With Epenesa gone, Iowa defensive line prepared to step up

With star A.J. Epenesa in the NFL, the Hawkeyes feel confident they have the players to have another successful season on the defensive line.

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Katie Goodale

Defensive lineman Chauncey Golston stands in the South end-zone during Iowa football vs. Miami (Ohio) at Kinnick Stadium on Aug. 31, 2019. Iowa defeated the Miami (Ohio) 38-14.

Isaac Goffin, Assistant Sports Editor


There’s no replacing A.J. Epenesa, but the Hawkeyes are going to try.

The former All-Big Ten performer produced double-digit sack totals in both of the past two seasons. Now, he’s in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. Taking over Epenesa’s role as Iowa’s top pass rusher is senior Chauncey Golston, who had three sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss last season.

But continuing Iowa’s success on the defensive line will be a collective effort.

A preseason second-team All-Big Ten pick, Golston is the starting left end on Iowa’s preseason depth chart.

“He just needs to continue playing and continue to develop that way because he’s on the right track,” defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said. “Him and [senior defensive tackle] Austin Schulte are guys that I feel confident in. I can leave them in a room and have them coach the young guys because they’ll do it with the detail that’s expected.”

Golston needs to play well for Iowa to play well, Bell said. And how the senior performs will be a strong indicator for how well the Hawkeye defensive line will perform.

The Detroit native said he’s impressed with his teammates in his position group so far.

“Everyone’s been taking this time to take strides to better themselves as pass rushers,” Golston said. “It’s the whole collective group, not just the other end, or it’s the defensive tackles that have been stepping up, so it hasn’t just been one person.”

Junior Daviyon Nixon is projected to start at the left defensive tackle position. The former Iowa Western Community College player played in all 13 games last season and recorded 29 tackles with three sacks.

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Though those numbers look promising for Nixon, one of his coaches said he needs to work on something specific to reach his potential.

“Be a good teammate. Period. Be a good teammate,” Bell said. “When I talk about being a good teammate that is setting an example and that’s holding others accountable.”

As far as on the field, Nixon said his biggest learning lesson from last season was keeping his pads low.

“Especially playing against Iowa State and Michigan, a lot of times on film I see myself getting thrown five yards of the play,” Nixon said. “That’s not what I wanted to do, especially trying to stop the run issue that’s been my biggest concern. Everyone knows that I can pass rush, but my job is to get us to those third downs and force the ball to be thrown so that we can get the opportunity to rush the passer.”

Last season, the Hawkeyes ranked fifth in the Big Ten and 12th in the NCAA in total defense, giving up an average of 308.2 yards per game. Their rushing defense gave up 112.5 yards per game, fourth in the conference and 14th in the nation.

On the other side of Golston, senior Zach VanValkenburg is the starter on the preseason depth chart. The Zeeland, Michigan, native came to the Hawkeyes after transferring from Division II Hillsdale College. He totaled six tackles in 11 games last season.

Schulte is projected to start at the other defensive tackle position. He started in two games and played in all 13, producing one sack and 12 total tackles.

For the player from Pella, Iowa, it’s all about improving on the little things heading into his senior year.

“There’s always things you can improve on, especially in the sport of football,” Schulte said. “You’re never going to play a perfect game.”

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