Four Downs — The Defensive Line (spring edition)

Don't skip over DE depth, but D-line has a chance to be very good in '14

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April 1, 2014 | 9:48 am

QUICK LOOK BACK: Iowa's defensive line last year looked more like an Iowa defensive line.

In '12, Iowa bottomed out personnel-wise at a position that had seen too much attrition. Seldom-used seniors were pressed into action. Young players saw their first real competition. It wasn't pretty. Iowa generated the fewest sacks of the Kirk Ferentz era (13) and allowed 1,945 rush yards (fourth most in Ferentz's 15 seasons).

The 2012 season was unpleasant up front, but the lessons were learned. Iowa's D-line responded, grew and became the road grader they needed to be. Remember, you didn't hear a lot of positives for Iowa's trio of linebackers, Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens, in 2012. A lot of that was a D-line allowing offensive linemen to reach the second level. In '13, you heard those three names a lot. They were quality players all along and the D-line helped them to show that.

Defensive tackle Carl Davis (6-5, 315) went from a player who mustered just 60 plays a season into a 60-plays a game force. DT Louis Trinca-Pasat (6-3, 290) progressed from occasional pain for inside O-linemen to consistent and very real pain in the butt.

Defensive end Drew Ott (6-4, 270) went from true freshman who played maybe a dozen snaps to an every-down, 13-game starter, leading the D-line with 50 tackles. Iowa lost Dominic Alvis, its most consistent pass rusher, for much of seven games last season. DE Mike Hardy went from unknown to starting six games.

Davis, Trinca-Pasat and Hardy will be seniors. Ott will be a junior. That's your likely starting lineup. Beyond those four, junior Darian Cooper has seen a ton of snaps the last two seasons and will be the No. 3 tackle. At DE, junior Nate Meier showed pass-rush specialist skills.  That's it at DE as far as experienced depth that did anything on the field in '13.

FOURTH DOWN — CRITICAL QUESTIONS: Where's the pass rush going to come from?

Iowa returns 10.5 of the sacks 24 sacks it picked up last season. Iowa picked up 24 sacks because coordinator Phil Parker felt he had the personnel to go after the quarterback. No, it wasn't the old days for Iowa's defense, when Iowa had four NFL-caliber pass rushers on the D-line. This was pushing the right buttons with linebackers.

In 2012, Iowa had 53 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. This year, those numbers went to 80 and 24 in '13. When Parker blitzed, it was calculated and not reckless.

“At the end of the year, we went after the quarterback a little more, but it came down to what they could execute,” Parker said. “That all came with an understanding of our base. I thought maybe a year ago, we struggled a little bit. We were young in some areas. We weren’t mature enough.

“It all started last December when guys started understanding the game of football. Until we had our base down, I wasn’t going to try to put a whole bunch of other stuff in. We were able to add stuff as we went along every week this year. Lining up in the same defense sometimes isn’t great, but you play faster. The things we added, that we could execute, that made me confident that was could go ahead and run some things.”

Also, we need to re-examine the viability of sacks. Look at how quickly offenses throw the ball. The stat that needs tracking as much as sacks is QB hurries. Sacks are harder to get than TDs.

During an interview this winter with Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson, who also assists on the D-line, I asked if a speed rush was the last thing that needed to drop for the 2014 D-line.

“It goes into pass rush, but with the way spread offense are and the way we play defense,” Johnson said, “as a defensive end, you have to be able to play the tackle and then be a half-man back on the quarterback. So, we’ve got to squeeze down and then be able to react back out. The game that everyone saw that in was the Georgia Tech game [the 2010 Orange Bowl]. We were able to play the whole game without having to bring extra guys down into the box because of the athleticism we had on the D-line. So, we’re always looking for that athleticism.”

Everyone wants sacks, but Iowa scored 42 TDs and had 24 sacks.

“Everybody wants sacks," Johnson said. "They’re hard in any defense when you’re rushing four, no matter what anyone says. You want to get pressure on the QB, but it’s hard to create sacks, especially when you look at offenses now. Those balls are getting thrown in like two seconds. You could have Deion Sanders coming off the edge, that ball is probably coming out before he gets hit. That’s something not everyone pays attention to. . . . We’re looking for athleticism and we’re trying to get as much of it as we can out there.”

The answer to where the pass rush is going to come from is everyone, anywhere and at any time.

What's up with DE depth?

