Katie Goodale

Iowa Defensive Tackle Daviyon Nixon raises his fist as the Hawkeyes take to their home field for the first time in the season during the Iowa v Northwestern football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes 21-20.

Leader on the line: Daviyon Nixon a disruptive force up front for the Hawkeyes

The former junior college athlete started one game for Iowa last season. Now he’s one of the team’s best players.

November 19, 2020

Daviyon Nixon, as he will acknowledge, is always talking. But his play on the field in 2020 is speaking louder than anything.

Nixon, Iowa’s charismatic 6-foot-3, 305-pound defensive tackle that Alabama once coveted enough to offer a scholarship, is playing at a level few others in the Big Ten — or the nation — can match through four games this season.

And that’s being noticed. By his current teammates and coaches, by former Hawkeyes, and by an NFL Draft researcher and analyst.

Nixon’s stat sheet reflects how disruptive he’s been on seemingly every snap of his redshirt junior year to this point — 23 tackles, 12 of them solo, seven of them for loss, three sacks, and a forced fumble.

But coming into the season, Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell had a goal that Nixon needed to accomplish to reach his next level. It didn’t have to do with any statistic.

Teammate first, leader second

Iowa recruited Nixon out of high school and signed him to a letter of intent in 2017. Academic troubles meant the Kenosha, Wisconsin, native did not qualify to attend Iowa right away, so Nixon spent a year at Iowa Western Community College.

Nine tackles for loss and five sacks earned Nixon second-team all-conference honors in his only season at Iowa Western. Alabama was among the SEC programs that took an interest in Nixon in his time in junior college, but Nixon chose to remain loyal to the Hawkeyes.

Nixon eventually made it into Iowa and redshirted in 2018 in order to focus on his studies. He briefly entered the transfer portal before ever suiting up on game day for Iowa. But he ended up staying in Iowa City, and last season was his first time seeing the field with the Hawkeyes.

Despite only starting one game last season as two veteran defensive tackles filled the lineup, Nixon played the third-most snaps on Iowa’s defensive front. He finished with three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.

As a projected starter coming into 2019, an uptick in production was expected from Nixon. As for how he was going to do that, Bell provided an unexpected answer.

“Be a good teammate,” Bell said at Iowa football media day in October. “Period. When I talk about being a good teammate, that is setting the example and that is holding others accountable to that example. If he can do those things, the sky’s the limit. The leadership role, that is above being a good teammate. I want him to be a good teammate.”

Nixon has started at defensive tackle in Iowa’s first four games of the season and has emerged as a force on the Hawkeye front. Beyond that, he’s learned more about what Bell was preaching.

Before Nixon even plays his first snap of a game, he’s in the middle of a huddle speaking to his teammates, like he did before Iowa’s matchup with Northwestern, or dancing along to “We Ready” as pregame warmups came to an end prior to the Minnesota game.

“He brings energy each and every day, every practice, every game,” linebacker Seth Benson said of Nixon. “He sparks a fire in us.”

As the whistle blows and the game begins, when Nixon isn’t dominating at the line of scrimmage, he’s out on the field during a timeout congratulating Iowa’s offensive line for opening up holes in the run game or pacing up and down the sideline firing his teammates up before a late drive.

“We came out here for a reason, and that’s just to get the job done,” Nixon said. “So if we’re out there, you’ve got to be out there in the moment and you’ve got to love it.”

Nixon’s emergence as a vocal leader accompanies a team-first attitude, no matter how he — or Iowa — performs.

Following losses to Purdue and Northwestern to begin the season, both games in which Nixon was one of Iowa’s lone bright spots, he dismissed any personal accomplishments he made and noted that it wasn’t enough because the team lost.

Bell’s message is one Nixon took to heart. He’s made an effort to be a good teammate. And in the process, he’s turned into one of Iowa’s best players.

Becoming one of the Big Ten’s best

The four Iowa games so far this season have already produced enough standout snaps from Nixon for him to produce his own highlight tape.

“He certainly has grown and practiced really well…” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said the week after the Northwestern game. “He clearly has worked his way into a starting role where he’s impacting our defense in a positive way.”

With the absence of starting defensive tackle Austin Schulte from the lineup for the first three weeks of the season, Nixon has played more snaps than even he expected coming into the year, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity.

Against Purdue in Week 1, Nixon chasing down wide receiver David Bell on a bubble screen and tackling the speedy playmaker was perhaps more impressive than any of his 2.5 tackles for loss on the day. Following that up was an 11-tackle, 1.5-sack day against Northwestern in which Nixon dominated despite being double-teamed by the Wildcat offensive line.

