Iowa Football

Iowa 2019 depth chart projections: Defense has some job openings

D-line has obvious star potential; linebackers need some definition; secondary remains wickedly competitive

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) hugs his brother after their college football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) hugs his brother after their college football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — No, A.J. Epenesa can’t play every position on Iowa’s defensive line. As good as Epenesa is — he’s probably going to be an across-the-board preseason all-American — he is one man ...

... Who’ll probably be blocked by six or maybe seven.

This is the stab at Iowa’s spring two deeps for the defense. We’ll do the offense tomorrow. Yes, with a returning quarterback and a pair of potential all-Big Ten offensive tackles, the offense might be easier to do, so let’s start with the defense.

First, the numbers will show that Iowa’s 2018 defense was among the best of Kirk Ferentz’s 20 seasons. Rated against all 20 Ferentz-era defenses, the 2018 Hawkeyes rank in the top six in all major categories, including third in yards per game (293.6).

The defensive line was senior heavy. Defensive end Anthony Nelson (23.0 sacks in three seasons) and safety Amani Hooker (six interceptions in two seasons) declared for the NFL Draft. Ferentz is making a bit of a gamble with freshman Tyler Linderbaum, seeing a fruitful future from him as a center instead of defensive tackle, where Iowa could use some bodies.

Epenesa will be the name the gains national attention.

With Ohio State’s Nick Bosa out last season, Epenesa showed that he is an elite Big Ten pass rusher, leading the league with 10.5 sacks. He also tied for second with four forced fumbles. How many replays showed that he should’ve had one or two more strip sacks? Maybe two more.

Epenesa is a tremendous place to start for Iowa’s 2019 defense. You’ve heard head coach Kirk Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker preach team defense for years. That’s where the question lies. Can the stars make everyone around them better?

We’re going to go with the “star” safety/linebacker position scenario. That worked too well to junk, even if the guy who made it work (Hooker) jumped to the draft. But if Iowa doesn’t hold up in the middle against the run ... HA! Too many scenarios, let’s keep this fairly simple.

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Left defensive end

The starter — Chauncey Golston (jr.): In 2018, the 6-5, 265-pounder went from guy who showed up on the depth chart and who really looked the part to guy who does things on the field on a regular basis.

Golston paired well with Epenesa. Epenesa would cause a turnover and at least four times, Golston scooped up a fumble or picked off a tipped pass.

Golston’s 3.5 sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss show the potential.

 
Next — Redshirt freshman John Waggoner will have a chance to start showing value this spring. Beyond Waggoner? It’s probably time to refresh the NCAA transfer portal. Iowa does have playing time to sell for a No. 3 defensive end. As it stands now, Waggoner needs to be hit in his first season for Iowa’s best stab at a No. 3 DE.

Left defensive tackle

The starter — Cedrick Lattimore (sr.): Lattimore came in next to Golston. Iowa needed Lattimore right away, so he didn’t redshirt. The 6-3, 295-pound senior was almost strictly rotational last season, seeing about half of the snaps that starters Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks had (Outback Bowl was 23 snaps for Lattimore; 44 and 42, respectively, for Nelson and Brincks).

Lattimore has an opportunity to make a much bigger mark this season.

 
Next — Sophomore Levi Duwa and Austin Schulte spent a lot of the last few seasons hurt. Duwa was a center in 2018. Schulte moved from DL to offensive line in December, but was moved back after Linderbaum switched to center. Duwa hit 270 pounds while building up to play center, so he could be a DT or DE. Schulte was listed at 6-4, 275 going into his junior year.

Right defensive tackle

The starter — Brady Reiff (sr.): Reiff will be making the same jump Lattimore is. The 6-3, 272-pound senior was a rotational DT last season. In the Outback Bowl, he played 21 snaps. Reiff is obviously undersized at 270-something. Reiff probably needs to stay in a rotational situation to stay effective.

Ferentz has said he doesn’t see eight D-linemen in the rotation. In the last few seasons, Iowa did have that luxury. Coming out of the December recruiting cycle, Ferentz said six is a more realistic number.

 
Next — Noah Shannon will be in this mix. He’s just 6-1, but he is an athletic 300-pounder. This might be true freshman Jalen Hunt’s fast way to the field, but he is only 6-3, 260 pounds and a true freshman.

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Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 306) entered his name in the transfer portal. His status with Iowa remains up in the air. He would help, probably help a lot.

Right defensive end

The starter — A.J. Epenesa (jr.): The 6-5, 277-pounder has a huge stage for 2019. The best thing about it is he built it himself.

Epenesa has been the perfect Hawkeye. Last season was the perfect mentoring situation for the true junior. Now, it’s his turn. Expect a lot of 94 jerseys in the Kinnick bleachers next fall.

