IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes had been through eight days of camp going into media day on Aug. 9. Basically, for a 29-practice month, that’s the starting blocks.
The Hawkeyes have a few individual spots on the 2019 depth chart that need sorting out. Every team does. Meanwhile, defensive line coach Kelvin Bell is looking for as many fit and game-ready defensive linemen as he can find.
Eight would be great.
“We’ve got guys on scholarship here, but you’ve got to earn those reps,” said Bell, who’s in his first season as full-fledged D-line coach, with staff veteran Reese Morgan retiring earlier this year. “I’m not just throwing them in for the hell of it.”
Eight is going to take some sorting out, probably through the month of September.
The Hawkeyes have had sneaky deep turnover here. Yes, losing end Anthony Nelson to the NFL a year early hurt, but so did the losses of senior snaps machines Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks. Those four started every game in 2018.
At the beginning of camp, Bell asked his room of 17 players to raise their hands if they had started a game. One player, tackle Cedrick Lattimore, raised his hand. His six starts came in 2017.
Every team has a depth chart and has “X” amount of D-linemen. Can your D-linemen actually play? That’s the critical question. Bell, like Morgan, isn’t going to throw a D-lineman out there just to rest the starters. That much is clear.
Bell pointed to the 2018 travel roster. The Hawkeyes regularly traveled 11 defensive linemen and played nine in 2018.
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Right now, we simply don’t know the answer to this question. On Aug. 9, though, Bell was asked if he sees nine defensive linemen who can play and not just take up space.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I can say I see eight. I can say I see eight and guys are continuing to develop.”
Eight? Who might they be?
Let’s put preseason All-American and 2018 Big Ten sacks leader A.J. Epenesa in the eight. For sure, junior defensive end Chauncey Golston is in there. Redshirt freshman John Waggoner is on a path to snaps. Converted linebackers Amani Jones and Joe Evans will see snaps at defensive end. Junior Zach VanValkenburg is a third-year player transferring in from Division-II Hillsdale (Mich.) College. He probably fits in the plans somewhere.
Probably four names there.
On the inside, seniors Lattimore and Brady Reiff are two. After them, it’s sophomore Daviyon Nixon and junior Austin Schulte and maybe redshirt freshman Noah Shannon and maybe true freshman Logan Lee.
Maybe four names there.
Beyond personnel and new faces finding their ways, there are veterans fitting into new roles.
“It’s a different mentality. I liken it to a baseball metaphor,” Bell said. “They were relief last year, now they’re starters. It’s a totally different mentality. They had a role last year where they came in and knew exactly what to do. Now, they’re in roles with a lot of different variables. They’re going to see a lot of different looks and a lot of different schemes built to counter those guys.”
This brings us to the discussion of whether or not more snaps will automatically equal more mayhem for Epenesa. The answer really, right now, is wait and see and lies in his handling of the expanded duties that come with being a starter. How does he do versus the run on first and second downs?
“For him it’s still the mentality that ‘OK, you’re not just going to go in and do this,’” Bell said. “You have to go in and do the entire thing. And if you do that really well, then guess what? You’ll do what you got to do last year, which was rush the quarterback.
“ ... The big plays stand out in people’s minds, and I understand that,” Bell said, “The way that we play and the way that we’re set up defensively — and A.J. knows this and our entire defense knows this — rushing the passer is a privilege. You get more opportunities the better you are on first and second down. That’s the goal. Can we get to third-and-8? Can we get to third-and-9, where we can just pin our ears back and rush the quarterback?”
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Eight defensive linemen would be great. If the result is a lot of third-and-8s, then there will be a lot of chances for mayhem stats.
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