IOWA CITY – We are continuing with our position previews for the 2017 Iowa Hawkeyes, but it’s time to flip sides of the field and focus on the always-stout Iowa defense.
It’s hard to run on Iowa football. It’s no secret that when the Hawkeyes win football games, it’s because they controlled the line of scrimmage and prevented rushing offenses from busting out big runs. It was true in 2016, and it should hold true in 2017.
Eight defensive starters from last season are returning, including three of four from the front line.
Last season, the Hawkeyes allowed just 10 rushing touchdowns. In the Big Ten, only Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin allowed fewer. Iowa was in the middle of the pack when it came to total yards allowed (1904) and yards per carry (4.0). While not terrible, the experienced front line guys should be looking to improve on those numbers.
With the graduation of Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie, Nathan Bazata is the only returning tackle with experience as a starter. The 6’2, 287-lb senior is listed as the starting right tackle on the preseason depth chart.
Last season, Bazata recorded 39 total tackles and added 1.5 sacks. It’s unfair to expect Jaleel Johnson numbers, but the senior will likely be one of the front lines premier players.
Next to Bazata at right tackle is sophomore Cedrick Lattimore, the only new starter on the front line. Lattimore appeared in six games as a true freshman in 2016 and recorded a sack in his limited time. He more than looks the part with his 6’5, 295-lb frame, and while he is just a true sophomore, the coaching staff has seen enough from him to list him first on the depth chart.
Second strings on the depth chart also include sophomores Brady Reiff (LT) and Garret Jansen (RT), Each saw limited time last season.
Parker Hesse is listed as right defensive end number one after starting 21 games over the last two seasons. The junior from Waukon filled the stat sheet a year ago while on his way to earning honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition.
Hesse racked up 37 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and four sacks. He also added three pass breakups, one forced and one recovered fumble. To compliment Hesse, opposite him at left end are the Nelson “Brothers,” Matt and Anthony (not actual brothers, but they could pull it off).
Five-start recruit A.J. Epenesa has shot through the rankings as fast as anyone. Kid’s Day was his real “coming out” party. He was credited with four sacks on the day, an early display of what the 6’5, 270-lb freshman is capable of. Hesse will likely start out the season as the starter at right defensive end, but Epenesa could very well overtake him after he gains some experience. In camp, both Hesse and Matt Nelson have been getting reps at defensive tackle because of the rise of AJ Epenesa. Clearly the coaches are trying to get their best players on the field in some capacity.
At this point in camp, it’s starting to look like Anthony Nelson will be the starter at the left end position. Anthony, the sophomore from Urbandale (Waukee) played in each game last season, including a start against Iowa State. Despite being a “second string,” his seven sacks and eight tackles for loss (43 yards) ranked second on the team.
Matt Nelson, the senior from Cedar Rapids Xavier, started all 13 games in 2016. He recorded 43 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He also added two fumble recoveries as well. He’s battled injuries on and off his entire career. He has been dinged up this camp as well which has resulted in him losing some practice time. Matt is one of the best leaders on this Iowa football team. He will contribute at whatever position he can, and it’s entirely possible most of his reps will end up being at defensive tackle this season.
The addition of Epenesa provides some intriguing options for the Hawkeye pass rush. Hesse could move inside and allow both he and Epenesa to pressure the quarterback. They’ve also shown a formation in camp where both Nelson’s, Epenesa, and Hesse were all up front at the same time. Opposing QBs beware, because that crew has the potential wreak havoc in passing situations.
Epenesa seems to have already proven that he can make an impact this season. He joins a group of smart players with a lot of snaps to their names, but the front line is loaded with talent across all classes. The only problem for Reese Morgan and Phil Parker will be deciding who gets to on the field in the most crucial moments.