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The Iowa defensive tackle machine

Johnson is the latest in what's becoming a long line of excellence

Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Wes Lunt (12) makes a throw just before being tackled by Iowa Hawkeyes defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson (67) during the first half of a game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Sunday, October 10, 2015. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Wes Lunt (12) makes a throw just before being tackled by Iowa Hawkeyes defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson (67) during the first half of a game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Sunday, October 10, 2015. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Here’s how Iowa’s defensive tackle machine works: A couple of springs ago while doing extra D-line work in the indoor facility, Carl Davis and Jaleel Johnson watched the wide receivers go through some drills.

So, the next thing you know, the defensive tackles think they’re wide receivers.

“Carl called me out,” Johnson said with a laugh that would make you nervous. “Whatever.”

Davis caught a deep pass on Johnson. He had another D-lineman hold his camera and record it. Davis, of course, posted it on Instagram.

That’s how the Iowa defensive tackle machine works.

“I think Jaleel is going to be great,” Davis said before the NFL draft last spring. “Jaleel will step up to the plate. We keep guys rolling in. Everyone had a question when Mike Daniels left, guys still stepped up to the plate.”

Johnson will have a chance to show his friends and family how the Iowa defensive tackle machine works today when the No. 17 Hawkeyes (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) face off at Northwestern (5-1, 1-1).

Johnson was born in New York City, but his family moved to Chicago before he was in high school. His high school, Montini Catholic, is about an hour drive to Evanston.

“Definitely,” Johnson said about it being a big deal to play close to home. “But not even really that, they’ve (the Wildcats) gotten good this year. They’ve really turned it around. I’m really looking forward to it.”

The Iowa defensive tackle machine is always up for challenges.

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Colin Cole is the grandfather of this during the Kirk Ferentz era. He punched his way into the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2004. He was cut this season by the Carolina Panthers and still is holding out hope of playing a ninth season. Then, Jared Clauss was drafted by the Tennessee Titans. Then, Jonathan Babineaux moved from fullback to defensive end to defensive tackle. He’s in his 11th season with the Atlanta Falcons.

Mitch King and Matt Kroul made NFL rosters as NFL free agents in 2009. Christian Ballard and Karl Klug went in the 2011 draft. Then, it was Daniels to the Packers in 2012 draft and then Davis to the Ravens along with Louis Trinca-Pasat hooking in with the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent last year.

Johnson, a 6-4, 310-pound junior, and Nathan Bazata, a 6-2, 284-pound sophomore, are up. Johnson has turned heads every week. Last weekend against Illinois, he flew through the line of scrimmage and almost overran a tackle for loss on a third-and-1.

Johnson really had just one hand on Illinois’ Ke’Shawn Vaughn before he whipped past him. One hand was enough.

“Jaleel is really growing,” Ferentz said. “Again, it’s one of those where we have seen him practicing better and better, but you’re waiting to see what he does on the field. He had a really good game on Saturday, and he has been playing really well for us.

“Both he and Nathan have made a good combination, and for us, the way we play defense, that’s really important.

“That’s one of the underlying stories. Our linebackers are playing well, but they can’t play well if those guys up front aren’t doing their job.”

That’s how the Iowa defensive tackle machine works.

Coaches say nice things, mostly surface things. Teammates know.

For example, Johnson wrestled in high school, but is quick to say, “No, no, I wasn’t an Austin Blythe,” he said of the Iowa center, who won three state heavyweight titles at Williamsburg High School. “I was OK, but I did it for football. It focused on leverage and inside control.”

Teammates know. Specifically, teammates whose job in practice is going head-to-head with Johnson.

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“He’s the real deal,” Iowa guard Jordan Walsh said. “He’s gotten a lot better from last year to the spring to the summer to now. He’s playing really good football right now.

“He’s getting up there (with Daniels, Davis, Trinca-Pasat). He’s getting better each day, each week. He’s a big guy and a tough guy to block. Definitely, he’s explosive. He’s tough, physical. Physical is the big thing. He wants to get to that ball, he wants to get to that sack more than that guy.”

Teammates know stuff. They know the pace their teammate sets. They feel it and feel compelled to keep up with it.

“Jaleel is a phenomenal athlete, a phenomenal football player,” redshirt freshman defensive end Parker Hesse said. “He really plays aggressive and that’s something you can’t teach, it’s something you’re born with. He makes a difference.”

The Iowa defensive tackle machine has shown it can work with any number of parts.

King and Kroul, both of whom were four-year starters, led the nation in fielding questions about being undersized defensive tackles (King moved from linebacker; Kroul originally was a center prospect).

Johnson was big when he was little.

After his junior season at St. Joseph High School, Johnson transferred to Montini Catholic to play for coach Chris Andriano. Johnson was around 300 pounds then. He had offers from all of the schools that play “phone booth” or “ground acquisition” or whatever you want to call schemes that are played with blocking and tackling. Basically, Big Ten football (Iowa and Michigan State were the finalists with other offers from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota).

“It was like Christmas,” Andriano said with a laugh about the day Johnson arrived. “It was like Santa stopped in.”

Johnson earned all-state honors and helped Montini to the 2011 Class 5A state championship with a 29-28 upset over Joliet Catholic.

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“He came in as an all-stater and he backed everything up,” Andriano said. “He was immovable, he was an absolute beast for us.”

The Iowa defensive tackle machine is fueled by humility.

Of all the players mentioned above, only Cole, King and Kroul had a bona fide roles as a freshmen. Johnson is a fourth-year junior and these are his first career starts. It’s a “wait your turn, work for it” culture and that sometimes shows up in little ways.

After Iowa claimed the Cy-Hawk Trophy with a victory at Iowa State on Sept. 12, Johnson observed Ferentz’s 24-hour rule of celebrating a victory by . . .

“To tell you the truth, that whole 24-hour thing . . .” Johnson said, “we got the trophy and I went home and slept.”

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

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