5 Iowa players who could take defense from good to great

IOWA CITY, Iowa — It was fitting Iowa’s defense came up with the biggest plays late in the fourth quarter to win the Pinstripe Bowl seven weeks ago.

A sack and forced fumble by Anthony Nelson followed by a Josh Jackson interception led to a 27-20 victory against Boston College. The win ended the Hawkeyes’ five-game bowl losing streak and provided an exclamation point for the defense.

The Hawkeyes led the nation in interceptions with 21 and ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense (19.9). Two defenders were named unanimous All-Americans — middle linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Jackson. Jewell earned the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. Jackson led the country in interceptions (8) and passes defended (26).

Those two will play football on Sundays, not Saturdays, next fall. With them, Iowa’s defense fluctuated from good to very good most of the season. But for Iowa to reach its goal, the defense will need to replace Jackson and Jewell and also take another step forward. With many of the holdovers, it will be challenging but not impossible.

For the defense to go from good to great, here are five players who need to do the same.

Defensive end Anthony Nelson

Anthony Nelson (6-foot-7, 260 pounds) has a rare blend of length, power and quickness that at times can make him unblockable. Nelson, a junior, has an explosive first step that helped him pick up a team-high 7.5 sacks to rank fifth in the Big Ten. He notched 2.5 sacks against Penn State and also blocked a field-goal attempt that night. He had 3 quarterback hurries against Northwestern.

With the Pinstripe Bowl score tied and Boston College at midfield, Nelson stripped Eagles quarterback Darius Wade and the ball was recovered by fellow defensive end Parker Hesse. That led to the game-winning touchdown. It’s possible Nelson re-creates that scenario a few more times this year.

Defensive end A.J. Epenesa

As the Hawkeyes’ first 5-star recruit in 12 years, A.J. Epenesa was expected to make an immediate contribution. He didn’t disappoint, either. Epenesa (6-5, 270) led the team with 8 quarterback hurries and picked up 4.5 sacks in his first semester on campus. Epenesa’s talent and work ethic are obvious. His conditioning and technique improved as the season progressed. As he sees more snaps and rotates with Hesse on the outside, Epenesa has a chance to double his sack total this year.

Defensive end Parker Hesse

Parker Hesse has become the overlooked defensive end, with neither the size (6-3-257) nor the accolades (2-star recruit) of Nelson and Epenesa. But Hesse is as tough as a leather belt, as relentless as a jackhammer and is the heartbeat of the defensive line. Hesse produced 10.5 tackles for loss last year, including 4 sacks. He also intercepted a pass, forced 2 fumbles and recovered another one in the Pinstripe Bowl. Hesse moved inside on some pass-rush situations and should do the same this fall. While his natural talent doesn’t match that of Nelson or Epenesa, nobody will outwork Hesse in practice or in a game.

Safety Amani Hooker

When Amani Hooker (6-foot, 210) was on the field last fall, everybody knew it. He made his first career start against Penn State and produced 13 tackles. Against Ohio State, Hooker intercepted a pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play. Hooker finished fifth in tackles with 56 but missed three games with an injury and didn’t start the season’s first three. If Hooker can stay healthy, he could notch 80-plus tackles and force 5-plus turnovers this year and become an All-Big Ten defender.

Cornerback Manny Rugamba

Yes, the 2017 season was a disappointment for Manny Rugamba. He was suspended from the opener for violating team rules. He suffered a high-ankle sprain midway through the season. He lost his starting job after being beaten down the field repeatedly by Purdue’s offense. But Rugamba flashed so much potential late in 2016 that he’s bound to atone for his rough 2017. After the Michigan game in 2016, he was named the Big Ten’s co-Freshman of the Week. In that game, he intercepted a fourth-quarter pass and also broke up a pass in the end zone and another on third down. If Rugamba demonstrates the maturity and makes the necessary strides, he could become the player most people expected entering last season.

The post 5 Iowa players who could take defense from good to great appeared first on Land of 10.

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