In part three of our preseason position preview series, we take our first look at the defensive side of the ball. How will the front four of Iowa’s defense stack up against several proven offenses this season?
It’s no secret that Big Ten football games are often won in the trenches, and we already know that Iowa projects to have plenty of success controlling the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the ball. While there are legitimate questions and concerns on the defensive line, there are also signs of hope and optimism for the unit, which returns three starters.
The strength of Iowa’s d-line appears to be on the edge, with both of last season’s starting defensive ends and top reserve returning, with a five star recruit A.J. Epenesa joining them as well.
Junior Parker Hesse has the most experience in the group, starting 12 games last season and eight the year before. He’s an undersized player, weighing in at only 257 pounds, but the former linebacker uses his underrated athleticism and high motor (he won the team’s hustle award, yes that’s a real award that the coaching staff gives out) to make an impact. He has 81 career tackles, and he showed steady improvement last season by recording eight of his 11 career tackles for loss with four sacks after only having two the year before. After being named as an honorable mention to the all conference team in 2016, Hesse will be determined to step his game up to the next level. The biggest question surrounding him is how much room for growth does he have left, given his size? Only time will tell.
Opposite of Hesse are two mammoth sized ends with the same last name but no relation, however their size and style of play would lead you to believe they could be twins. Junior Matt Nelson, who started every game last season, is 6’8 285 pounds.
His backup Anthony Nelson is 6’7 260. Their size and length on the edge is a huge advantage, and both of them met expectations last season in their first year as regulars. They combined for 76 tackles, 14.5 of them for loss.Anthony and Matt were also second and third on the team in sacks with 6 and 5.5, respectively. They will both be counted on heavily to provide consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
True freshman A.J. Epenesa is one of the most impressive recruits Iowa has gotten in the Kirk Ferentz era. A ton is going to be expected of the 6’5, 270 lb lineman,and hopefully he’ll be ready to answer the bell as soon as this season. While there is a logjam at defensive end, Epenesa will likely have an opportunity to showcase his talents inside at defensive tackle, as Iowa only returns one player at the position with notable experience.
If Epenesa isn’t able to make an immediate impact inside, the Hawkeyes could be in serious trouble up the middle. Jaleel Johnson has been the most productive defensive lineman on the team the last two seasons, and he’s now a Minnesota Viking. Iowa also lost Faith Ekakitie to graduation, who played a key role last season against the run.
Senior Nathan Bazata is the clear cut leader of the defensive line, and he provides by far the most experience and stability among the team’s defensive tackles, starting 24 of 27 games the last two seasons while racking up 85 total tackles, 8.5 for them for loss. However even Bazata is surrounded by question marks, as he’s well undersized at only 6’2 287, and he’s been dealing with an ankle injury since last October that could linger into this season. The Hawkeyes need him to be at his best, but he can’t be at his best if he isn’t healthy.
While Epenesa will get every opportunity possible to play inside this season, it’s unlikely that he will open the season next to Bazata in the starting lineup. Right now there seems to be only one legitimate candidate to step in and replace Jaleel Johnson, redshirt sophomore Cedric Lattimore.
Lattimore boasts great size for the position at 6’5 295, by far his best attribute. He saw a good amount of game action in mop up time last season, he was even able to record a sack against Illinois, so hopefully he won’t be too overwhelmed by the speed and intensity of live game reps. His biggest competition outside of Epenesa is fellow sophomore Brady Reiff, who is listed at just 260lbs. Lattimore’s massive size advantage over his competition should be enough to give him the starting nod, hopefully 2017 can be a breakout season for the sophomore.
On paper, the defensive line is very top heavy. Hesse, Bazata, and both Nelson’s are proven as starting caliber players, while Epenesa possesses the size and skillset that coaches and fans salivate over.
But outside of those five, it’s hard to see anyone on the roster outside of Lattimore making a meaningful contribution. An injury or two could be devastating to this defense.