The quality and the depth of the defensive line is definitely on the edge. The ends have multiple bodies that can do the damage as pass rushers, and they're all pretty high level difference makers. The proven commodities will be the starters on the first unit; Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse. Another proven commodity is Matt Nelson but I think he drifts a bit into the second unit during the 2017 season. That's no knock on him. Injuries and being a little banged up has a little do with it, but so does the development of Anthony Nelson.
Everyone wants to showcase and speak about the buzz of A.J. Epenesa's arrival in Iowa City but I think an unforgotten storyline is the emergence of Anthony Nelson becoming a star. Folks are forgetting the glimpses he showed as a pass rusher a year ago. He was very effective, even in limited action. This year he should only be getting better and he should be able to stay on the field longer because his ability to stop the run and be a force in that facet should be improved. And let's not forget Parker Hesse. Nothing against Matt Nelson but Parker Hesse is another that will be tough to keep off the field. There's a very good chance Parker Hesse leaves the Hawkeye program as essentially a four-year starter.
The interior is more of a question mark. Matt Nelson could move inside, and possibly get more playing time because of it, but he won't be a starter on the inside. Cedrick Lattimore definitely will be and he flashed a bit in his true freshman year and then again in the Spring. The coaches and his teammates really, really like his potential. This year will be a learning year but he has the ability to turn himself into an NFL player before it's all said and done. He should be flanked by Nathan Bazata, assuming Bazata is healthy. It's difficult to remember the last time that was, though. He was missing all of Spring. It was not just him missing reps. Bazata was nowhere to be seen in our time around the building. He was not at the open practices. He was not at the Spring Game. He was not at the practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines.
If Bazata were to be unavailable, the next men up during the Spring were Garret Jansen and Brady Reiff. The coaches love Reiff. He will play a lot and certainly get reps with the first unit at least at times.
The first unit is Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse, Cedrick Lattimore, and then Brady Reiff or Nathan Bazata.
Assuming Bazata is healthy enough and back into the starting lineup by the Fall, the second unit defensive tackles are Garret Jansen and Brady Reiff. Jansen was an end when he arrived in Iowa City but got some first team reps just like Reiff when Bazata was out. But let's not forget about Matt Nelson. I think he will be one that can provide depth to both the edge and interior.
The back-up ends can play. He's a walk-on but I've always liked what I've seen from Sam Brincks and he was healthy once again by the end of spring football. They got two new youngsters that are blossoming pass rushers as well in Brandon Simon and Chauncey Golston. I think they'd like to get them a bit more suited to play against the run and add strength, but they're ready to get after the quarterback for the Hawkeyes now.
I don't think it's out of the question he ends up a starter in some kind of capacity before the season starts but I think A.J. Epenesa begins in this second rotation somewhere. He'll get his snaps. He's going to play right away. I think it might be on both the edge and interior. He's a better "prospect" on the edge but probably can help the Hawkeyes more in the immediate time on the inside.
The rest of the defensive ends only leaves two; Romeo McKnight and Levi Duwa. There's talk about moving Duwa inside and perhaps that happens but I do like him as more of an edge player, personally. Either way, he'll redshirt. McKnight is fully back from the ACL tear at the end of his high school career and was full-go in the Spring. It's about catching up to everyone else now. Don't forget about him too fast. He has the make-up physically.
The rest of the interior consists of Jacob Newborg, Austin Schulte, and Daviyon Nixon. Newborg underwent a positional change and is still in the process of mastering the move. Schulte was another attempting to bounce back from a senior year in high school injury. Nixon will be an incoming freshmen if he's able to make it. If he does make it in, he'll redshirt.
A solid prediction/projection from me from this group will be that it will be among the conference leaders in sacks. This is a group made to get after the quarterback. That's how they've recruited the past few years with the type of athletes they've brought in to compete for these jobs. It should come into view and fruition this upcoming season. They have four or five guys coming off the edge that can rush the passer, and some of their interior guys as well like Reiff.
Stopping the run could be the issue and it would be advantageous for this unit to have Bazata back and healthy. He's very, very good against the run and can kind of bring the bulk they don't have there right now. Lattimore is going to be good but it's a lot to ask of him to be the anchor against the run his first year on the job as a starter. A buffer year would be great and he gets that if Bazata flanks him. It's a bit tougher to do alongside Reiff. Let Reiff have the season to mature, develop and grow into the position as a rotational player and depth provider.
As you can tell, I think this group can be great. But they have some holes and flaws without Bazata. If he can make his presence known, I think this group grows up faster than most folks expect.