Depth chart breakdown: Iowa football’s defense

With key players gone, Iowa will need some new players to step up on defense.


Megan Nagorzanski

Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston tackles Northwestern quarter back Aidan Smith during a game against Northwestern at Ryan Field on Saturday, October 26, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats 20-0. The Hawkeyes had a total of 63 tackles.

Pete Ruden, Pregame Editor

The Hawkeye defense will go through a transition as it heads into 2020.

Gone are the days of A.J. Epenesa, Geno Stone, and Michael Ojemudia. Instead, Iowa will see some players who have experience — but few starts — slide into the open slots of Phil Parker’s defense.

RELATED: Depth chart breakdown: Iowa football’s offense

DE — Chauncey Golston (6-5, 270, senior)

Golston’s return is big for Iowa’s defensive line. The only returning starter, Golston provides familiarity and proven success on a unit that will look very different come September.

After ranking third on the team in sacks (3.0) and second in tackles for loss (9.5), he’ll look to provide the leading mark as a key playmaker.

DT — Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 309, junior)

Nixon considered a transfer early in his Hawkeye career before deciding to stay in Iowa City. That decision paid off.

Nixon saw action in all 13 games with one start last season, recording three sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss. He showed he can impress against Northwestern when he picked up two sacks in Iowa’s shutout victory over the Wildcats.

Now, he’ll receive a bigger opportunity to show how he has progressed.

DT — Austin Schulte (6-4, 287, senior)

Just as Nixon stepped in when needed, Schulte did the same. While he didn’t put up the same numbers as Nixon (1.0 tackle for loss), he played well en route to earning the team’s defensive Comeback Player of the Year award.

DE — Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 270, senior)

VanValkenburg didn’t make a huge impact after transferring from Division II Hillsdale College, but he could now with Epenesa moving on to the NFL.

Sophomore John Waggoner, who recorded a sack against Purdue last season, will likely compete with VanValkenburg for the majority of snaps.

Although he weighed only 240 pounds last season, Joe Evans will certainly see plenty of action again after notching four sacks in 2019. If Evans bulks up with Chris Doyle’s help, he could compete for a starting role, as well.

Leo — Nick Niemann (6-4, 235, senior)

Niemann returns as one of Iowa’s most experienced linebackers in 2020. When the Hawkeyes don’t utilize their “cash” defense, Niemann will be looked to as a playmaker in his final season.

Coming off one of his best games in the Holiday Bowl against USC in which he picked up a sack and took an interception back for a touchdown, Niemann will look to continue the momentum into 2020.

MLB — Dillon Doyle (6-3, 235, sophomore)

When starter Kristian Welch went down for three games toward the end of the regular season last season, Doyle was thrust into the starting role. That experience will come in handy this year.

Despite being a sophomore, Doyle will be looked at to quarterback the Hawkeye defense. He performed well when starting, recording seven-tackle performances in back-to-back games. Doyle also forced a fumble against Michigan on Oct. 5.

WLB — Djimon Colbert (6-1, 235, junior)

Colbert was a mainstay in Iowa’s lineup last season.

After switching from safety to linebacker during spring practice in 2018, Colbert started all 13 games in 2019 and ranked fourth on the team with 61 tackles.

With Niemann and Colbert manning the outside and weak-side positions, Doyle should be able to find comfort and familiarity early in his first season as a starter.

CB — Matt Hankins (6-0, 185, senior)

Hankins enters 2020 as the man of the secondary. Now the most experienced player of the unit, Hankins will look to follow in the footsteps of Michael Ojemudia and Josh Jackson in terms of stringing together stellar senior campaigns.

Hankins has the tools, picking off two passes and breaking up seven passes last year, but he will need to stay healthy. In the past two years, Hankins has missed eight games due to injury.

SS — Dane Belton (6-1, 190, sophomore)

Belton played well when he was utilized in Iowa’s “cash” defense last season, and he could resume that role again in 2020. When the Hawkeyes are in their base defense, though, Belton could find himself replacing Stone.

Belton recorded 33 tackles as a true freshman in 2019, including two for a loss. If Parker put him on the field then, he won’t be afraid to now.

Kaevon Merriweather — who began last season as a starting safety — could compete for a spot with his athleticism, as well.

FS — Jack Koerner (6-0, 204, junior)

Koerner stepped in to replace an injured Merriweather last season, and he never gave up the starting spot.

Koerner did it all last season, ranking second on the team with 81 tackles, recording an interception, braking up five passes, recovering two fumbles, and forcing a fumble.

With a new starter playing alongside him, Koerner should help whoever it may be ease into things.

CB — Riley Moss (6-1, 191, junior)

Moss has started six games in his career and has picked off four passes.

Two of those came last season, including one in his lone start against a top-10 Minnesota squad and another against Purdue.

Moss’ ability to step in without being fazed should help him as he enters the new year as a starter.

Julius Brents will likely see some action in addition to Moss and Hankins. Brents made an impact and picked off a pass in 2018 but redshirted last season after playing in just one game due to injury.