IOWA CITY, Iowa — Anthony Nelson is coming back. So are Matt Nelson, Parker Hesse and A.J. Epenesa.
Cedrick Lattimore returns as do Brady Reiff and Sam Brincks.
The guts and glue of Iowa football’s front defensive wall remain intact for the 2018 season. Of the team’s eight primary rotational players, only one starter — defensive tackle Nathan Bazata — won’t come back. With all of the returnees, the Hawkeyes have the potential to become one of the Big Ten’s best defensive lines next fall.
As a sophomore, Anthony Nelson posted the most sacks in 2017 with 7.5. Epenesa wowed everyone his first fall on campus with 4.5 sacks. Hesse had 4. All of them were effective in pass-rush situations. With 29 sacks last season, Iowa was 1 shy of tying for the program high (30 on three occasions) since 2003.
Matt Nelson, a junior last fall, slid inside to defensive tackle after opening all 13 games of his sophomore year at defensive end. He has 20 career starts, while Anthony Nelson has 14. Hesse is the group’s veteran with 34 starts. Lattimore, a sophomore last year, also opened six games.
In interviews following a 27-20 win against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, the mood reflected the moment. There was no interest from next year’s defensive linemen in looking ahead, just enjoying the accomplishment and embracing one another.
“We’re kind of in celebrate mode right now,” Matt Nelson said. “Us as a group, it’s the last time that Bazata, [Jake] Hulett and [Daniel] Gaffney will be a part of our group. So it’s an exciting time, but it’s also bittersweet.”
“I haven’t really looked ahead that much,” Anthony Nelson said. “We’re losing a lot great seniors and a lot of great leadership and a lot of great players. But on the flip side, we have a lot of guys that are good coming back. We have a lot of leadership coming back. Obviously, we’re all be going to be excited about a new challenge, a new opportunity.”
Projected 2018 spring depth chart
At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, Anthony Nelson has an angular build and a quick first step that helped him generate 7 quarterback hurries to go along with his sacks. Epenesa, whose natural 6-5, 270-pound frame belies his first-year status, had 8 quarterback hurries. Matt Nelson had the unit’s greatest transition in shifting from end to tackle. At 6-8 and 285 pounds, fundamentals were critical in his development. By midseason, he moved into the starting lineup.
“I learned that I can play with a lot better technique and a lot better pad level than I ever thought I was able to,” Matt Nelson said. “Coach [Reese] Morgan and Coach [Kelvin] Bell are able to get that out of all of us and just learn from a great player like [Bazata]. It’s just been a huge impact on my development as an interior player versus outside, so it was a struggle at first and a lot of ups and downs, but I made it through.”
Bazata said Matt Nelson made significant strides over the season.
“He does a really good job of it being that tall, getting down low, especially on the doubles and not getting driven back,” Bazata said. “He’s a big guy, a strong guy. As long as he stays low, he’s got a shot.”
The overall talent, production and potential of the 2018 defensive line group have drawn comparisons with some of Iowa’s best squads. In 2009 and 2010, Iowa rotated primarily five defensive linemen and four of them became NFL draft picks. In fact, Adrian Clayborn (Atlanta Falcons) and Karl Klug (Tennessee Titans) are playing in the NFL playoff games this weekend. Another, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels, earned a Pro Bowl nod.
When asked how the current unit measures with his 2009-2010 squads, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz immediately shut down that comparison.
“To me, we can make a lot of improvement up front,” Ferentz said. “Those guys, their best football is still way ahead of them. I think that’s a good thing an d we’re going to need it, because we really aren’t that deep, in my mind.
“I wouldn’t put them in that category out of the ’09, 2010 group. They were salty. [Or] 2004.”
Ferentz has plenty of reasons to get excited about this group, however. All four rotational defensive ends return in Anthony Nelson, Hesse, Epenesa and Brincks. Matt Nelson will miss the spring following a Pinstripe Bowl injury but will be ready for the fall. Lattimore and Reiff played significant snaps at defensive tackle, while Garret Jansen earned time in the rotation. Late in the Pinstripe Bowl, Chauncey Golston also saw action at defensive tackle in a pass-rush situation.
There are others who could contend for snaps like junior-college transfer Daviyon Nixon, who played at Iowa Western last fall and received a scholarship offer from Alabama. Junior-college transfer Jack Kallenberger redshirted last year to bulk up. In addition, incoming sophomores Golston, Romeo McKnight and Brandon Simon have a chance to make their move on the depth chart.
“Guys on the farm club I think have an opportunity to play,” Ferentz said. “(Golston) needs to play for us and should play. He’s been here two years now.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said he’d like to rotate 10 players, if possible. That number could shorten with position versatility. Hesse moved inside on third-down situations last year to make room for Epenesa at defensive end. Epenesa, a 5-star recruit from Edwardsville, Ill., was good enough to take about a third of the snaps at defensive end last year. His presence, among other reasons, convinced the staff that Matt Nelson should move inside. This year, Epenesa could take a few reps at defensive tackle.
“I think he will have an opportunity to move inside at times,” Parker said. “Right now, I think he’s in a good spot. I think there are some other guys that can help us out inside. You can never have enough ends. You can never have enough defensive linemen. When you have good defensive linemen, then the linebackers can play a lot faster and then it helps out the guys in the back end.”
In his postseason news conference, Ferentz almost issued a challenge to the group rather than fill the air with glowing endorsements. He wants stronger intangibles from this group, which could permeate throughout the defense.
“First of all, the guy we’re losing is the ringleader of that group like he gives us toughness and grit up there. To me, Nate personifies that,” Ferentz said. “So we’re losing a really good player, but we’re also losing a guy that just quietly pulls them all in.
“I could say the same thing about Parker; Parker is that kind of guy, too. So we’ve got two pretty nitty-gritty guys right there.”
Maybe this group hasn’t measured up to the 2009 or 2004 defensive lines, but has the potential to become the best in about a decade. If it can successfully achieve that label, then the Hawkeyes have a shot at contending in the Big Ten West.
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