Bell, Nixon set to help new Iowa defensive line

Spring football is here, as Kelvin Bell and Daviyon Nixon look to lead Iowa’s defensive line into a new era.

University of Iowa Athletics

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz talks with graduate assistant Kelvin Bell during the team’s 13th Outback Bowl Practice Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013 as they prepare to face the LSU Tigers in Tampa. (Brian Ray/

Pete Ruden, Sports Editor

Entering spring practice for Iowa football, all of the Hawkeyes’ starting defensive line from 2018 had moved on.

Anthony Nelson left early for the NFL Draft, while Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson, and Sam Brincks graduated, continuing to train for the next level.

While elevating Big Ten sack leader A.J. Epenesa to a starting role is certainly a priority, Iowa lost a lot of depth in the defensive front. But it also gained a little bit in defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon.

Nixon, a former three-star recruit who held an offer from Alabama, entered the NCAA transfer portal after an academic redshirt year. Now, he’s in Iowa City for the season.

The Hawkeyes continued to rotate players with a deep defensive line last year and while they may not have the depth they did, the return of Nixon will be a key moving forward.

“We’ve been through quite a road right here with Daviyon, but I can tell you this: my interfaces with him, and I think it’s true of all of us, it’s been nothing but positive,” Ferentz said. “Super impressed with him last year because he was on the scout team redshirting. The guy just likes football… That’s not always the case when guys are on the scout team.”

Nixon wasn’t the only announcement Ferentz made regarding the defensive line, though. Ferentz also said that former recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell has been promoted to defensive line coach.

Bell replaces Reese Morgan, who retired on March 6. Morgan coached seven players who went on to earn first or second-team All-America honors, as well as 13 NFL Draft picks, including five first-rounders.

Iowa also has a place on the coaching staff for a 10th assistant, and Ferentz said while his team will take its time, the coach will likely be a defensive assistant with some recruiting duties who will work with Bell.

“We’re just going to try to figure out what the best complement is to what we have already,” Ferentz said. “We feel pretty comfortable with our defensive system, the way we’re doing things.”

Meet the Smiths

The Hawkeyes lost two of their top targets on offense with tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant headed to the NFL Draft, where many mock drafts have both players getting selected in the first round.

That leaves ample room for targets for wide receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Both players tied for fourth on the team with 361 receiving yards in 2018, trailing Hockenson, Fant, and Nick Easley. Smith caught 28 passes and 2 touchdowns, while Smith-Marsette hauled in 23 balls for 3 scores.

With Easley graduated, both Smith and Smith-Marsette now find themselves at the top of the depth chart.

“We’re going to need [Smith-Marsette] to continue to improve because of our tight end situation, see more balls maybe going outside than you have the last year or two,” Ferentz said. “[Brandon Smith] certainly learned how to use his size a little bit and some of the ability he has, so I think he’s starting to gain confidence.”

Depth chart update

 In the first depth chart of the spring, Epenesa and Chauncey Golston are manning the ends of the defensive line, with Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff on the inside.

Nick Niemann is listed first at outside linebacker, while Kristian Welch and Djimon Colbert sit at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively.

Kaevon Merriweather has also slid into the starting spot at strong safety, alongside Geno Stone, Michael Ojemudia, and Matt Hankins in the secondary.

From left to right on the offensive line, Alaric Jackson, Landon Paulsen, Cole Banwart, Levi Paulsen, and Tristan Wirfs are listed as starters.

Nate Wieting and Shaun Beyer have found spots as the No. 1 tight ends, as Smith and Smith-Marsette are the top receivers with Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini following them.

Mekhi Sargent has taken his place as No. 1 in the backfield with Nate Stanley coming back for his third year starting under center.

On special teams, Caleb Shudak is listed as the No. 1 kicker, and Colten Rastetter has kept punting duties. Smith-Marsette has taken over in the return game.

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