Why Iowa’s football defensive front relies on honest communication
The Iowa defensive line unit had questions at the start of the 2021 season. Three key players from last year – Chauncey Gholston, Jack Heflin and Daviyon Nixon – are now on the NFL rosters. The current squad are following in the footsteps of their former teammates and building on the standard in place to be successful.
The three pillars of the Iowa defensive line room are attention to detail, total effort and, lastly, honest self-assessment. This year, the importance of the last pillar is enormous.
“When you go back to the movie theater you have to be honest about what you see on tape,” said inside defensive line veteran Noah Shannon. “We are talking about being a ‘thumb-mate’ so we have to hold ourselves accountable before we can tell our team-mates what to do.”
The defensive line passed its first test last Saturday against a veteran Indiana offensive line. The defense limited the Hoosiers to just 233 total yards, with 77 rushing for just 2.5 yards per carry.
“We’ve seen Zach (VanValkenburg) play a lot of football for us, and he’s a good player,” said head coach Kirk Ferentz. “I felt pretty confident that Noah would play well, that John Wagoner would play well, Joe Evans – because those guys were out there on the pitch.
“But the other guys, I was really nice – I don’t mean ‘surprised’, but I was happy with what we saw.”
Almost a month ago, trust was not as high across the group.
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Their first opportunity to present themselves to spectators fell flat. In the Kids Day scrum on August 14, the group was generally dominated by the offensive line. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker called in several blitzes throughout the day to try and fake offensive pressure the line couldn’t create on its own.
A lackluster performance provided a great opportunity for the unit to learn and grow ahead of the season opener on Sept. 4 against Indiana.
“Children’s Day was a great learning tape for us in terms of honest assessment,” said defensive end John Wagoner. “We had things, broadly speaking, that were questionable – just missed missions – and I think we could have played with more energy that day.”
Uncertainty about the group loomed as the game entered Indiana: how would they be fair and, most importantly, how many would be in the rotation? During fall camp, Ferentz was hoping they could have a solid six to eight players in the mix, but last Saturday’s game topped that total.
Nine players have played at least nine snaps against Indiana: VanValkenburg (48), Wagoner (42), Lukas Van Ness (35), Logan Lee (28), Shannon (27), Yahya Black (25), Deontae Craig (21) , Ethan Hurkett (15) and Joe Evans (9).
How did so many Hawkeyes gain this trust? This is part of the long-term preparation of the spring and toggle switch after the melee.
“You see a guy giving his all,” Evans said. “In the movie theater, just studying as hard as you can, you see this and obviously you will gain confidence in them – you are going to have confidence that they are going to do what they are supposed to do and you saw him at the Indiana game. “
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When Ferentz examined the tape, he saw the total effort that was missing from the Children’s Day scrum.
“Again, it wasn’t always pretty,” Ferentz said. “But they were playing hard, and they looked aggressive and they didn’t seem to be shy or playing on eggshells, and that was really good to see.”
Honest self-assessments continue for the Iowa defensive front. As a unit, they combined six quarterbacks, three tackles for a loss and a single sack last Saturday. They’re looking for a more disruptive effort against Brock Purdy and Breece Hall’s Cyclones 1-2 punch.
The Iowa State offensive line also presents a big challenge: four starters have an active starting streak of at least 12 games. But Iowa’s strength in numbers could serve as an advantage. The weather forecast for the kickoff is in the low-mid 90 degrees; the cooler the legs are to conserve energy, the better.
“To be about to trust about 10 of us,” Evans said. “I think that’s an advantage and a good thing. We just have to play our keys, play with a good level of padding and really good fundamentals and do our best.”
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Which brings us back to the first two pillars: attention to detail and total effort. The defensive line is far from a finished product, and open lines of communication will be essential to derive maximum potential from it.
For Ferentz, the fact that they still have a long way to go is encouraging.
“They did a lot of really good things,” Ferentz said Tuesday of the game in Indiana. “So I think these are all things that we can hopefully build on and keep moving forward.
“One thing I have been optimistic about is that we have a chance to really improve, as a football team – I hope daily and weekly – but these are just words and words. rhetoric if you can’t. That’s what we have to do.