Iowa needs to find someone here. Can junior Riley McMinn (6-7, 265) stay healthy? He was hurt all of last season. Nothing was announced as far as what it was, but Dolph said shoulder once on one of the radio shows. Where's sophomore Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara's (6-5, 240) development? Can junior Melvin Spears (6-2, 268) contribute? Or might an incoming freshman (Matt Nelson, Terrance Harris) be ready?

No quick or easy answer here. This is an important spring for a few of those names.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Alvis leaves with 7.5 career sack. He's a player that had too much time eaten up by injury (torn ACL in 2011, back in '12). This quote might shed some light on the physical and emotional struggle of injury: “It’s not just six months out of the year that you’re thinking about football, it’s 12,” Alvis said. “You work so hard for the year and something like this pops up, it’s almost like, ‘What do I do now.’ There were some dark times and I had to step away from the field. Putting one foot in front of the other was the most important thing.”

Nelson said in February that he's 6-8, 255. Still, you'd think he'd need a year to redshirt and gain strength. "Sounds like defensive end is what they’re looking at him for. It could be a 6-7, 290-pound defensive end. With that size, playing a 5 technique, I think that could be a really good spot for him,” said Rivals midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt.

Harris has been measured anywhere from 6-1 to 6-3. He could ultimately be a DT, but Iowa is saying DE right now. Here's why: "He’s probably a little undersized from a height standpoint, but he’s a strong guy at the point of attack. He can run. You’ll see him chase plays down from the backside. Bigger guys don’t like to leave their feet. He’s one of those guys who’ll lay out and leave his feet," Johnson said.

Maybe incoming frosh Jameer Outsey (6-3, 225) develops into a DE (he was brought in as a linebacker). "I had not seen him before our Rivals camp in New Jersey last year," Helmholdt said. "Even before he stepped on the field, he was one of those guys who immediately pick out. He just looks like a college linebacker should look."

Juco DE Torey Hendrick (6-4, 225) has committed to Iowa, but because of credits and a part-time status his first semester at ASA College (a juco in Brooklyn, N.Y.), he won't sign until this summer and won't be eligible until 2015, when he'll have three years of eligibility remaining.

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: There could be some push between Hardy and Meier.

Meier has been a pass-rush specialist, with a spot on Parker's "Raider" package (three linemen, usually a blitzing linebacker and an extra defensive back). But you know Iowa, and so you know Iowa coaches aren't that into specialization. If third-year D-line coach Reese Morgan didn't believe Meier could be a full-service, four-down DE, he wouldn't invest. Can Meier pass that test? He's strong and fast, but is listed at 6-2, 244. He's on the small side, but he'll have a chance to be No. 3 DE or maybe push for a start.

Backup DTs might be interesting. Cooper (6-2, 282 junior) should be first off the bench, but sophomore Jaleel Johnson (6-4, 310) should push for more playing time. Redshirt freshmen Nathan Bazata (6-2, 284) and Brant Gressel (6-2, 280) also might be ready to play.

Sophomore Faith Ekakitie (6-2, 287) is again a defensive tackle. He came in as a defensive tackle, moved to DE before last season and then by the bowl game switched back inside. Iowa is well positioned at DT, which is good with Davis and Trinca-Pasat going into their senior seasons.

FIRST DOWN — SPRING AND BEYOND: One thing you need to know: Carl Davis owns his own bowling ball and took it to Tampa and the Outback Bowl for players bowling night.

Here's the ball:

Here's the form:

The more you know . . .

-- Remember when Ott drove his moped from Iowa City to his home in Nebraska last spring? Good times.

-- Pop quiz: To whom would you attribute this quote: ""We knew we had to come out ready to go. If we didn't, they were going to run right up our butts."

a) Morrissey, b) Ray Nitschke, c) Benjamin Disraeli, d) Mitch Hedberg, e) Louis Trinca-Pasat

Answer: It's not Morrissey.

-- Mike Hardy is from Appleton, Wis. His favorite National Football League team is . . .

a) Chicago Bears, b) Minnesota Vikings, c) Detroit Lions, d) Green Bay Packers, e) the team that eventually moves into LA.

Answer: I'm an owner of this team.

-- Here's to good health for McMinn, whose career has been hammered by injuries (think Nolan McMillan of the defense).

He lost at least five games to a sports hernia and ankle injuries in '12. Last year, it looks like a shoulder cost him most of the season. He'll go into his junior year with a blank slate on the field and, you hope, health-wise.

-- This group showed great growth in 2013 and has a chance to be a strength for the Hawkeyes in '14.  

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