Position Preview: Defensive Line

Iowa's defensive line surprised onlookers last season with a productive season. The unit is reaching to continue that moment into 2014 with the Hawkeyes breaking in three new starters at linebacker. HI previews the front.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - Drew Ott has nothing personal against the Raider Package. He understands the importance of Iowa using it last season. He's just hoping to make it unnecessary in 2014.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker and Reese Morgan, the line coach, concocted a third-down look when the opponent faced a likely passing situation. They brought in two smaller ends on each side of a tackle in a three-man front designed to contain the edges and pressure the quarterback.

Ott left the field on the Raider Package. The true junior from Nebraska worked hard in the weight and film rooms this offseason to show the coaches he's an every-down player.

"Hopefully we can get to the point where I can be reliable on every down. That would be nice," Ott said.

Ott (6-4, 270) joins three other starters returning on the defensive front. Senior tackles Carl Davis (6-5, 315) and Louis Trinca-Pasat (6-3, 290) are all-Big Ten caliber performers. Their classmate, Mike Hardy (6-5, 280), stepped in for the injured Dominic Alvis at end last season.

The Hawkeyes will break in three new starters at linebacker in '14, putting more pressure on the experienced front.

"People expected a lot out of our linebackers last season. Now, they're expecting a lot out of us. We're ready to take on that challenge," Davis said.

Davis earned second-team all-conference laurels last season. Sports Illustrated suggested that the Michigan native could be a top 15 pick in next spring's NFL Draft. With Trinca-Pasat, Iowa might have the best tackle tandem in the Big Ten.

"It takes a lot of pressure off of us. We don't have to worry about getting double teamed," Ott said.

Let's take a closer look at Iowa's defensive line position heading into '14:

Contenders: Nate Meier (6-2, 244), true junior; Melvin Spears (6-2, 268), redshirt junior; Faith Ekakitie (6-3, 287), redshirt sophomore; Jaleel Johnson (6-4, 310), redshirt sophomore; Carl Davis (6-5, 315), redshirt senior; Brant Gressel (6-2, 280), redshirt freshman; Dean Tsopanides (6-2, 270), redshirt junior; Wil Rathjen (6-3, 280), redshirt senior; Louis Trinca-Pasat (6-3, 290), redshirt senior; Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara (6-5, 240), redshirt sophomore; Riley McMinn (6-7, 265), redshirt junior; Drew Ott (6-4, 270), true junior; Darian Cooper (6-2, 282), redshirt junior; Mike Hardy (6-5, 280), redshirt senior; Nathan Bazata (6-2, 284), redshirt freshman; Terrence Harris (6-3, 250), true freshman; Matt  Nelson (6-8, 240), true freshman.

The Favorites: Hardy, Trinca-Pasat, Davis and Ott should comprise the starting front four in the season opener.

Breakdown: Morgan has done an excellent job building a position viewed as the team's worst unit two years ago. He's created quality depth, particularly at tackle.

Davis and Trinca-Pasat might be the two best players on the team not named Brandon Scherff. Davis is an extremely strong force with better quickness than many players his size. Trinca-Pasat plays low and grinds, keeping blockers off his linebackers.

That dynamic duo should see the bulk of the reps but Darian Cooper and Jaleel Johnson, who looked sharp in the spring, provide Iowa with guys that would start on a lot of lines. Nathan Bazata turned heads this offseason and awaits his opportunity.

The talent and depth isn't as pronounced at end but it's a group that could surprise. Ott and Hardy are assignment guys whose best asset is setting the edge and containing. If they can take the next step in their development and provide pressure, the defense becomes significantly more potent.

Nate Meier should find himself in the end rotation. With two seasons under his belt, he could be a player poised for a big jump forward.

Riley McMinn is another outside guy who could break out. He moved into the depth chart as a redshirt freshman but has been slowed by injury the last two seasons.

The next group, with Melvin Spears, Faith Ekakitie, Dean Tsopanides, and Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara, all have at least two years in the program. They will be pushing to move up the depth chart.

Incoming freshmen Terrence Harris and Matt Nelson appear destined for a redshirt year. We could also see their classmate, Jameer Outsey, slide from linebacker to end this season once the coaches get a better idea where the excellent athlete fits.

As mentioned, this is a deep position that can absorb health issues to a degree. Its biggest question is generating quarterback pressure whether it comes from a four-man rush, a Raider Package, blitzing or a combination of all three.

RWI (Rob Worry Index): Faint (other choices are Extreme, Significant, Moderate and Absent).

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