IOWA CITY — Defensive linemen play in the football equivalent of a wood chipper.
You make your living on the line of scrimmage, there’s the 300-pound guy across from you, occasionally there’s his 300-pound buddy next to him and then there’s the random tight end or fullback. That’s not to mention all the diving and falling around your legs, the technique you need to master to survive and hardcore coaching it takes to equip you with the needed skills.
It’s not for everybody. Iowa has learned that the hard way.
Iowa has lost seven potential defensive linemen to attrition in the last couple of seasons. Only one, Jason Semmes of Miami (Ohio), has gone on to any playing time, but it has affected Iowa’s roster this season.
“It’s a challenging position to be good at,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’re just going to keep working. We have some good defensive linemen on our team right now, but we’re just going to keep working.”
The defensive linemen don’t whine. Seniors Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns are well aware of the seats that have emptied around them in the meeting room. They’re not looking for your sympathy. They’re looking to improve and bring their D-line mates along for the ride.
“It’s hard, but there have been a 100 guys do it before me and there will be a 100 guys doing it after me,” Binns said. “No one said it was going to be easy. The coaches have a good tradition laid down for the defensive line, so you do it and you’re able to play. If not, you’re like one of those guys who left the program.”
Lament isn’t a rallying cry, especially considering what the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) have in front of them this week.
An Iowa defense that allows its highest yards per carry since 2000 (3.87) welcomes Michigan (7-1, 3-1), the Big Ten’s No. 2 rush offense averaging 5.88 yards a carry. Three Wolverines rushed for TDs in last week’s 36-14 victory over Purdue.
Quarterback Denard Robinson, second in the Big Ten in rushing last season, wasn’t even the leader. Running back Fitz Toussaint led UM with 170 yards.
If the current pace holds, the Hawkeyes will allow 2,000 rushing yards for the first time since 2,331 in 2000.
“I’ve noticed we’re not getting it done. Simple as that,” Ferentz said. “We just have to play better. There are a lot of factors involved, personnel, injuries, scheme. That’s like any phase of football right now, we’ll just continue to work. We’ve had success in the past and we’ll continue to work for that in the future.”
Iowa entered the season with Daniels and Binns as its most experienced D-linemen. Senior Lebron Daniel was slated to start at the end opposite Binns, but gave way to sophomore Dominic Alvis. Freshman Carl Davis has been slowed by injury and didn’t take at the tackle opposite Daniels.
Senior Tom Nardo, a former walk-on, surged and took the job, earning Big Ten player of the week after 12 tackles against Louisiana Monroe. He suffered an ankle injury at Penn State and has missed the last three games. Junior Steve Bigach jumped in.
In last week’s loss at Minnesota, Binns, Alvis, Daniels and Bigach played nearly every snap. The Gophers rushed for 178 yards, their fifth highest rushing total in Big Ten games in the last five seasons.
“Any time you’re on a defense, it’s a big pride thing when someone is running the ball on you,” Bigach said. “It definitely stings. We try to hold every team under 100 yards. This year, we have a high average rushing against us. We all have pride and we’re all trying to stop the run. That’s important to us, absolutely.”
They’re locked in the now with four games remaining and bowl eligibility still one win away. Ferentz wasn’t exactly in the mood to think D-line 2012.
“The cavalry isn’t coming. We’re not going out and picking up any free agents,” he said. “Nobody is graduating midterm and coming in to help us, so we’re just going to keep playing.”
It’s hard to imagine the depth gap being figured out in one offseason, though. The two-deep for 2012 might read Bigach and Davis at tackles with Alvis and “good question” at the other end. Junior Joe Gaglione has played meaningful minutes at tackle this season. Redshirt freshman Mike Hardy has played end in some mop-up duty.
Some of the roster names at tackle include freshmen Darian Cooper (6-2, 280) and Dean Tsopanides (6-2, 240) and sophomore Louis Trinca-Pasat (6-3, 270). End possibilities include freshmen Melvin Spears (6-2, 224) and Riley McMinn (6-7, 219). Tackle Jaleel Johnson (6-2, 277) and end Drew Ott (6-4, 235) have made non-binding commitments to the Hawkeyes.
D-line coach Rick Kaczenski will get out the hammer and the nails and try to make them into 2-gap defensive tackles and crash ends and 5 techniques. And if you believe Kaczenski has a hand in the recent attrition, Daniels wants to remind you that Kaczenski coached Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug into the NFL.
“He [Kaczenski] coached a first-round (Clayborn), fourth-round (Ballard) and fifth-round (Klug) draft pick from the time they were freshmen up through now, those guys still talk to him,” Daniels said. “That doesn’t happen by accident.”
Iowa coaches likely will go after a few more D-linemen. The Hawkeyes are in the hunt along with Stanford for Nate Lohn, a 6-3, 265-pounder from Kansas City, Mo. Faith Ekakitie, a Chicago defensive end, is considering Iowa, but might be a Northwestern lean.
