IOWA CITY, Iowa — Not since the days of Adrian Clayborn, Mike Daniels and Karl Klug has the Iowa defensive line packed so much potential at the same time.
Three starters and a wealth of depth return to Iowa’s front wall. Two-year starters Nathan Bazata (tackle) and Parker Hesse (end) are back, as well as one-year starter Matt Nelson (end). Then there’s defensive end Anthony Nelson, who had the second-most sacks last season. Then you add rotational defensive tackles Cedric Lattimore and Brady Reiff. And only one of them — Bazata — will be a senior.
That’s not all. In 16 days, 24/7 Sport’s 5-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa will sign with the Hawkeyes. Iowa has a chance, especially at defensive end, to potentially roll out its most formidable lineup since 2010.
“We’d like to have more depth,” defensive line coach Reese Morgan said in January. “It would really be nice to play eight and get more guys on the field.”
Abundance of riches at defensive end
Iowa’s returning three defensive ends consist of two incoming juniors (Matt Nelson, Hesse) and one incoming sophomore (Anthony Nelson). They combined for 15.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss last year. Each of them has put on at least 30 pounds since joining the program and their play improved dramatically as the season progressed.
Matt Nelson is the biggest at 6-foot-8 and 282 pounds. He had 43 stops, the most of the three ends. He was the most highly recruited as well, picking the Hawkeyes over Stanford and Notre Dame.
“Matt loves football,” Morgan said. “It’s important to him. He’s improved. The last game against Nebraska might be the best game he’s played. He’s hard on himself, which is really good. That’s what most good players are. They have high standards for themselves. The details within his fundamentals are the things that he really improved upon. He still has a lot of work to do, and obviously when you’re that tall, leverage is always an issue.”
Hesse (6-3, 250) was everywhere around the football. He had 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 2 quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a 28-yard fumble return. If it wasn’t for a hamstring pull in the opener, Hesse’s numbers would have been even more impressive. His 4-yard interception return for a score against Nebraska in 2015 spurred the Hawkeyes to a win.
Anthony Nelson (6-7, 253) put on 33 pounds of weight since arriving on campus. He had 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries and a pair of forced fumbles. He’s the most explosive pass rusher of the three returning ends.
“I remember watching him in high school,” Morgan said. “We went to watch a guy from the other team, and I came back and told coach (Kirk Ferentz) the best football player on the field is Anthony Nelson from Waukee. He really stood out for what he can do and athletically he can do so many things. He’s getting so much better in the run game. He’s got great leverage and a good job with his hands.”
Then there’s Epenesa, perhaps the nation’s most talented incoming defensive end. At 6-5, 260 and with massive strength, Epenesa should play right away. Iowa coaches cannot discuss Epenesa until he signs his letter of intent on Feb. 1. But there’s a likelihood Epenesa sees significant time next fall.
Others figuring to see time include backup junior Sam Brincks and redshirt freshmen Chauncey Golston and Brandon Simon. Iowa’s depth at defensive line could be its best since 2007, when Clayborn and Christian Ballard backed up Kenny Iwebema and Bryan Mattison. All four played in the NFL.
Quagmire at defensive tackle
No defensive lineman last season performed like tackle Jaleel Johnson, a first-team all-Big Ten selection. He had 10 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and 5 quarterback hurries. His 9 tackles and a safety against No. 3 Michigan won Johnson the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week award in a 14-13 upset. He’s a probable top-100 NFL draft pick.
Iowa also loses Faith Ekakitie, who likely plays professional football in the NFL or Canada. He was solid, especially late in the season. Bazata (6-2, 285) is a two-year starter but was hampered by leg injuries for half the season. He still finished with 39 tackles, including 3 for loss, and 3 pass breakups.
That leaves one starting position open as well as two rotational spots. Cedric Lattimore played several snaps as a true freshman spelling Johnson. Lattimore (6-5, 285) finished with 1 sack. He enters the offseason as the starter opposite Bazata.
“Cedric Lattimore has got a bright future inside,” Morgan said. “He could have played outside, but he’s put on 30-some pounds since he got here.”
“(Lattimore) started out at end,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “By the time we got to two-a-days, he was 280 pounds, so he’s sliding in. That was helpful, and he was good with it. I think he’s really improved (during bowl preparation).”
Battling Lattimore is incoming sophomore Brady Reiff (6-3, 250), the brother of former Iowa All-American and current Detroit Lions offensive tackle Riley Reiff. After fighting through injuries and competing at defensive end most of the season, Reiff shifted to defensive tackle during bowl preparation. He impressed the coaches so much that he has a chance to start next fall.
“Brady Reiff has really impressed me,” Parker said. “Really impressed me, just with his leverage and understanding. I’m not going to say he’s like some of our other guys who have played here, but he has some qualities that we really like in his toughness and the way he shakes guys off and takes blocks on.
“He’s right around 250 (pounds). But you look at what Karl Klug came in as, you look at some of the other guys in here, Mitch King. He’s very young. He had that surgery early, so he didn’t have an opportunity to get in the weight room. So you could see him at 260 or 265. But he can run, too, so he’s strong and powerful. We’re excited about him.”
Johnson complemented both players vying for his former spot.
“It’s like night and day,” Johnson said of Reiff. “You can tell he’s made a lot of progress. Even guys such as Cedric Lattimore, who’s worked his way into the two-deep along with Brady. Those guys, they’re understanding what they’re doing here at Iowa and they’re starting to do things our way. The more they do that, the more of a good player those guys will be.”
Reiff doesn’t have his brother’s build (6-6, 300 at Iowa), but he has the same intangibles that turned Riley into a first-round draft pick.
“He’s a tough kid. He plays hard,” Morgan said. “He’s extremely competitive. Extremely competitive. That’s what you like best about him. He doesn’t say anything, which you really enjoy about him as well.”
“There’s no question, if not … he has a good chance to be a very good player,” Parker said. “I think it comes from that whole family that he has that type of mentality of just hard work and tough. He has the same toughness of Riley.”
Several other players are vying for playing time as well. Sophomore Garret Jansen (6-2, 270) competed on special teams while senior Jake Hulett (6-2, 285) was lost for the season after a broken leg. Hulett’s departure paved the way for Lattimore to earn reps.
Also, don’t be surprised if Matt Nelson earns looks on the inside as well.
“That’s been discussed,” Morgan said. “The thing that’s good about it is you want to put your best four guys out there, and in some cases guys have to change positions. Inside, you’re looking for a certain kind of guy. Outside you’re looking for maybe a little more speed on the edge. I think he’s got the ability to do that. We’ve talked about it, but right now he’s an end and doing a real good job.”