volunteered the info after the season ended. So, that was a factor in 58 snaps. Shannon should be in line for rotational snaps (300ish), but there’s no reason to cap this. If he wants a bigger role, take it.

 
 

Defensive tackle

Austin Schulte (sr.) OR Logan Lee (fr.) — It’d be awesome if this broke down neatly enough where we didn’t have to do the “OR” thing, but you read what Ferentz said at the beginning of this. “That’s the work in front of us right now.”

No one knows a ton about the D-line depth because in 2019. The Hawkeyes basically used five D-linemen. Last season was Epenesa and Golston at DE and Brady Reiff, Cedrick Lattimore and Nixon at DTs. Epenesa played the most snaps (more than 700); and Nixon the least at 336.

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After that it was Austin Schulte at 186 snaps. The 6-4, 287-pounder from Pella hit 50 percent of the defensive snaps in three games before the Big Ten season began. At that point, Schulte’s snaps went into the low teens percentage-wise.

It was Schulte’s first year of doing stuff on the field. The 2016 recruit suffered a torn ACL in the first game of his senior year at Pella. He tore it again during rehab. That’s why it took so long for him to see his first action. Also, he was an offensive lineman at the beginning of last spring. It’s been a bit of a journey.

Schulte had 12 tackles, a tackle for loss and a QB hurry in 2019. He also had five pressures.

Logan Lee (6-5, 251) seemed to be on a track for playing time as a true freshman. Last August during the annual scrimmage, Lee saw reps as a No. 2 and they were good reps. Maybe Lee was one D-line injury from playing, but he did end up taking the redshirt.

The 251 pounds? At defensive tackle? Yeah, that’d be a toughie. Let’s not dwell on weight right now. That was the weight listed when Lee arrived at Iowa. Just eyeballing while at the Holiday Bowl, maybe 265? 270?

Here’s one thing we do know about Lee, he doesn’t mess around at practice. He was named three times and in a different month each time. Shows that the Orion, Ill., native values rep time.

I’m mostly taking a redshirt freshman with zero playing time and putting him high in the conversation for starting because of this: When Lee was recruited out of Orion, it was offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz doing the talking and Lee was headed to tight end.

Before he even arrived in Iowa City, Lee was asked to move to defensive end. It was a quick yes. Then, last August, who’s that at defensive tackle? Well, Lee.

This is a team-first dude. You know how that plays in this program.

By the way, here was Lee’s high-five from the coaches for that scout team thing: “That’s kind of disappointing, because he should be there every week,” D-line coach Kelvin Bell said. “That’s my expectation for him.”

OK, changes positions when asks, responds to high demands from the coaching staff.

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“He’s one of the most studious guys we have in the room,” Bell said. “He’s always asking questions. His future is bright.”

Lee listens to how everyone is coached and applies it to himself. That can go pretty far in football and really far inside the Hansen.

That all said, one thing Ferentz was clear about when Lee’s name came up in bowl prep was he’s not tied to one position. He’s practiced at DT and DE, so we’ll see.

Next DT in

I’m going to slide a few true freshmen in here. I really don’t want to get too far ahead of myself and make some promises for these guys that are impossible. Still, really liked everything from Iowa people on Isaiah Bruce. The 6-2, 265 pounder from Lena, Ill., was clocked at 4.6 in the 40-yard dash and rushed for 1,052 yards and 16 TDs as a senior and. In Class 1A track last spring, Bruce finished seventh in the shot put and ran on the 4x100 and 4x200 relays.

I get a Mike Daniels vibe. Daniels was a 6-0 prep fullback from New Jersey with an offer from FCS Villanova. From Ferentz to recruiting director Tyler Barnes, it feels like Iowa believes it found something with Bruce.

Maybe Logan Jones fits in somewhere. The 6-3, 260-pounder from Council Bluffs is a U.S. Army All American. Defensive line assistant Jay Niemann described Jones as “rocked up.”

Former Iowa D-line coach and state of Iowa recruiter extraordinaire Reese Morgan compared Jones to Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, Ferentz said.

“Tyler is kind of understated, kind of a quiet guy,” Ferentz said. “Logan is pretty quiet, but both are very focused and very serious guys. We think he’s a really good football player.”

Recently on the recruiting trail, Ferentz met up with a coach from the U.S. Army Bowl.

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“He talked about him being 15 minutes early for every practice, every meeting. The guy’s just serious,” Ferentz said. “That made us feel good. That’s who we thought he was and that’s who he was down there. It’s nice to get that feedback.”

Jones could have the same position flexibility as Linderbaum, who jumped over to center after spending his true freshman year at Iowa as a defensive tackle, but Ferentz said D-line for sure for now.

Defensive end

Zach VanValkenburg (sr.) OR John Waggoner (so.) OR Joe Evans (so.) — Iowa released a January depth chart once, and that was to announce that C.J. Beathard would be QB1 in 2015. There hasn’t been a depth chart released this spring. This position might illustrate why.

It’s all speculation and projection. No one knows. The coaches have plans and notions, but even they’ll need to see spring practice and they’d be the first to tell you that.

As Ferentz said, “That’s the work in front of us.”

VanValkenburg (6-4, 270) arrived in Iowa City last summer after transferring from Hillsdale (Mich.) College, a Division II school. As a junior last year, he played a little more than 100 snaps. Waggoner had 78 snaps. With Epenesa around and the insertion of the standup DE, neither had much of a chance to rush the passer, with their run defense snaps nearly doubling their pass-rush opportunities.

We don’t know if they can consistently put pressure on the QB. They might not know, either. That’s just one measure of a DE, but, given Epenesa’s departure and everything that went out the door with it, it’s the metric I’m kind of stuck on.

This DE spot can work this way: VanValkenburg and Waggoner are classically built Iowa strong ends. They could be first and second down. They’re a pair of big rigs and you know how Parker feels about stopping the run. Iowa never wants it to be easy.

And then Joe Evans (6-2, 240) could be the third-down pass-rush guy. Last spring, Bell introduced the possibility of “edge defenders,” more a body to do what the defense needs than a “one size fits all” defensive end.

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Evans only saw three snaps in the first half of the season and ended with just 69, but he did damage. Evans’ 4.0 sacks were No. 2 on the team behind Epenesa’s 11.5. Evans tied for fifth on the team with 10 total pressures (Epenesa had 60, so yeah).

Evans was a designated pass rusher and he was effective, especially given the fact that the majority of his snaps didn’t come until the last six games.

Can Evans be a full-service DE? Absolutely. He could be Nate Meier II. Lots of “coulds” with the D-line.

That’s the work in front of them.

Next DE in

Who’s left?

Jake Karchinski (6-4, 253), Chris Reames (6-7, 230) and Taajhir McCall (6-3, 231) will be redshirt freshmen this fall. Walk-on Nathan Nelson (6-3, 252) might have a shot here.

It’s impossible to know where they are in development. It’s easy to see why people are eyeing the portal. Is it the right answer? Iowa could use a proven body or two here, but these are the players they actually have. Yes, Iowa is checking the portal, but Ferentz isn’t sitting there crushing the F5 key. The staff is more into the work in front of them.

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

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