The Iowa Hawkeyes have been to three straight bowl games, and it's no coincidence that Iowa's defensive line has been strong in each of those three seasons.
Iowa won seven games in 2001, and they ranked 27th in the country in stopping the run, allowing 120.5 yards per game on the ground.
In 2002, the Hawkeyes churned out 11 wins. They had a fantastic offense, but the defense was just as good, allowing less than 82 yards per game on the ground and finishing 5th in the nation in rushing defense.
The 2003 Iowa defense was better on the whole, but the linemen were still doing the dirty work at a very high level, allowing 92.7 yards rushing per game on the ground and finishing 8th in the nation in that category.
The 2002 line was without Aaron Kampman and Derrick Pickens. The 2003 line was without Colin Cole, and they would also be without Jonathon Babineaux for five of their eight league games due to an injury. Jared Clauss was not at 100-percent for much of the year.
In other words, Ron Aiken's trenchmen have had to deal with adversity and graduation from year to year. But each season, the next men in have stepped up and performed at championship levels.
The 2004 Iowa Hawkeyes will line up on across from the ball without three key players from the 2003 season: Clauss, Howard Hodges and Matt Neubauer.
Clauss and Hodges used up their eligibility, while Neubauer unexpected left the team last week, citing an inability to find a degree that he wanted to pursue. Neubauer was going to be a junior and he was a very versatile player, a man that could play inside and outside. All three players will be missed.
With a new and young quarterback taking over the reigns next season, the defense is going to be counted upon once more to carry more than just its own weight, at least initially.
And it all starts up front.
RETURNING STARTERS: Matt Roth (SR, 6-4/270), Jonathon Babineaux (SR, 6-2, 287), Tyler Luebke (SR, 6-1, 278).
Sure, you might argue that Luebke is not a returning starter, but he was a big time performer for Iowa over its final three games last year and he took plenty of reps as Jared Clauss' ankle was not 100-percent and the Hawks were already without Babineaux.
Those three players are penciled in as starters for Iowa, with Luebke and Babineaux at tackle and Roth at one end.
Prior to his leaving the team, Neubauer and Derreck Robinson were running neck and neck to start at Iowa's other DE position, and Robinson was also listed as a back up DT (on the original pre-practice two-deep).
Look for Robinson to start at end next fall.
Well, it's a pretty big ‘unless', but there are some talented youngsters waiting in the wings.
RS FR Ken Iwebema (6-4, 242) is somewhat of a Howard Hodges clone, with perhaps even more upside. He is already bigger at a much earlier stage than was Hodges. Hodges was listed at 6-2, 225 in the 2000 football media guide. So Iwebema has a chance to improve on his weight numbers before this fall.
He is very athletic, cat-quick and his strength is certainly improving. His name came up all of the time last fall when Iowa's coaches were talking about some of the younger kids flashing in practice. After committing to Iowa, Kansas State and Texas tried to make late overtures for his services, and each school offered him a scholarship.
Another RS FR in the spring two deep is Bryan Mattison (6-3, 242). Mattison, son of longtime defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who currently coaches that position for Notre Dame, is clearly well schooled. He was very impressive in January of 2003 while playing in the Army All-American game. He was also voted the best defensive lineman in the state of Indiana as a senior.
While Iwebema and Mattison could be Iowa's bookends of the future, another RS FR is working on impressing the coaches this year as well. George Eshareturi (6-3, 305), a man-child with legs that would make Earl Campbell blush, has worked his way into the ‘in camp' two deep, as has fellow RS FR Alex Willcox (6-2, 280). Urban legend reports that Willcox is ‘an animal' on the line.
So, you have four senior starters with four RS Freshman behind them on the depth chart. That is both good for the future, but it also is a bit spooky as you look to next season.
If Iowa can be fortunate and avoid the injury bug on the DL next year, then having the youth in the mix should bode well for the future of the program.
Should the Hawkeyes lose a player or two due to injury next year for any amount of time, a young'un is going to see some serious reps. While these RS frosh are bigger, stronger and faster than their 1999 & 2000 counterparts were at the same age, they are still young and inexperienced. It would be great to work them into the rotation early and get them some quality reps, and that will likely be the case.
But ideally, you do not want to count on one of these players to play starter's minutes. Not that they might not be able to deliver, but you would rather stick with the seniors leading the way.
On the whole, I expect this year's line to be somewhere between the 2001 and 2003 groups. I think it may be tough to expect them to hold opponents to under 100 yards the way the previous two units have done, but if they don't do that, I do not expect them to miss by much.
Especially with Hodge and Greenway behind them playing cleanup.