The listed starters are Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson. Anthony Nelson is the main backup at this time and he elevated his status with how well he played in the spring. So those three spots are cemented.
Beyond that, there's many questions. Sam Brincks is the next alternative on the depth chart but he's unproven. The depth here is grim which explains the large haul of defensive ends they signed in February. I imagine a true freshman could grab some snaps, possibly Cedrick Lattimore.
We'll start with Parker Hesse. We know what he is. He's a hard worker, he hates to lose, and will give the Hawkeyes everything he has on the field each and every week. He'll do a lot of dirty work, play hard, play smart, and not make mistakes. It's everything that Iowa has gotten out of Nate Meier the past couple of seasons. He does lack size so he's obviously always going to be a little limited in what he can do, but he's someone you have to have. But he needs to be complimented with another big, strong defensive end and that's what the Hawkeyes are trying to develop on the other side.
Matt Nelson saw a bit of playing time last year and was able to get a taste of how big and quick offensive tackles can be in big-time college football. He was also able to receive a glimpse of how quick the game can be. That should suit him well this upcoming season in his first full year of significant playing time. He's a tall, long lineman with a lot of tools. He plays with great pad level and understands leverage very well which is key since he's a 6-foot-6 defensive end. That is one hurdle he's already overcame. Now he just has to work on expanding his pass rushing repertoire, hand placement, and his first step. His best football is ahead of him and he could be very, very good. I just think we're a year or two from that.
Anthony Nelson has the same kind of upside as Matt Nelson (no relation) and has had his blossoming moments this Spring. He's emerged and risen up the depth chart significantly. Right now he's just a pass rusher and has shown a rare knack for being able to get to the quarterback. Because of that trait, it'll be hard to keep him off the field. Iowa will want to do whatever it can to generate a pass rush and Anthony Nelson may be one of their best weapons in that area. Playing against the run and becoming a more versatile and balanced lineman is the next step for him so he can stay on the field for all three downs.
The depth beyond those three doesn't look bright just yet. Sam Brincks is listed on the depth chart as the next man up and maybe he sees time? It's possible. But just as possible could be a true freshman earning those snaps. We can now see why they added as many edge players as they did in the 2016 recruiting cycle.
The defensive ends are the biggest question mark on the Iowa defense. They lose Drew Ott and Nate Meier, two bookend seniors that carried the defensive line the last couple of seasons. Meier was an all-effort type player that did not make mistakes and knew how to play while Ott was their supreme pass rusher that gave opposing offensive tackle fits. They no longer have those luxuries and are in the middle of retooling a position that lacks much experience or returning production.
I'm told that Matt Nelson has come on and that he really progressed through spring football and is one of the more improved players on the team. Anthony Nelson was another that flashed that is worth mentioning and he'll definitely see the field this season. Anthony has shown a lot of promise for just a redshirt freshman but is still grasping everything as young linemen tend to do.
The difference between Iowa's defense being good and it being great will depend on how fast the defensive ends can come along.
I don't think they flip the switch overnight and become a super group. I think they'll have their struggles early in the season and begin to grow as the year goes on. Remember how the offensive tackles got better and better last year after being a huge question mark during Fall camp? I see the same situation developing with the defensive ends this year. There's question marks but capable players with Matt Nelson, Anthony Nelson, and Parker Hesse. The offensive tackles took their lumps against Wisconsin a year ago, and grew from there. This group will take their lumps early on, too, I imagine. But I think they continue to grow from there just as Boone Myers, Cole Croston, and Ike Boettger did a season ago.
Another bold prediction would be to not be surprised if Anthony Nelson grows into a full starter at some point. If his pass rushing ability really flashes as it has in the Spring, it'll be tough to keep him off the field. That's the one thing this defense needs.