IOWA CITY -- You're first clue that something is "off" with Iowa defensive ends is the wide array of numbers.
Senior Dominic Alvis wears No. 79.
"He tells me he thinks they planned to switch him to O-line when he first got here, because he was young," sophmore defensive end Drew Ott said. "It turned out that he could play defensive line, so they never switched."
There's Nate Meier, who wears No. 34. He played eight-man football at Fremont-Mills High School way out in southwest Iowa. He came here to play running back.
"Never," when asked if he envisioned defensive end. "I came here to play running back."
Has the running back ship sailed?
"I wish there was a day," he said with a laugh. "Coaches asked me and I just took the role. They think it's my best spot and that's their job. I like it."
Going into Saturday's game against No. 23 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten), No. 79 (Alvis) is out for the second week with a back injury. Last week, Iowa contained Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter just enough with Nos. 95 (Ott) and 98 (junior Mike Hardy, who made his first career start). The Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2) also had a blitz package that include Nos. 34 (Meier) and, get ready for some jealousy, 6 (true freshman Reggie Spearman).
Ott wanted that single-digit number when he reported in August 2012.
"They stuck me with a big number," said Ott, who collected his first career sack last week (the 6-4, 265-pounder caught Colter in the open field, not an easy feat). "I guess Nate is the lucky one, he gets to stick with his running back number."
The next thing that jumps at you with Iowa's defensive ends is there's no quintessential DE prototype. There's no 6-6, 280-pound sprinter who can overwhelm offensive tackles with speed and wing span. Of course, you remember Watt from a blocked PAT in the 2010 Iowa-Wisconsin game at Kinnick Stadium, a thrilling 31-30 classic that went in favor of the Badgers.
Iowa has one of those models in Riley McMinn, a 6-7, 260-pounder, but he's been in the shop all season with a reported shoulder injury.
"Everybody wants a J.J. Watt," linebacker James Morris said. "Our guys do a great job. They're getting better. It's the first time they're really playing a lot. Mike and Drew played a little bit last year, but they've improved. It's been fun for me to watch them improve and every week contribute a little bit more to winning and keep putting money in the bank, as coach says."
All these guys have arrived at different speeds.
Hardy had two tackles for loss and a sack last week, the first of his career in each category. He's from Appleton, Wis., and grew up a Wisconsin fan. The 6-5, 275-pounder has been on the long build up, seeing his first real action as a junior this season. Ott had his redshirt taken off in week eight last season.
"We have a diverse room," Ott said, "a lot of athletes and a lot of guys to fill some spots. We don't really have that one solid person who's good at everything. We have to sub people in and out to make it work. We work together as a unit pretty well."
Meier, second on the team with two sacks, played special teams in 2012 and then suffered a groin injury that knocked him out for the season. Don't get too comfortable thinking about Spearman as a defensive end. He's practicing at weakside linebacker and is a top candidate to replace senior Anthony Hitchens next season.
"Starting as a freshman with [Adrian] Clayborn, [Karl] Klug and all of those guys, I knew I wasn't going to play," Hardy said. "The next year, I got in a little bit, but not a whole lot. Every year, I saw the field more and more. It's really the work the whole D-line has put in. We're starting to come together."
The last thing that might tell you Iowa's defensive end group is a bit off is appearance.
Ott has been asked about his mullet haircut since media day. In this day and age, mullets are anachronistic artifacts, a leftover from the '80s. This is a statement of humor more so than fashion. That at least seems like a reasonable explanation for why a 20-year-old from Trumbull, Neb., would have a haircut that's been out of style for 30 years.
"Drew is a really smart guy and from that, I think he's able to see humor in a lot of situations," Morris said. "He's not afraid to laugh at himself. He has fun."
During the Iowa Ladies Football Academy last summer, Ott told participants that he once drove his moped from Iowa City to home in Nebraska. That's some 400 miles.
"He doesn't care," defensive tackle Carl Davis said. "He's a 'go to work' guy. He's a country guy, that's what we like about him. He comes to work and he's really relaxed."
Hardy remains extremely clean cut. Meier, 6-2, 235, is the smallest DE with longest overall hair. Alvis remains somewhat clean cut.
Ott was able to talk Alvis into growing a beard.
"I persuaded him into being scurvy with me," said Ott, who's grown his beard out since the end of February. "I'll keep it the rest of the year."
Do your parents mind?
"They only see me every once in a while," he said.