Iowa Football

Iowa defense, special teams preview: Lots of bodies, not a ton of questions

Hawkeyes should have depth on the defensive line; and it all comes down to an Aussie punter (kidding, it shouldn't come down to that)

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Dane Belton (4) and linebacker Jack Campbell (31) stop Purdue Boilermakers tight end Brycen
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Dane Belton (4) and linebacker Jack Campbell (31) stop Purdue Boilermakers tight end Brycen Hopkins (89) in the first quarter of their NCAA football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

You’re going to look at Iowa’s defensive line in 2020 and immediately you’re going to see A.J. Epenesa did indeed leave early and, hey, he had a sack last week for the Buffalo Bills.

Epenesa made the NFL leap last December. You are most definitely over it. What makes the water choppy for 2020 Iowa is the bite that has been taken out of the Hawkeyes defensive line the last few years. Epenesa is gone, and so are veteran tackles Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore. Matt Nelson, Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse and Sam Brincks have all gone through.

This sets up to be a year where you’ll hear names like Zach VanValkenburg, Joe Evans and Matt Lorbeck and stop for a minute and think “Division II transfer senior end,” “walk-on from Ames who might end up your favorite player” and “ ... Northern Illinois potential pass rush specialist.” Your friend at the tailgate will high five you for being his handy Hawkeye information receptacle.

This knowledge will be desperately needed when true freshman defensive end Deontae Craig records a sack against [fill in Big Ten West rival]. Remember, this year doesn’t count for anyone. Yes, the short prep and nine games in nine weeks does cut off a lot of development, but if someone has an outstanding talent for, say, rushing the passer, a defensive coach is less likely to care about an overall game.

In other words, 2020 is the year of “if it works, don’t fix it ... and don’t worry about it too much, because nine games in nine weeks.”

Defensive line

Senior Chauncey Golston will continue to be an overall disruptive force from a defensive end spot. He’s not the premium pass rusher that Epenesa is, but 20 hurries and six hits will work. If Golston doesn’t stay at end in pass-rushing situations, he will slide inside to tackle, something he’s done the last two seasons.

There will need to be some sorting for the other end. In passing situations, Evans has a real shot. In just a dozen or so pass-rush snaps last year, Evans had four sacks, three hits and four hurries.

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Evans is listed 6-2, 240. His body still is making the transition from “walk-on maybe linebacker” to three-down defensive end. VanValkenburg and sophomore John Waggoner could start here, too.

Defensive tackle got a boost this summer when Northern Illinois defensive tackle Jack Heflin transferred in. Heflin is a 6-4, 310-pounder who steadily improved through his NIU career and progressed to one of the dominant defensive tackles in the MAC. He earned second-team all-MAC in 2019 with team highs in sacks (3.0) and tackles for loss (8.5). In 2018, Heflin made third-team all-MAC with 6.0 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss.

He should fit nicely next to junior Daviyon Nixon, who should probably not leave the field. The 6-3, 305-pounder saw most of his time at tackle, but did some work at DE in pass rush. Nixon was disruptive in his first season, piling up 3.0 sacks, seven QB hits and 11 hurries.

Redshirt freshman Logan Lee (6-5, 270), senior Austin Schulte (6-4, 287) and sophomore Noah Shannon (6-0, 294) should find plenty of work, but nine games in nine weeks probably cuts down lineup experiments.

Linebackers

HawkeyeNation.com’s Rob Howe reported this week that linebacker Djimon Colbert will opt out of the 2020 season. This means and only means he would be out for 2020. His scholarship will remain when he returns for his junior year in 2021.

That does change plans a bit. Colbert was looking at his third year in the lineup after starting most of the last three seasons. Colbert’s absence would open the door for two players.

As a true freshman last year, Jack Campbell showed physical signs he could play middle linebacker. He burned his redshirt and found himself in the lineup at Northwestern. He was slow on a read and that was enough for Dillon Doyle to take over. Campbell didn’t show up much after that in 2019, but he’s 6-4 and should be in the 230-range.

Having a middle linebacker with a 6-4 frame could be really interesting, especially if Campbell finishes the way he started 2019.

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Senior Nick Niemann has always seemed to need a home, especially with Iowa’s defense transitioning to a 4-2-5 with a cash safety. The outside linebacker has basically been edited out and replaced by a safety. So, Niemann roamed around last year. Then, Colbert suffered an injury and was taken out of the Holiday Bowl. Niemann came in and had a sack and a pick-6.

With Colbert’s absence, Iowa is suddenly young at inside linebacker, but you’re still going to want to mark the progress of some young players (Jestin Jacobs).

Secondary

You know the names, you might not know where they’ll all fit. They might not know, either.

Senior Matt Hankins is one of the corners. Junior Jack Koerner will be one of the safeties. After those two, it’s probably who’s a better corner between Julius Brents and Riley Moss and then who’s a better strong safety between Moss and sophomore Dane Belton?

Six bodies for five spots. If there’s a surprise in the shortened camp, it’ll be a good surprise, as in more depth or flexibility show up.

Punter

True freshman Tory Taylor is here from Australia, so you know he’s here to punt. Ryan Gersonde is the competition. Iowa did travel to Australia to find Taylor, so the interest is real and this isn’t some mail-order thing.

Kicker

If senior Keith Duncan kicks another 29 field goals this season and doesn’t win the Lou Groza Award (given to the nation’s top kicker), well, it’ll be OK, because another 29 field goals would show NFL scouts that Duncan is 1) super accurate, 2) can handle pressure and 3) has more than enough leg strength.

Returner

Successful kick returns are like comets. You wonder what just happened and then you want to watch it over and over again.

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That’s kind of wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette and kick returns. You could argue that Smith-Marsette was Iowa’s MVP of the second half last season. His kick returns for TDs against Nebraska and USC put the Hawkeyes over the top in two sticky games.

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

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