One factoid: Epenesa has 15 sacks in two seasons. With four Hawkeyes leaving early for the NFL this year, let’s take it year by year. That said, Epenesa needs 28 sacks this season to tie Jared DeVries for the Iowa record (43). This is relevant mostly because Epenesa’s middle name is “Jared.” Epenesa’s dad, Eppy, played D-line alongside DeVries in the 1990s.

 
Next — Any names here are a stab in the dark. As it stands right now, Iowa has two defensive ends for 2019. Maybe a third in Waggoner. After that, it’s “help wanted.”

Middle linebacker

The starter — Nick Niemann (jr.): It was a chopped-up 2018 for Niemann. He started the first four games at outside linebacker. Against Wisconsin, Niemann suffered a knee injury and missed four games. And then Iowa went with the 4-2-5 and the “star” position. Niemann didn’t get his fifth start until the season finale against Nebraska.

Late in the season, it felt like Ferentz looked for ways to say Niemann is one of Iowa’s better defensive players. That kind of stood out at the time.

At 6-4, 232, maybe Niemann finds that time in the middle.

 
Next — If Niemann sticks at outside linebacker — a possibility with Hooker’s departure and the bodies at LB — this could be senior Kristian Welch, redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle, senior Amani Jones or maybe someone off the board.

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Weakside linebacker

The starter — Djimon Colbert (so.): Colbert split snaps at WLB with Niemann in the Outback Bowl. With no heir apparent at MLB, why not Niemann there and Colbert here? That’s the extent of the logic on this one.

Colbert’s first start came out of injury and in week 2 last season against Iowa State. So, Colbert is in the circle of trust and is coming off a relatively clean break-in season,

 
Next — Welch gets another mention. He also could win either of these jobs. Redshirt freshman Seth Benson stayed in the playing-time mix last season longer than you would’ve thought for a really late and relatively unheralded freshman.

Outside linebacker

The starter — Nick Niemann (jr.): It’s not out of the question the outside linebacker spot makes a comeback with the Hawkeyes.

It did work for a really, really, really long time. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker did mention during bowl prep that Iowa was late getting to a 4-2-5 personnel package. And that’s what the star position remains — it’s a personnel package and not a defensive scheme or philosophy for the Iowa staff. At least it isn’t yet.

There’s a chance that Niemann plays too well at this position to keep him off the field.

Next — Junior Barrington Wade would be the backup to Niemann. Could Wade tilt LB coach Seth Wallace’s thinking with a great spring and fall? Of course. Let’s see what happens with Niemann.

Free safety

The starter — Geno Stone (jr.): One big reason the Iowa staff was able to use the 4-2-5 alignment with the “star” safety last season was the emergence Geno Stone.

The star package didn’t roll out until game 5 at Minnesota. When it did, Stone started the next seven games. Five players saw the full 76 snaps in the Outback Bowl. Stone was one. You’ll read about the others very soon.

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Stone picked off four passes last season. He also had 39 tackles and three other pass breakups. He said in December that he would likely move to free safety. That makes sense. It is a signal-caller position. and Stone will be the most experienced safety next year.

 
Next — This is all projection, but redshirt freshman Dallas Craddieth should have a shot here. Also, the Iowa free safety spot has seen its share of walk-ons. Maybe a John Milani or Jack Koerner punches through.

Strong safety

The starter — Kaevon Merriweather (so.): This also is projection. Merriweather was going to play basketball until a great senior year of football put him on the FBS map, where Phil Parker was waiting.

Merriweather played eight games last season as a true freshman. He made just one tackle. So, you can see this is a projection.

What probably excited the coaching staff was Merriweather’s 6-2. Should be a safety with good range. Now, going from a potential college basketball player to a starting Big Ten safety in basically two years is a mega-leap. There will be a learning curve that might not be pretty at times, but it’s that way for everyone.

Next — There just isn’t a ton of experienced safety depth. So, Craddieth, Milani, Koerner (Jake Gervase, who had a legit shot at Outback Bowl MVP, was a walk-on) probably have shots here, too. They might even have shots at winning this job.

This is a new opening and no one has staked a claim. So, let’s throw incoming freshman Sebastian Castro’s name into this, too.

“Star” safety

The starter — D.J. Johnson (fr.): Holy projection. Of course, this is an educated guess. Parker mentioned during bowl prep that Johnson, a 6-0, 170-pounder from Indianapolis, Ind., had been practicing at star and Parker liked what he saw.

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He’ll have to bulk up, and that might be the sticking point. The star position is a safety/linebacker hybrid. There’s a physical element to it. Can a 170-pounder do this? That’s what spring football is for.