“I did get double-teamed a lot,” Nixon said. “It’s something I’m used to now, growing up with my stature and my size. I’m always getting double-teamed. I’ve had it in high school where teams would watch film and change the whole game plan because of me. You just got to be productive as much as possible.”

Last week against Minnesota, a tipped pass and another takedown of the opposing quarterback stood out from Nixon.

The most memorable play from Nixon’s season may be one that didn’t even count — a fumble recovery against Michigan State which he scooped up, then proceeded to outrun every Spartan on the field to the end zone with for a score, before the play was reviewed and called back.

“I was very disappointed in that,” Nixon said the following week with a grin. “That would have been my first career touchdown ever.”

There’s not much else for Nixon to be disappointed in as far as his play on the field goes.

Nixon creates mayhem up front. From clogging up running lanes to making a beeline to the passer, Nixon is always creating chaos for opposing offenses.

“Daviyon is a great player,” defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. “We really rely on him to make a lot of plays. Obviously, it’s a group effort. But he’s a great player, and he really brings a group together.”

“Daviyon’s a guy who’s been in our program, but now you’re seeing him play with confidence,” Ferentz said. “He’s always played with high energy, but he’s starting to develop a little confidence.”

If Nixon continues to take his game to another level, he may soon find himself playing at the next level.

Potential as a professional

While Nixon was having his way with Purdue’s offensive front, former Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels tweeted that this was going to be Nixon’s final college season, implying a shot at the NFL is near.

Former standout Hawkeye defensive linemen Jaleel Johnson and Mike Daniels have publicly recognized and highlighted Nixon’s play, as has Ben Fennell.

Fennell has spent years analyzing NFL Draft prospects, including at the NFL Network. Since 2015, Fennell has worked as a segment producer for NFL Films for content relating to the draft and the combine. He researches and provides analysis on players around college football, and has worked with NFL Network draft experts like Mike Mayock and Daniel Jeremiah.

Nixon stood out for Fennell early in the season.

After Nixon’s performance against Northwestern, Fennell tweeted that the defensive tackle had his attention.

In a scouting breakdown of Nixon he wrote for The Daily Iowan, Fennell noted the area he’s seen Nixon grow the most this season is his tenacity to get to the ball.

“More urgency,” Fennell wrote. “Seeing better hustle/effort and some counter moves to shed blocks late in the down and flow to the football. Few of the [plays] in Week 1 came as a result of him hustling and finishing.”

Fennell’s NFL comparisons for Nixon in terms of playing style and build are former Purdue defensive lineman and current Carolina Panther Kawann Short, as well as Matt Ioannidis, a member of the Washington Football team who had an accomplished college career at Temple.

The attributes leading to these comparisons, in Fennell’s words:

  • “Nixon has flashed short area quickness and burst — a critical trait for an interior rusher.”
  • “Nixon is incredibly stout at the point of attack — especially against double teams. He can play the run effectively on early downs — not a liability.”
  • “Nixon has excellent lower body strength to hold his ground against these double teams. Many times he’s actually able to split these blocks as well. Nixon is able to sink hips/keep feet in the ground and battle with his hands/upper body. He also has a knack of getting skinny and reducing surface area for the double team block to be effective.”
  • “Stout at point of attack. Rarely knocked back.”

The biggest thing Nixon can do to improve his play on the field, Fennell says, comes when he is rushing the passer. In true pass-rush situations, a faster get-off from Nixon, as well as being more active and violent with his hands, would make him an even bigger challenge to block.

“Usually he’s tasked with playing the run first,” Fennell said. “Which hurts his ability to fly upfield.”

Fennell currently sees Nixon as a Day 3, developmental interior defensive line prospect with an interesting upside. That upside could continue to grow as Nixon shows more on tape this season, maybe even into the earlier rounds of the draft.

Nixon has months before he even needs to consider weighing his options for the next level. And there’s no guarantee the redshirt junior even takes that step after this season. But he’d likely have the opportunity to do so.

Scouts from 15 NFL franchises attended last weekend’s Iowa-Minnesota game in Minneapolis.

It’s safe to assume Nixon was one of the players being evaluated.

The first four games of the 2020 season have seen Nixon grow as a leader and a defender. He’s become a player opposing offensive linemen must hate to block and opposing coaches are sure to dread game-planning for, and a vocal leader that leads by example for his fellow Hawkeyes.

Nixon accepted Bell’s challenge and displayed what he can do in the first half of Iowa’s regular season schedule. Topping that in the second half of it and beyond is the next challenge.

But if his play this year is any indication, Nixon is up for it.

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