Revamped Hawkeye defense aims to make impact in 2020

Faces both familiar and unfamiliar are ready to step into new roles on defense for Iowa football.


Katina Zentz

Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon prepares to tackle during the Iowa football game against Miami (Ohio) at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, August 31, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Redhawks 38-14. (Katina Zentz/The Daily Iowan)

Austin Hanson, Sports Editor

The Hawkeye defense has some stars to replace.

All-Big Ten defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa, who recorded 11.5 sacks last season with Iowa, is one of them. Epenesa was selected with the 54th overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. and replacing his production won’t be easy, and it won’t fall solely on one pass rusher.

“I don’t think we’re out here trying to replace A.J.,” defensive lineman Chauncey Golston said. “A.J.’s off doing big things with the Bills. We’re just trying to be the best defense that we can, and be as productive as possible. I don’t think we’re trying to replace him. He left a void, so we’re just stepping up and doing our job.”

Last season, Golston posted solid numbers –  three sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and five pass break-ups.

Golston is taking over as Iowa top pass rusher in 2020 and will likely get some help on the defensive front from junior Daviyon Nixon. The Iowa Western transfer recorded three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2019.

Following his first season in the Black and Gold, Nixon will likely step into a larger role in 2020.

“Last year, there was more to it than just 11 guys on the field playing,” Nixon said. “They were all playing as one. We always play as one when we hit the field. So, this year if we could do that times 10, us not having that many experienced guys on the field shouldn’t matter as long as we play together as one and do as our coaches say. We shouldn’t have a problem.”

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In addition to the defensive line, Iowa also has to plug holes in the defensive backfield.

Cornerback Michael Ojemudia and safety Geno Stone both went pro after last season – Ojemudia to the Denver Broncos in the third round of the NFL Draft and Stone to the Baltimore Ravens in the seventh round.

Matt Hankins takes over the role of Iowa’s top cornerback, and Riley Moss or Julius Brents will likely start opposite him. Jack Koerner earned a starting position at free safety last season, and it will be up to sophomores Kaevon Merriweather or Dane Belton to fill Stone’s spot.

“We’re all coming together and helping each other,” Hankins said. “Teaching the younger guys as well, just making sure that everybody will be ready because this season, with COVID-19 going on, we don’t know what can happen. One man could fall out and be out for three weeks, and the next person has to be ready. So, that’s what we’ve been working on the most, just making sure everybody is good.”

Iowa is also filling holes at defensive tackle.

Interior defensive linemen Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore both graduated in 2019. Senior Austin Schulte and transfer Jack Heflin, along with Nixon, are slated to take the majority of the snaps in place of Lattimore and Reiff.

“There’s definitely been a lot of changes,” Schulte said. “Year-to-year guys graduate, guys leave, go to the NFL. There’s always going to be guys that play a little bit, a few fresh bodies that are going to be in the mix. It’s been good though, getting a rotation is part of camp. Just trying to get everyone a little bit of time on the field, and figuring out who can do what, and put the best unit out there on gameday. We have plenty of capable bodies, it should be a good unit this year.”

With all the new faces in new places, the Hawkeyes are preparing to prove that this revamped defense can compete with the best in the Big Ten.

“Really, it’s exciting, it’s very exciting,” Nixon said. “[The shortened football season] is also kind of a sad situation. All of us really wanted to play our 12 games and show the world what Iowa can really be, even with new guys and some old guys. . . With these nine games, we’re just really going to have to go out there and do what we need to do. So, I feel like we need to just keep being ready and stay ready.”