Four Downs -- The Defensive Line (spring edition)

Ferentz upbeat, but where will the pass rush come from?

Marc Morehouse
Published: April 2 2013 | 10:03 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 1:28 pm in
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QUICK LOOK BACK: Iowa rotated as many as eight bodies here at times last season, but Iowa coaches leaned on four players -- Joe Gaglione, Steve Bigach, Dominic Alvis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. The only other D-lineman breaking into the starting lineup was sophomore tackle Darian Cooper.

Cooper (6-2, 280) was the first tackle rotated in. Junior Carl Davis (6-5, 315) also saw time, so did junior Mike Hardy (6-5, 275). At end, sophomore Riley McMinn (6-7, 260), sophomore Melvin Spears (6-2, 265) and sophomore Drew Ott (6-4, 265) rotated in. McMinn was in and (mostly) out with injuries. Spears saw more time toward the end of the season. Ott's redshirt came off in week 8 at Northwestern.

The experience factor was extremely low with last season's D-line. Also, Reese Morgan was in his first season as DL coach after nine seasons as the team's OL coach. Impossible to gauge how much that mattered. Giving the lack of experience across the board, it was going to be an uphill battle last season for whomever coached the DL.

Some trends in the numbers show Iowa slipping in rush defense. From 2010 to 2006, the Hawkeyes ranked No. 2, 5, 2, and 3 in the Big Ten in rush defense. In the last two seasons, it's been No. 7 and 7. The difference in yards from 2012 and 2011 to 2010 and 2009 is 1,945 and 2,028 to 1,320 and 1,607.

Forget the rank, that's 300 to 700 more rushing yards the last two seasons. That's 32 rush TDs allowed vs. 22. Iowa lost five games by 16 points last season. Given Iowa's offensive production, that's throwing a lot on the defense. Neither side of the ball has held up its end.

FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Where is the pass rush going to come from?

When Iowa's defense is a force, the defensive line drives it. It's the 4-3 alignment. It's the front four providing a pass rush. It's the ends keeping contain. It's a group that sent eight players to the NFL in the last six seasons.

Maybe no stat shows how much Iowa's philosophy, which hasn't changed much from Norm Parker to Phil Parker, depends on the D-line and pass rush as much as sacks. In 2009, Iowa's D-line combined to collect 28 sacks and the Hawkeyes won 11 games. In '08, that number was 13 and Iowa won nine games.

Last season, that number was 8.5 and Iowa won four games. (The anomaly year was '07, when a D-line led by end Bryan Mattison racked up 22.5 sacks and the Hawkeyes won six games.

The 8.5 sacks from last season is the fewest by an Iowa D-line in this six-year span. Gaglione led the Hawkeyes with five sacks and he's gone.

Where is the pass rush going to come from?

"There's got to be that mix," Ferentz said when asked about the possibility of more blitzing, "but at some point somebody has got to get there. We've got some guys who are capable of that."

They will have to emerge. Alvis had three sacks last season. The other two -- Gaglione and Bigach -- are gone.

Contain has to be mentioned here. Iowa had its problems last season. You saw QB Kain Colter and Northwestern go for 349 yards against Iowa, the most since 2000. Iowa likely will face six zone-read QBs this season, including Colter, Ohio State's Braxton Miller (5th in 2012 Heisman voting) and Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch (7th in 2012 Heisman voting).

Iowa State is searching for a QB, but the zone read will remain intact. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez polished his QB skills last season, but still finished 10th in the Big Ten in rushing (1,019 yards) and had 10 rushing TDs.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Bigach and Gaglione had incredibly interesting football rides at the University of Iowa.

They went from the blast furnace that was playing under former DL coach Rick Kaczenski (now at Nebraska) to the consummate teacher in Reese Morgan. The two Cleveland natives were told by Kaczenski to take a bus back to Cleveland at one point during their careers. Injuries struck Gaglione hard, losing a season and a half to shoulder and hernia problems. Bigach, a future doctor, was a project who build his body from 220-pound high school linebacker.

They didn't get the payoff in wins, but they were valuable contributors for Iowa last season.

Redshirt freshmen Faith Ekakitie (6-3, 287) and Jaleel Johnson (6-4, 310) could plug in and play quickly. With Trinca-Pasat (6-3, 290), who started all 12 games as a sophomore last season, out this spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, both were lifted into the two deeps. If they remain in the mix in August, Iowa is suddenly very, very deep at DT. That would be a giant step forward.

Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara (6-5, 235) probably needs another season of weightroom before making an impact at end.

Nate Meier (6-2, 235) switched from linebacker this spring. Iowa is looking for some wild-horse rider here and coaches believe, in time, Meier could bring some athleticism.

"Certainly Nate Meier is a guy down the road a little bit," Ferentz said. "A little bit younger player, Nate Meier. We're thinking about fooling around with him a little bit at the defensive end position. See how that goes."