Texas D-lineman Aaron Curry is visiting Iowa City this weekend. Baylor, Missouri and Boise State are in the mix. Trace Clark, a D-end from Wichita, Kan., has visited Iowa.
Immediate contributors, however, are few and far between. Ferentz said it’s like finding a 7-footer in basketball.
Daniels, whose latest wound from the wood chipper was a mottled scrape from the Minnesota FieldTurf, advised the young D-linemen to bring plenty of . . .
“Grit, there’s no other way to put it,” he said. “You have to have a certain level of grittiness to you.”
The “help wanted” sign is up.
Q. Given the numbers defensively, now that it’s November, is there anything you can do to shore that stuff up or is it too late?
COACH FERENTZ: I hope it’s not. Every week we try to improve. True in all phases, I guess. I think I’ve said a couple times I think still the number one focus will be on stopping the run.The bad news there is that Michigan is running for about 250 a game. They probably could go 400 if they chose to. They’re a very good running football team with a lot of good players touching the football. It’s going to be a big challenge.We’re going to go back to work today. I don’t think it’s a lost cause if that’s what you’re asking. We haven’t surrendered yet. We don’t plan on surrendering.
Q. Is it a personnel thing against the run, a schematic thing? What have you noticed?
COACH FERENTZ: I’ve noticed we’re not getting it done. Simple as that. We just have to play better. There’s a lot of factors involved – personnel, injuries, scheme. That’s like any phase of football right now, we’ll just continue to work.We’ve had success in the past and we’ll continue to work for that in the future.
Q. Are the defensive linemen hard to recruit or do you focus more on trying to build them when they’re here?
COACH FERENTZ: Well, I’m going way back to the ’80s. To find dominant defensive linemen coming out of high school, I remember a coach in the Big-8 at that time saying it’s like finding a 7-footer in basketball, there aren’t a lot of them around. It’s like several other positions. Typically those guys go to other schools. If you look historically here, we’ve probably got as many. I don’t know what the official count is. Our guys upstairs can tell you. We’ve had as many guys go to the NFL and play successfully on the defensive line. Some came here as defensive linemen. Colin Cole that we recruited when we were 1-10 or going into a 1-10 year. We’ve had other guys like Aaron Kampman, a middle linebacker. You go right down the list. It’s like our whole football team, it’s a mix of both. But it’s no question, it’s a challenging position to be good at. Yeah, we’re just going to keep working. We have some good defensive linemen on our team right now. But we’re just going to keep working. It’s not just the defensive line. It would be easy to say it’s just that or this. It’s a team thing.
Q. You put a lot on the defensive line with stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. What’s happened to the depth there?
COACH FERENTZ: Analogy, last year we came in with the same situation with the offensive line. I’ve said all this before. I’ll repeat it again. ’08, ’09, we graduated some good offensive linemen. You can check the books on that one. Last year we went in with Julian Vandervelde and Riley Reiff. Riley played 11 games as a redshirt freshmen. Julian played since ’07 I believe. We had three our guys that were project guys, if you will, undersized, out of high school. Did a formidable job last year. I think we’re in a similar situation this year with Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels. Injuries do impede progress. We’ve had some of that. Not just the defensive front, but linebackers. Linebackers are important to run stopping, too. That’s what it is. It’s all a matter of record. We’re just going to keep working. The cavalry is not coming. We’re not going out and picking up any free agents. Nobody is graduating midterm and coming in to help us, so we’re just going to keep playing.
Q. What are the D-linemen not doing schematically?
COACH FERENTZ: I think I kind of answered that question. It’s more than just the defensive line. It’s the defensive line, it’s the secondary at times, it’s the linebackers. It’s like any phase of offense or defense, to stop the run you need all 11 guys. In the particular defense called, they all have a role to do. If we do that well, we stop the run. When we don’t, we don’t. It’s a team thing. It’s not just the defensive line.
Q. It’s the fans’ perception that they know you have a young defensive line. Still Iowa is Iowa. It should be able to beat Minnesota. How would you respond to that?
COACH FERENTZ: To which part of the question?