Next — Senior Michael Ojemudia has been mentioned here right along with Johnson. Ojemudia played some linebacker in high school (Harrison, Mich., High School). He’s also, basically, a two-year starter at corner. If you have a corner that you like, you probably lock him into that position. Iowa has four strong corner candidates, so this could come down to “best five” and where you decide to put them.

Let’s put incoming freshman Jestin Jacobs’ name in here. At 6-4, 210, he’s probably ticketed for linebacker, but he might have the quickness and physicality to fit here, too.

Left cornerback

The starter — Matt Hankins (jr.): Hankins missed six weeks last season with wrist and hamstring injuries suffered against Wisconsin. At 6-1, 185 pounds, he’s not the biggest corner around, but Hankins’ toughness against the run jumps off the page. He also can cover. When healthy, he’s Iowa’s best cornerback. He was last year and has a chance this year.

 
Next — Let’s go with a Phil Parker special and say incoming freshman Daraun McKinney. The 5-11, 185-pounder is out of River Rouge, Mich., so McKinney fits the Parker “late recruiting find” model, which also includes Micah Hyde and Desmond King. Parker has the eye for talent — talent he knows how to plug into his defense — that comes from being a veteran coach.

Right cornerback

The starter — Julius Brents (so.): Brents started five games as a true freshman last season and then, well, let’s allow Parker to explain it.

“He was banged up a little bit,” Parker said. “Opportunity came for the guys who got back and healthy that we had. They got back in routine of things. He didn’t really get benched, he kind of phased out when he got a little tweak here and there and the other guys got back ahead.”

When Brents was in full form, he was a condor in the backfield. His recovery speed kept him in every play. His wingspan (he is 6-2) is otherworldly for a corner and makes him that much tougher to beat.

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One of the bigger mysteries of 2018 was Brents’ virtual disappearance from the lineup after Hankins and Ojemudia returned to health. But that’s what happens when there’s no injury or availability reports. You just don’t know the day-to-day stuff that keeps players from the field.

 
Next — Riley Moss could end up starting at either corner. At 6-0, 185, he has the size to play anywhere in the secondary. Again, Iowa has a corner who started five games last season. Corners are tougher to find, so not sure a move to safety for Moss is automatic. Moss went from blue shirt to starter last season. Don’t count him out of anything.

Punter

The starter — Michael Sleep-Dalton (sr.): Last week, Sleep-Dalton, a graduate transfer from Arizona State, announced that he was enrolling at Iowa.

He averaged 43.8 yards per punt last season (59 punts), that was good enough for fourth in the Pac-12. In 2017, Sleep-Dalton averaged 39.9 yards per punt.

In 2018, Sleep-Dalton had 10 punts of 50-plus yards. He also placed 19 inside the 20-yard line.

Incumbent Iowa punter Colten Rastetter held a 43.8 average through October, but when opponents decided to place two receivers back to catch punts, Rastetter lost the roll and his average dropped to 38.9 yards by the end of the season.

 
Next — Sophomore Ryan Gersonde remains interesting. Don’t worry, it’s just this year that Iowa has two scholarship punters. Sleep-Dalton has one year of eligibility. Gersonde could have another year on the bench and then two as starter. But who knows. Rastetter will be in this, too, but logic says this is a year for Gersonde to learn and ready. Gersonde did punt 13 times in 2017, with four punts going 50-plus. That makes him intriguing.

Ferentz defenses ranked

Total defense (yards per game)

1. 2009 — 276.5 yards per game (3,595 total yards)

2. 2008 — 291.3 (3,787)

3. 2018 — 293.6 (3,817)

4. 2004 — 293.8 (3,526)

5. 2013 — 303.1 (3,940)

6. 2003 — 314.5 (4,089)

7. 2001 — 319.3 (3,901)

8. 2010 — 332.1 (4,317)

9. 2015 — 341.0 (4,774)

10. 2006 — 343.8 (4,469)

11. 2014 — 344.2 (4,475)

12. (tie) 2016 and 2007 — 351.2 (4,565 in 2016; 4,214 in 2007)

14. 2002 — 355.3 (4,616)

15. 2017 — 357.5 (4,647)

16. 2011 — 378.9 (4,926)

17. 2012 — 381.6 (4,579)

18. 2008 — 382.7 (4,592)

19. 2000 — 440.9 (5,291)

20. 1999 — 463.4 (5,097)

 

Run defense

1. 2002 — 81.9 rush yards per game (416 carries for 1,065 yards and 2.6 yards per carry)

2. 2004 — 92.5 (392 for 1,110 yards; 2.8 ypc)

3. 2003 — 92.7 (480 for 1,250 yards; 2.5 ypc)

4. 2008 — 94.0 (397 for 1,228 yards; 3.1 ypc)

5. 2010 — 101.5 (407 for 1,320 yards; 3.2 ypc)

6. 2018 — 109.5 (435 for 1,424 yards; 3.3 ypc)

