Hawkeye football looks to dominate in the trenches

With the spring football slate in full swing, Brian Ferentz and Phil Parker spoke on the importance of dominance up front.


The Daily Iowan; Photo by Ben Smith

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) celebrates a sack during the game between Iowa and Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. The Hawkeyes fell to the Badgers 38-14. (Ben Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Pete Mills, Assistant Sports Editor

One of the Iowa football program’s most pervasive assets has always been its defensive and offensive lines.

As defensive coordinator Phil Parker and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz spoke on the team’s progress to the press on Tuesday, this continued to be a constant theme.

Despite young players and some departures from last year’s squad, this could be one of the most dynamic group of big players in recent memory, and this could make 2019 an interesting year for Hawkeye football.

Running attack hinges on blocking improvement

The running trio of Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young, and Ivory Kelly-Martin are all returning this season, and the coaching staff is looking to get more explosiveness from the backfield. Obviously, this starts up front.

Huge gains on the ground were few and far between last season for the Hawkeyes. Kelly-Martin’s longest gain on the year was 19 yards, Young’s was 40 yards, and Sargent’s was 32 yards. But they weren’t as common as the team wants, and the grind-it-out type of offense can be frustrating when there aren’t always results.

“[We need to] block better,” Ferentz said. “Wish I could get up here and give you a scientific answer. Coaches are pretty insecure by nature. We have to justify the job we have. They pay us a lot of money to come in here and coach a children’s game. It’s simple. It’s really simple. We need to block better.”

Despite losses, defensive line will be just as dominant

Some of the biggest names departed the Iowa defensive last season, but the team is not worried.

Iowa had a uniquely large rotation up front last season because of the team’s depth in the trenches. Take A.J. Epenesa ­– one of the most dynamic defensive players in the conference – who took far fewer snaps last season than many of his peers.

A large reason for this, Parker said, is to give guys a chance to rest in the middle of games. Whether intended or not, that makes transition easy when departures occur.

“One thing about the defensive line and offensive line, every single play, they are beating on each other and it takes a toll on you,” Parker said. “How many guys we played last year, really kept us fresh up front, and those guys up front are the reason why we were so successful in my opinion.”

Parker mentioned several names that will be fixtures in that defensive rotation in the upcoming season, including Epenesa, Noah Shannon, Austin Schulte, and Daviyon Nixon. Some of these are familiar names, but relatively unknown players often make noise in this program, especially at these positions.

Wirfs leads offensive line

Tristan Wirfs made headlines this offseason for his unbelievable strength, but Ferentz noted he is almost more impressed with the junior’s work in learning the game and his place in the offensive scheme.

“Tristan has impressed me through the last four weeks,” Ferentz said. “He’s seemed to have grown up and matured a little bit as a football player and things are starting to make a lot more sense to him. Threw him in there as a freshman, and he’s big and strong, but not quite up to speed in what was going on. He’s at a different point in his development right now where he’s starting to understand the game.”

With a veteran quarterback in the backfield and a focus on the explosive running game, having a member of the line who can lead is very important.

Wirfs came into his own last season, proving his dominance in physicality. But having him as a leader in the locker room could make a huge difference in forming a forceful offense.