IOWA CITY — With one lineman pondering his future at Iowa and another walk-on choosing to leave, rebuilding depth on the defensive line has suddenly become a major offseason project for the Hawkeyes.
For a multitude of reasons, seven defensive linemen who were with the program last season won’t be with Iowa as its offseason strength and conditioning work begins this month and an eighth is contemplating an exit as well.
That leaves Iowa with seven defensive linemen on scholarship as it works toward spring practices, with three incoming freshmen signed to join the mix by the time fall camp begins.
“We’ve taken a pretty good hit on the defensive line and at tight end,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Thursday.
Ferentz believes there is enough experience in the program at tight end to deal with the departures of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, among four Hawkeyes who forfeited their final years of collegiate eligibility by declaring themselves eligible for the NFL draft.
Things are more complicated on the defensive front.
Tackles Sam Brincks and Matt Nelson and end Parker Hesse exhausted their eligibility when the Outback Bowl ended.
The fourth starter, end Anthony Nelson, declared for the NFL draft last week, leaving line coaches Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell with the task of replacing the entire front four.
Ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston, part of a front-four rotation during Iowa’s recently-completed 9-4 season, and back-up tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff give coaches a starting point in an area where there are currently more questions than answers.
“A.J. and Chauncey, they must lead like starters now in the way they work, the way they prepare,” Ferentz said. “It’s a new role for them.”
Reserves Garret Jansen and Brandon Simon have announced plans to transfer, and Jack Kallenberger of Bettendorf informed coaches as spring semester classes began this week that he was leaving the program.
Redshirt sophomore Dayvion Nixon, who sat out the past season to concentrate on academics following a transfer from Iowa Western Community College, is mulling his future with the program as well, placing his name on the NCAA’s transfer portal.
That allows other schools who might be interested in Nixon to contact him.
“He came in with some conditions, as you know, wasn’t able to dress out, those types of things,” Ferentz said. “I’ll just say this, my exposure to him has been extremely positive. We’ve liked what we’ve seen of him on the field. He’s a tremendous young guy. Right now, he’s working through some options and we’ll see where it goes.”
Nixon practiced during the regular season but did not participate in bowl preparations last month. He is enrolled at Iowa this semester.
An additional defensive lineman, Tyler Linderbaum, was moved to center during practices prior to the bowl and remains on the offensive side of the ball.
Levi Duwa shifted from offensive to defensive line at that time and joins Austin Schulte, Noah Shannon and John Waggoner as the only other scholarship defensive linemen on the Iowa roster at this time.
“We’ve got until August to figure it out, and we’ll do what we need to do to get our best 11 players out there,” Ferentz said. “We’ve got time, just like a year ago when we got wiped out at linebacker. This creates opportunities for other guys.”
Ferentz expects to spend much of the next two weeks on the road recruiting.
In the second year of the NCAA’s early-signing period for football, he said the talent pool of players still available is January is smaller than it was a year ago.
He believes that may be a byproduct of programs outside the power-five conferences, both at the FBS and FCS levels, telling the recruits to sign early if they wanted to be assured of having a scholarship.
With more players signing early at all levels, there are fewer players available now prior to the Feb. 6 signing date.
There are other avenues to find players, and Ferentz said Iowa is open to exploring its options.
The Hawkeyes have signed junior college and graduate transfers later into the summer months in recent seasons and continue to look at those possibilities.
Ferentz doesn’t expect Iowa to be among the frequent shoppers at the NCAA’s new transfer portal, the website where players considering a transfer can submit their names and where coaches from across the country can survey talent looking to make a move.
“We’ll continue to pursue any leads, and we will see what materializes over the next four months or so,” Ferentz said.
As was the case with graduate transfer running back James Butler from Nevada in 2017 and late junior-college transfer Mekhi Sargent last summer, Ferentz said Iowa seeks only players who will “fit” with personnel already on the roster.
“The players we have talked about as a staff, the players we have on our roster, those are the guys we have to work with. That is where our energies are at right now,” Ferentz said. “We can’t bank on a wish and a prayer.”