7. 2001 — 117.1 (437 for 1,405 yards; 3.2 ypc)

8. 2015 — 121.4 (469 for 1,700 yards; 3.6 ypc)

9. 2007 — 122.0 (454 for 1,464 yards; 3.2 ypc)

10. 2009 — 123.6 (461 for 1,607 yards; 3.5 ypc)

11. 2005 — 126.0 (470 for 1,512 yards; 3.2 ypc)

12. 2013 — 128.4 (466 for 1,669 yards; 3.6 ypc)

13. 2006 — 133.6 (480 for 1,734 yards; 3.6 ypc)

14. 2017 — 144.6 (455 for 1,880 yards; 4.3 ypc)

15. 2016 — 149.7 (492 for 1,947 yards; 3.9 ypc)

16. 2011 — 156.0 (549 for 2,028 yards; 3.7 ypc)

17. 2012 — 162.1 (473 for 1,945 yards; 4.1 ypc)

18. 2014 — 168.3 (495 for 2,188 yards; 4.4 ypc)

19. 2000 — 194.3 (521 for 2,331 yards; 4.5 ypc)

20. 1999 — 245.3 (545 for 2,698 yards; 5.0 ypc) 

 

Pass defense

1. 2009 — 152.9 yards per game (1,988 total yards, 49.6 completion percentage against, 9 TD passes allowed, 21 interceptions)

2. 2013 — 174.4 (2,271 yards, 54.9%, 20 TDs, 13 INTs)

3. 2014 — 175.9 (2,287 yards, 53.7%, 18 TDs, 13 INTs)

4. 2018 — 184.1 (2,393 yards, 57.2%, 19 TDs, 20 INTs)

5. 2008 — 197.3 (2,656 yards, 55.3%, 9 TDs, 23 INTs)

6. 2004 — 201.3 (2,416 yards, 55.2%, 15 TDs, 17 INTs)

7. 2016 — 201.4 (2,618) yards, 50.4%, 18 TDs, 9 INTs)

8. 2001 — 208.0 (2,496 yards, 57.0%, 15 TDs, 13 INTs)

9. 2006 — 210.2 (2,732 yards, 57.0%, 20 TDs, 14 INTs)

10. 2017 — 212.8 (2,767 yards, 56.0%, 19 TDs, 21 INTs)

11. 1999 — 218.1 (2,399 yards, 56.4%, 23 TDs, 6 INTs)

12. 2012 — 219.5 (2,634 yards, 63.5%, 16 TDs, 10 INTs)

13. 2015 — 219.6 (3,074 yards, 53.8%, 17 TDs, 19 INTs)

14. 2003 — 221.8 (2,884 yards, 55.6%, 11 TDs, 13 INTs)

15. 2011 — 222.9 (2,898 yards, 62.0.9%, 21 TDs, 10 INTs)

16. 2007 — 229.2 (2,750 yards, 58.0%, 13 TDs, 14 INTs)

17. 2010 — 230.5 (2,994 yards, 62.2%, 12 TDs, 19 INTs)

18. 2000 — 246.7 (2,960 yards, 57.0%, 21 TDs, 9 INTs)

19. 2005 — 256.7 (3,080 yards, 62.0%, 18 TDs, 10 INTs)

20. 2002 — 273.4 (3,554 yards, 56.0%, 15 TDs, 20 INTs)

 

Scoring defense

1. 2008 — 13.0 points allowed per game (17 TDs allowed, 17 FGs allowed)

2. 2009 — 15.4 (23 TDs, 13 FGs)

3. 2003 — 16.2 (24 TDs, 12 FGs)

4. 2010 — 17.0 (27 TDs, 11 FGs)

5. 2004 — 17.6 (25 TDs, 12 FGs)

6. 2018 — 17.8 (28 TDs, 12 FGs)

7. (tie) 2016 (30 TDs, 12 FGs); 2007 (24 TDs, 20 FGs) — 18.8

9. 2013 — 18.9 (30 TDs, 12 FGs)

10. 2002 — 19.7 (32 TDs, 9 FGs)

11. 2017 — 19.9 (30 TDs, 16 FGs)

12. 2005 — 20.0 (32 TDs, 6 FGs)

13. 2015 — 20.4 (32 TDs, 20 FGs)

14. 2006 — 20.7 (34 TDs, 1 FGs)

15. 2001 — 21.5 (31 TDs, 13 FGs)

16. 2012 — 22.9 (32 TDs, 18 FGs)

17. 2011 — 23.8 (38 TDs, 16 FGs)

18. 2014 — 25.6 (41 TDs, 16 FGs)

19. 2000 — 27.5 (40 TDs, 17 FGs)

20. 1999 — 31.5 (44 TDs, 13 FGs)

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

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