Iowa signed DTs Nathan Bazata and Brant Gressel in February. As inside DLs, they likely will redshirt.

Bazata (6-2, 280) -- “He’s a very good wrestler and plays with great leverage. That’s something we kind of like about him, kind of in the Mitch King, Matt Kroul type of mold" -- Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson.

Gressel (6-2, 280) -- "A very physical guy. He’s not overly tall, but a tough, hard-nosed guy who can move a little bit and who we

think can help on the inside of our D-line” -- Johnson.

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: The default answer to a lot of the "Battles Brewing" sections in this series is the whole thing is a battle. Iowa needs playmakers and that search includes the D-line. Iowa needs a banner carrier here. Maybe not in the same realm as Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug, Christian Ballard or Mike Daniels, but someone close or someone who has that potential.

On the inside, can Iowa get consistent point-of-attack push from Trinca-Pasat, who has built his body from 235-pound TE/DE from Chicago's Lane Tech to a legit 290 pounds? He had flashes of consistency last season, but it also was his first taste of that level of engagement. That wore him down. That's why a rotation is required at DT and that's why Ekakitie and Johnson could be key players early in their careers.

Alvis, a 6-4, 265-pound senior, is a starter at DE. You will, no doubt point out the Northwestern performance against Alvis. Remember, contain and leverage is a philosophy that pervades a defense. In other words, where were the safeties and corners? That said, yes, the contain thing starts at DE and Alvis has and can do that and, yes, needs to be consistent in that area.

Who is the other DE? Right now, the job is Ott's. It's a huge opportunity and he knows that. Ball's in his court to take it and run with it.

The second DE starter might be the most open competition on the team. Ferentz also acknowledged the position was a recruiting miss in the 2013 class. So, Ott, Spears, McMinn and whomever else gets tossed in will have a great opportunity.

The DE rotation will be busy early. Every rep is gold and those who take advantage will sort it out. One note, DEs have led Iowa in sacks in three of the last six seasons (Gaglione five in '12; Clayborn 11.5 in '09; and Mattison nine in '07).

FIRST DOWN — WHAT COULD HAPPEN: No crazy predictions here. The approach has to be solemn. This is a build, not a reveal.

Don't expect a huge jump in the stuff that Iowa has depended on its D-line to do during the Ferentz years. Forget the big tackles for loss and sack numbers. Iowa coaches won't ask these guys to do things they can't do. They will need them to contain and rush the passer. They really will need them to keep guards off their inside linebackers. They will ask to shorten the amount of time QBs have to throw the ball.

Let's flashback to last year's Purdue game. The Boilers drove 37 yards on three plays and 16 seconds to set up Paul Griggs' 46-yard game-winner on the final play.

“We knew if we could get protection for our quarterback, that Robert Marve could be the difference maker he was today,” said Purdue coach Danny Hope, who's since been fired. “The last drive we didn’t have any second guesses in our minds that if we could protect for Robert, we could kick a field goal.”

On first down, Marve dropped back to pass and found no one. He took off to his right for 17 yards to Iowa’s 49. Iowa’s D-line didn’t hold rushing lanes. Marve, who played through a torn ACL, slipped between tackle and end.

Then, Marve dropped back and had plenty of time to find wide receiver Antavian Edison for a 20-yard gain to Iowa’s 29. Iowa was in a zone coverage. Marve stuck the ball to Edison over outside linebacker Tyler Perry and in front of strong safety Nico Law.

“You noticed sometimes he [Marve] was getting to his second and third read on a lot of the plays,” senior cornerback Micah Hyde said after the game. “When a quarterback is doing that, he’s hard to beat. He was finding open guys the whole game. He was letting his guys make plays for him and that’s what he did at the end of the game.”

For Iowa's DL to be better, the veteran players will have to show a level they have yet to show. The Hawkeyes also will have to hit on two of Ott, Johnson and Ekakitie.

Let's finish with this thought from Ferentz as spring practice began:

"We had a really unusual group of guys when we had Clayborn, Ballard, Klug, Mike Daniels. Those guys don't come around that often. We've been in a period of transition, I think. For right now, I'm really excited about the group, and we had a lot of time on our hands in December, so after the recruiting period was over, we sat down and like we typically do, we went to our entire roster. I think we have a lot of good young players in that group right now. It's a matter of trying to develop them a little bit and bring them along and hope a guy like Riley McMinn can be an Adam Gettis [lightly recruited OL who developed into an NFL draft pick] type guy on the other side of the football.

"Karl Klug wasn't Karl Klug his whole time here. A lot of times he was hurt, and then his last two years he really played at a high level. I think that's what we're looking at. You've got Dominic Alvis who is really a veteran guy. Louis Trinca-Pasat, I think was kind of an unnoticed guy last year. I think his next two years will be really interesting because he's played now and he really understands what it takes. He's a tough-minded guy, so he will be a good player. We've got some guys to build off there, and a lot of other guys who are going to come on."
 
 

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