IOWA CITY — Faith Ekakitie and Jaleel Johnson are friends. They play defensive line for Iowa, they’re freshman and they both love pizza.
They graduated from Chicago-area high schools, but, no, they didn’t know each other back in the day.
Ekakitie, a 6-3, 290-pound defensive end, graduated from Lake Forest (Ill.) Academy. He moved to Chicago from Brampton, Ontario, Canada, as a sophomore to gain exposure for a college scholarship in . . . basketball.
“I was a basketball player coming up,” said Ekakitie, who grew up close enough to Toronto where he doesn’t have the “aboot” for “about” Canadian-type accent. “You can get a scholarship in Canada, but it doesn’t get scouted much. [The move] was to get more exposure in general. I came over to try to earn a basketball scholarship and here I am.”
Johnson, a 6-4, 307-pound defensive tackle, grew up in New York City. He moved to Lombard, Ill., and graduated from Montini Catholic High School because his family thought he would get a better education than in New York.
Now, via Chicago, the two are friends in Iowa City.
“I would say we’re the same in most ways,” Johnson said. “Same music. That’s it, really. Same food. It’s usually a pizza thing.”
They’re also in the same situation as far as playing time.
The redshirt freshmen are No. 2s on the depth chart. The big difference is Ekakitie is fairly new to the defensive end position, where he sits behind sophomore Drew Ott and even with junior Mike Hardy. The last five practices of spring, the Canadian and former basketball hopeful shifted to defensive end.
If you look at the bodies, Iowa needed another one at defensive end. Ekakitie was athletic enough to fit the bill.
“You watch him run on a pursuit drill, you swear he’s a linebacker or DB,” D-line coach Reese Morgan said. “He can move. Special athlete.”
Iowa plays its defense old school with — get ready for this, it gets kind of exotic and complicated — a left and right defensive end. All D-ends have to be able to play the “Heavy 5,” which is a two-gap defender who takes on blockers and is asked to set an edge, and the “crash,” who is responsible for the quarterback.
“He doesn’t realize how good he can be,” Morgan said. “That’s our job to teach him and develop him.”
Johnson is No. 2 behind junior Carl Davis. Iowa likely will rotate four tackles — Davis, junior Louis Trinca-Pasat, sophomore Darian Cooper and Johnson. The NYC kid and Chicago high school grad always was going to be in the mix. That was the motivation all along, especially when with the bodily rebuild he went through.
Johnson arrived as a 320-pounder. That didn’t last long. The re-shaping began almost immediately.
“It was an experience,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I’ve never been through an intense workout to lose almost 20 pounds. It was definitely an experience. [Strength and conditioning] Coach [Chris] Doyle did a great job.
“I got down to 300. Got back up to 310 and now I’m 307. I feel a lot better, yes.”
What did Doyle use as motivation?
“There were a few things, like I’m going to have the opportunity to play, he needs me at a lower weight,” Johnson said. “That was all the motivation I needed.”
Morgan likes the 2013 Jaleel model.
“I’m glad to have the body the way it is right now,” Morgan said. “His coachability, his attitude, his effort, has been outstanding this camp. It started last spring and has kept growing.
“He is a long way away, as most of our guys are. We’re projects. He really wants to learn. He’s competitive and he’s aggressive. He’s kind of what you’re looking for inside.”
Iowa went through a bit of a “projects” stage last season on the D-line. Cooper, Trinca-Pasat and Ott were first-year players last season. This year, it’s Ekakitie and Johnson. Given the 2012 result, the time and patience have worn thin for a second “projects” year.
Everyone Iowa D-line knows this. Morgan has noticed an “all for one” mentality within the ranks.
“We’re looking for tough guys, who care about each other, who have strong work habits and who have a constant desire to improve,” Morgan said. “They have to be passionate about preparing and getting better and helping each other out.
“It’s a close-knit group of guys. I think some of the older guys have been great mentors for them, trying to show them the right way to do it.”