IOWA CITY — Carl Davis came to the University of Iowa weighing 340 pounds. Louis Trinca-Pasat arrived at 240 pounds.
They lined up next to each other as true freshmen in the fall of 2010. They played the same position, but faced very different paths to the spots in the starting lineup they hold going into the Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) matchup with Michigan State (3-1, 0-0) on Saturday.
For Davis, the challenge was getting through practice and drills. For Trinca-Pasat, it was surviving practice and drills.
“First camp our freshman year,” said Davis, a junior, who with 15 tackles this season is one off his career total after just four games. “I was trying to keep up and stay with the tempo. He could move, but he had to take on double teams and he got knocked back a couple of yards.
“That was different and it was very, very frustrating, playing a defense where we didn’t know what we were doing.”
The 2010 recruiting class started with four D-tackles. Anthony Ferguson quit the team after camp. Donovan Johnson made it as far as spring before grades derailed him. The 2011 class lost two D-linemen (John Raymon and Rodney Coe). The 2009 class lost three (Scott Covert, Martin Hopkins and Tyler Harrell).
When you sign up for Iowa D-line, it’s a gradual build. It’s a weeding-out process. It’s not for the squeamish.
Trinca-Pasat was a 240-pound defensive end from Lane Tech in Chicago, where he played D-end, tight end and some wide receiver. He needed the build up.
“It’s just eating and protein and lifting and working hard,” said Trinca-Pasat (6-3, 290-pound junior), who had 40 tackles in his first year as a starter last season. “It’s started to add up.”
For Davis, a 6-5, 320-pounder, it was a rebuild. Sure, the 340 was OK, it just needed some reshaping.
“It’s a daily grind and sometimes you don’t notice it,” Davis said of his transformation. “You just do it every day and come in with a certain mindset. You do it over time and the next thing you know, ‘Oh, wow, look at my body, what it’s doing.’ I’m faster and I’m stronger.”
Senior defensive end Dominic Alvis had a front-row seat for the transformation of Iowa’s D-tackles. He saw Davis deal with a kneecap that popped out of place and the subsequent surgery in spring 2012. He sat in meeting rooms last season with Trinca-Pasat, who fought through a torn rotator cuff that he suffered in 2011. Surgery kept him out of spring practice.
“At Iowa your career is never going to be smooth sailing just because of how intense the workouts and practices are,” Alvis said. “They forge you to be a better player, person. You’re going to have your peaks and your valleys. While there are low moments in everybody’s career, there are other moments where you see everything really pay off. That keeps you going.”
Oh, those low moments. Iowa plays a strict two-gap technique, which requires D-linemen to wrestle with offensive linemen and, essentially, clear the decks for linebackers. There is no slanting or running around blocks. It’s heads-up brutality.
“It’s a tough program,” Davis said. “I’ve seen a lot of people leave this program and it’s not easy. I know what kind of guy Louis is. We just sat down and talked about the old times. At that point, it seemed impossible to play. You’re looking at [Christian] Ballard and [Karl] Klug in the middle and then Mike Daniels.
“Oh my God, we have a lot of work to do. Then, you slowly start taking steps.”
Yes, in 2010, a rookie D-lineman at Iowa had Ballard, Klug, Daniels, Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns ahead of him. Klug, Daniels and Clayborn are in the NFL. Ballard was last season before walking away from the game this offseason.
“Not that Louie is Klug, but Louie is a project and we thought he had the potential to be a good defensive lineman, only in that he was a tough, competitive guy, really liked him as a person,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We didn’t think he was fast enough to be a linebacker, that’s kind of what he was.
“And then Carl is more like [Iowa OT Brandon] Scherff coming out of high school. I think they’re a lot a like, only Carl is further behind in this stage because of the injuries he has gone through and the practice time he’s missed. This is the first time he’s played and he’s doing a good job and seems like he’s gaining confidence. Louie, I think that year of experience has given him the confidence to be able to play and compete and he’s a tough-minded guy.”
After a couple of years in the gulag that is Iowa D-line finishing school, Davis and Trinca-Pasat can now see the light of day. They celebrate this the way you’d expect. Remember, they are forged and part of the by-product is humility.
Asked if the D-line, which helped hold Minnesota to 30 yards rushing and picked up three of Iowa’s four sacks, enjoyed the effort in Minneapolis, Trinca-Pasat bottom lined it.
“We just went out and played, and that was it,” he said. “We didn’t do any talking or anything. We let the play do the talking and we were feeding off the energy of the plays were were making.”