IOWA CITY, Iowa — With 19 words, two exclamation points and one hashtag on Tuesday, John Waggoner did more than become the 15th member of Iowa’s Class of 2018.
He became its crown jewel.
He ensured the Hawkeyes kept their top recruiting priority in state.
Most importantly, he turned the defensive line, arguably the hardest position to recruit, into Iowa’s biggest long-term strength.
— John Waggoner (@johnwaggs_12) December 5, 2017
The future at defensive end
Freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa is already in the fold. The former 5-star U.S. Army Bowl All-American is a 6-foot-5, 270-pound physical freak of nature. He arrived on campus with a ready-made Big Ten body and did more than look the part just a few months removed from his high school graduation. Primarily playing as a pass rusher, Epenesa racked up 15 tackles and 4.5 sacks this season.
Now, Epenesa and Waggoner will pair together for the next several years. Waggoner, a 4-star prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings, isn’t Epenesa. It’s not a knock — very few can match Epenesa — but he’s a productive defensive end with a strong motor and knack for getting to the football.
Between his 6-5, 240-pound frame and his athletic ability, Waggoner is the kind of defensive end any program wants. It’s why Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State and LSU offered.
Most teams would settle for landing an Epenesa or Waggoner. Iowa will line them up opposite each other for years to come.
The importance of the D-line
I once had a former Power 5 head coach tell me defensive linemen are the most valuable commodity in college football because people with the necessary combination of height, weight, acceleration, speed, toughness and athleticism aren’t found walking around the mall every day.
It’s why finding enough starters on the defensive line is tough at a lot of programs, let alone quality depth.
With Anthony Nelson and Epenesa, Iowa is in good position for 2018. With Epenesa and Waggoner, Iowa’s in good position through perhaps 2020 and beyond.
Even with the proliferation of the spread offenses, teams win college football games with line play. Clemson and Alabama are the two top programs in the game for a lot of reasons. Consistently producing top-shelf defensive linemen is an often overlooked one.
Alabama is like a linemen assembly line, churning out NFL-caliber players each year. Clemson’s entire starting defensive line this season is worthy of All-American recognition. The ability of the Crimson Tide and Tigers to dominate at the point of attack and consistently get to the quarterback helps ensure they rack up wins each season.
Now, don’t read that last paragraph as saying Iowa will turn into the next Alabama or Clemson because of a couple of defensive line recruits. That’s not how it works. But Iowa is working from a position of strength at a spot where supply never means demand.
The entire defensive line picture
With the addition of Waggoner, defensive line is Iowa’s top position group in the Class of 2018. In-state defensive tackle Tyler Linderbaum is extremely athletic and headed to the same U.S. Army All-American Bowl that Epenesa played in a season ago.
Then there is Iowa Western Community College defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon. He is set to enroll in January and the 2017 signee is capable of starting from Day 1.
Waggoner’s signing is important on several fronts. Iowa doesn’t land a 4-star prospect every day. It always wants to reel in its top target. Same with the top in-state player.
Each point matters, and the Hawkeyes checked off all three with one recruit. More importantly, landing Waggoner ensures Iowa can head to the mall for the holidays without needing to find a defensive lineman.