Kirk Ferentz said in February that defensive end was a miss in the 2013 recruiting class. So yes, that puts pressure on the current players.
Sophomores Riley McMinn, Melvin Spears and Nate Meier are at different stages of readiness. Regardless, they’ll all be needed. Toward the end of last season, Iowa rotated eight D-linemen into games. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker and D-line coach Reese Morgan said this spring the eight-man rotation remains in the plans.
So, assuming senior Dominic Alvis and sophomore Drew Ott are the starters (Alvis is a lock; we’ll see on Ott), that leaves two spots open for . . . a whole bunch of guys.
McMinn, Spears and Meier played last season. Meier got in on special teams against Minnesota and then disappeared. McMinn fought through a couple of injuries (sports hernia, ankle) and didn’t play the final five games. Spears played in five games late in the year and recorded no sacks.
Junior Mike Hardy is the most experienced of this group. He played some in 2011 and recorded six tackles last season. He started at left DE in Iowa’s spring game, switching in and out with Ott.
Key 2012 factors: McMinn: Obviously, injuries took a chunk out of the 6-7, 260-pounder’s season. This spring, McMinn lined up at second-team right D-end and caused a fumble on a sack/strip. Meier played DE and some DT with the second team. Spears rotated in on the second unit.
There are some pretty short resumes here.
Offseason factors: McMinn showed up for spring and performed. He said he weighed in at 263 and felt great. This is a good thing. (Thought on McMinn: The guy is 6-7. He’s made for the DE who drops into coverage on a zone blitz. Don’t get carried away with that word “coverage.” He only needs to cover 5 to 10 yards and he’s 6-7.)
The most noteworthy part of Meier’s spring is the fact that he seems to have found a home at DE. He started his career as a running back. He moved to linebacker and now he’s a DE. (At the West Des Moines Valley practice, I stood pretty close to the OL/DL. Meier was looking up at quite a few players. He listed at a generous 6-2.)
Hardy has position flexibility, if you focus on what he was asked to do this spring with the experiment at DE. Spears has built his body after making the move to DE (from LB) as a freshman. In the two spring games, he was quiet.
Competition: Let’s take a shot at ranking the DEs (why not?): 1) Alvis, 2) Ott (pending health), 3) McMinn, 4) Faith Ekakitie, 5) Hardy, 6) Meier, 7) Spears, 8 ) Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara. Yes? No? Ott ended the spring with some health issues. We’ll see there. Is Ekakitie a DE? If they need him to be and he can contribute there, yes.
Why No. 39?: Iowa struggled with pass rush last season, finishing last in the Big Ten with 13 sacks and 53 tackles for loss, 115th and 108th nationally, respectively. Also, those were Ferentz-era lows. The 1-10 team in Ferentz’s first season in 1999 finished with 20 sacks and 59 tackles for loss. There’s pass rush and then there’s contain against QBs who run the zone read, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Northwestern’s Kain Colter to name a few. Iowa needs better DE play. Some of the names on this list will move that forward.
Outlook: You’re reading a lot of names here because Iowa is pouring a lot of bodies on a position that is a bit of a question mark. I wouldn’t count out anyone on this list, including Venckus-Cucchiara, who’s a redshirt freshmen. There’s a lot of development going on at Iowa DE. Maybe too much. The fact that there are few givens here is good and bad. The bad is that there’s one clear-cut starter. It’s good because competition should mill a few more contributors. Of course, no guarantees, either way.