IOWA CITY — Iowa is "tight end U." Or "offensive line U." And you could make a really great argument for "defensive back U."
Here’s one little reminder that Iowa has had some pretty good defensive linemen, too. Eleven Iowa defensive linemen have been drafted during Kirk Ferentz’s 20 seasons at Iowa.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn won a Super Bowl with the Patriots last season. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels has made nearly $13 million in seven seasons with the Packers. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux made $23.5 million in 12 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
Kelvin Bell said “yes” to the Hawkeyes’ defensive line coaching position when Reese Morgan retired in early March.
He’s acutely aware of the responsibility. He’s lived it.
“I’m in an extremely unique position,” said Bell, who first joined the coaching staff in 2012 as a graduate assistant. “Being the defensive line coach here, having graduated from the University of Iowa (B.A. in mathematics with a computer science concentration), also being a former player and being back here, when I say it’s special for me, it’s a definite understatement.
“There aren’t a lot of people doing things at their alma mater, coaching a position they played. That’s extremely unique and that’s something I don’t take for granted. I’m exactly where I want to be in terms of my career and I couldn’t think of a better place to do it.”
Obviously, Bell knows the history of Iowa D-linemen in the Ferentz era, being one himself (he was on the team in 2000 before an injury ended his career). He knows this job comes with expectations. And, of course, it’s not just putting players in the NFL.
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For the way Kirk Ferentz wants this team to be the most physical on any given Saturday, Iowa always is going to need good to great to superior defensive line play.
Kind of like the 2018 season.
Iowa’s pass rush controlled games a few games. The Hawkeyes couldn’t run against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl, but the Bulldogs couldn’t pass because Iowa’s four defensive linemen pressured the quarterback all day. Of the 35 sacks Iowa produced last season, 30.5 came from the defensive line.
Iowa’s defense allowed just 109.5 rushing yards per game last year, second in the Big Ten and sixth among Ferentz-coached Iowa teams.
Yes, it certainly takes more than the four defensive linemen. But ...
“The guys up front allow those guys behind them, the linebacker group, to function at a high level,” linebackers coach Seth Wallace said. “You always knew that they were going to get where they needed to be. You knew you were going to have a guy in the gap they’re supposed to be in. ... If we had youth in the defensive line last year, we may not be describing success.”
The signature of Ferentz’s Iowa program is not trying to reinvent the wheel. Bell also knows this. It’s not so much his plan as it is upholding the standard.
“There is a standard,” Bell said. “I think we kind of raised it a little bit last year.”
The key there, Bell said, was the eight-man rotation the Hawkeyes were able to roll in any given game. NFL-caliber defensive ends helped a lot, too, but the rotation obviously kept bodies fresh. This also allowed Morgan and Bell to amplify players’ strengths.
“I’d like to increase that,” Bell said. “I’d like to increase the versatility of the guys and really have themselves thinking as ‘defensive linemen,’ not necessarily defensive ends or defensive tackles. It bodes well for them getting on the field and it bodes well for the group. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
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“We want to make sure everyone is doing what they can do to help us move along as a group and not just necessarily as individuals. That team mindset, that togetherness mindset, I think that’s what I want to build and leave mark on the screen.”
It’s only been a few spring practices, but the players recognize the message. Morgan is a legendary coach who had a hand producing three Outland Trophy winners. Use the template, don’t reinvent the cleats.
“The only difference between coach Morgan and coach Bell is physical appearance,” junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “It’s still the same. It’s the same intensity.”
When you’re “of” the program, like Bell is of Iowa’s program and the UI, for that matter, the mission roots deeper and it simply means more. The position classrooms in the Hansen Football Performance Center all have life-size graphics of the Iowa all-Americans at that particular position.
When Bell addresses his players, his eye is on those graphics. Yes, they’re hard to miss, but it’s also a life-size reminder of the standard.
“I know a lot of those guys personally,” Bell said. “I have their numbers in my cellphone.
“It’s a tremendous responsibility when you look at the back of that room, because there’s a standard to uphold. It started here long before Reese was the D-line coach and well before I got here as well.
“Tremendous responsibility and, yes, I do feel it. It’s important to me, it’s important to me.”
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