Q. To the fact that Iowa is Iowa, they’re better players.
COACH FERENTZ: We graduated three guys to the NFL, which is really an uncommon occurrence for anybody. Three out of four guys go to the NFL and make teams. That’s uncommon. I remember in ’83, my two-deep offensive line, we had seven seniors. The good news in ’83, those guys were pretty good. In ’84 we had three guys in the two-deep, none had started, and seven other guys. We still had a successful football team, that’s college football. In those unusual years where you’re top-heavy with seniors, it’s not often you’re going to get 75% of your linemen go to the NFL. Second part of the question. If you look at college football, we talked about this a week ago, probably eight or nine days, a vivid example. There’s a team in the Big 12 that went to a pretty prestigious place, beat a team that had a long win streak, beat them in their stadium. I think they were 29-and-a-half point underdogs. I did look it up. That’s something we talked about. That’se xemplary of college football. The team we lost to this past weekend had a couple tough outings. They also lost to Southern Cal by two points at the Coliseum. Southern Cal played Stanford into overtime. If you pay attention to what’s going on in the landscape of things, I’m not making any excuses, but that’s football. As much as we all want to know what’s going to happen before things happen, that’s why you play games. I think any of the fans that bet on games probably lost a lot of money in the St. Louis/New Orleans game. I went and got a cup of coffee and heard that score Sunday. That’s football. That’s what makes it interesting. When you’re on the short end of any game, it’s not any fun, I can tell you that.
Any time you get hit in the chin, you’re looking to go fight back. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s a good opportunity for us.
Built DL — Hard go — two-gap — It’s difficult, but it’s the Big Ten, it’s Division I football. You come in and they expect you to do it. You just come in and put your work in and, hopefully, it pays off. — quit — Definitely, day in and day out, it’s tough to be a college student. You have to keep your grades up and you have to come and compete at the highest level of football. It’s definitely hard, but that’s what’s good about it. If it were easy, everyone would do it. That’s why you do it, because you’re competitive. — penetration — I couldn’t tell you. We just have to get better all around.
Stopping the run — I couldn’t tell you . . . we just have to get off blocks. We have to get off blocks and we have to make plays and we have to get better. That’s the most important thing. Any time you’re on a defense, it’s a big pride thing when someone is running the ball on you. It definitely stings. We try to hold every team under 100 yards. This year, we have a high average rushing against us. We all have pride and we’re all trying to stop the run. That’s important to us, absolutely.
Disruption — I would say a little bit, we’ve had that the last couple years more consistently. We’ve had it this year, too. We’re capable of it, we just have to do it on a consistent basis. — Two gap DE — On certain plays, that are called, yes. More times than not, we there’s crash end, as we like to call it, on outside contain. When we’re the 5 technique, we do play two gap and play inside and out. — Tough way, seen guys leave, hard thing — It’s hard, but there have been a 100 guys do it before me and there will be a 100 guys doing it after me. Football is a tough sport. No one said it was going to be easy. The coaches have a good tradition laid down for the defensive line, so you do it and you’re able to play. If not, you’re like one of those guys who left the program.
Future — Oh man. There are the guys who’ve been playing some this year. Carl Davis, we have to get him healthy. Dom Alvis has been playing a lot this year. Steve Bigach stepped up when Tom Nardo got hurt. We have some upcoming freshmen, Cooper is going to be fine, Riley is going to be fine and then you have Bud Spears and Dean Tsopanides, those four guys have been busting it on scout team. I think the future is bright for the D-line. — Special care — You try to help them the best you can. When it comes time to put on your hat and go to work, you tell them to stick with it. All the coaches are looking for is 100 percent effort. They can coach everything else, but they can’t coach effort. If you give that and control the controlables, they’ll be fine.
I don’t know what you mean by disruption. — As a whole, we have to do a better job of tackling, but I feel as though guys are making improvements. We need to clean up the little things that will kill you this time of the season. — little things — Playing your technique, the best you can. How you get into your stance, read run and pass, things like that.
Seen a lot of DL disappear — We’ve had no problem replacing guys in the past. We’re still doing it now. That’s what we do. That’s why we practice and constantly preach the techniques we preach.
Future of DL — Yes, of course, every position is healthy because of the way our coaches coach. They’re not going to allow it to not be healthy. — Young guys — I think everyone has a promising future. There have been a lot of guys who’ve stepped up out of nowhere, most people would say. Everybody is going very well. Guys are coming along. Coach Kaczenski, he doesn’t let up. He’s going to bring the best out of anybody he recruits and brings in. — On RK — He coached a first-round, fourth-round and fifth-round draft pick from the time they were freshmen up through now, those guys still talk to him. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Getting off blocks — Police each other, can’t think too globally. Worry about your own home before you worry about your neighbors.
Two gap tech wash outs — A lot of guys who haven’t made it weren’t the undersized guys. The undersized guys were the ones who fought it through, from what I’ve seen. You look at Karl Klug, he came in here at 207. You can’t get more undersized than that. — When they recruit, they know who they’re bringing in. They know who’s capable and who’s not, otherwise they wouldn’t have offered the scholarship. — Hard to build yourself into that — Grit, there’s no other way to put it. You have to have a certain level of grittiness to you. A guy like Klug definitely has grit.
Playing more disciplined.
Getting off blocks — It’s growing and it’s getting better. We’re continually improving week after week. We’re a developmental football program. We’re working on getting better at everything. — Tough to learn — You have that grit that coaches recruit, like a Karl Klug, it’s not that tough.
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