Projecting Iowa’s 2018 defensive and special teams depth chart, post-National Signing Day

IOWA CITY, Iowa — With National Signing Day complete, we can now look forward to how Iowa’s holdovers and newcomers will compete on the football field this fall.

On defense, Hawkeyes bring back one of their deepest and most talented crops along the line, but lose a wealth of experience at linebacker. Iowa must replace unanimous All-Americans in middle linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Josh Jackson. But defensive ends Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa, along with safety Amani Hooker, are potential breakout players.

Here’s a projection of Iowa’s 2018 defense entering spring practice, along with a look at which newcomers could impact the depth chart.

Iowa defensive end

Who returns: Iowa brings back its top four defensive ends from a defense that generated 29 sacks last year. Anthony Nelson, a junior, led the team in sacks with 7.5, including a pivotal sack and forced fumble in the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College. Parker Hesse enters his fourth season as a starter and generated 10.5 tackles for loss in 2017. In his first fall on campus in 2017, A.J. Epenesa made a significant impact with 4.5 sacks and 8 quarterback hurries. Sam Brincks, a senior, also played plenty of snaps as the fourth defensive end.

Who left: Not one defensive end left the squad after last season. A talented group will be a more-experienced one in 2018.

Newcomers: In-state defensive end John Waggoner was rated as a 4-star by Rivals and could become a key contributor for multiple years. With two seniors in the four-man rotation, Waggoner could redshirt and gain a starting role by his third season.

Depth chart projection: Nelson has the chance to become a first-team All-Big Ten performer this year. Hesse, who often is overlooked, sometimes moved inside on pass-rush situations to make room for Epenesa, a former 5-star recruit. Expect those three to play a similar amount of snaps this season to keep them fresh. Likewise, Brincks spelled Nelson quite a bit last year, and it’s possible Chauncey Golston or Brandon Simon could see spot reps this year, too.

First team Second team Third team
LDE Anthony Nelson, jr., 6-7, 260 Sam Brincks, sr., 6-5, 275 Chauncey Golston, soph., 6-5, 255
RDE Parker Hesse, sr., 6-3, 257 A.J. Epenesa, soph., 6-5, 270 Brandon Simon, soph., 6-1, 240

Iowa defensive tackle

Who returns: Junior Cedrick Lattimore started the season’s first six games, then gave way to senior Matt Nelson for the final seven. Nelson played defensive end for his first three seasons on campus (including a redshirt year) and started 13 games there in 2016 before moving inside last fall. Brady Reiff and Garret Jansen also worked in the rotation is just about every game.

Who left: Three-year starter Nathan Bazata graduated, which means Iowa has a hole in experience and production (51 tackles, 3 sacks in 2017). Jake Hulett and hard-nosed practice-team member Daniel Gaffey also graduated.

Newcomers: Sophomore Daviyon Nixon was an original signee in 2016 but was academically ineligible to attend Iowa. Both Iowa officials and Nixon appealed and he was able to enroll at Iowa after the first semester at Iowa Western Community College. The Hawkeyes thwarted off other suitors including Alabama to keep Nixon. Talented incoming defensive tackles Tyler Linderbaum and Noah Shannon could be starters in three seasons.

Depth chart projection: Nelson suffered a shoulder injury late in the Pinstripe Bowl and will miss spring practice for the second straight season. Lattimore, Reiff and Jansen all have experience. Nixon probably is the most talented incoming defensive tackle since Jaleel Johnson. Look for junior college transfer Jack Kallenberger, who redshirted last year, to compete for snaps, as well.

First team Second team Third team
DT * Matt Nelson, sr., 6-8, 285 Daviyon Nixon, soph., 6-5, 295 Garret Jansen, jr., 6-2, 280
DT Cedrick Lattimore, jr., 6-5, 295 Brady Reiff, jr., 6-3, 260 Jack Kallenberger, jr., 6-5, 250
* Will miss spring with injury

Iowa linebacker

Who returns: The Hawkeyes are threadbare on experience among their returning linebackers. Senior Aaron Mends originally was slated to start at weakside linebacker in 2016 before he was beaten out by Bo Bower. Senior Jack Hockaday played nearly an entire game in 2016 after Jewell was ejected for targeting. Junior Amani Jones competed with Mends and Bower at weakside linebacker in 2016. Senior Kristian Welch has played snaps at multiple positions the last two seasons. All four linebackers, as well as sophomore Nick Niemann, have competed on special teams.

Who left: No area on the team is more depleted. Iowa lost 123 starts with the departures of Jewell, Bower and Ben Niemann. Jewell exits as one of the greatest players in school history after he was named unanimous first-team All-American. Another exiting linebacker, Kevin Ward, was the team’s special teams captain in 2017.

Newcomers: Iowa signed four linebackers in this class, and it’s possible at least two compete for defensive snaps this fall, as well as on special teams. Local product Dillon Doyle already enrolled and will work in spring practice. Regional linebackers Seth Benson and Logan Klemp both were highly productive in high school and are full of intangibles. Jayden McDonald picked Iowa late in the recruiting process and could compete for snaps at outside linebacker in August.

Depth chart projection: It’s possible, maybe even likely, these three positions aren’t settled by early September. On the inside, the foursome are so close it might be difficult to find separation in the spring and in August. On the outside, Niemann has the best chance at replacing his brother. Don’t be surprised if Doyle and McDonald make a major dent in the depth chart this fall and battle for starting positions in 2019.

First team Second team Third team
MLB Kristian Welch, jr., 6-3, 232 Jack Hockaday, sr., 6-1, 232 Kyle Taylor, soph., 6-0, 225
WLB Aaron Mends, sr, 6-0, 227 Amani Jones, jr., 6-0, 235 Djimon Colbert, fr., 6-1, 220
OLB Nick Niemann, soph., 6-4, 225 Barrington Wade, soph., 6-1, 223 Nate Wieland, fr., 6-1, 225

Iowa cornerback

Who returns: The Hawkeyes bring back three cornerbacks with starting experience. Manny Rugamba, a junior, opened eight games last season after starting three in 2016. Michael Ojemudia, a junior, had four starts last year. By the final two games, Matt Hankins had beaten out both players in his first season on campus. Rugamba finished with 36 tackles and 4 pass breakups, while Ojemudia had 29 tackles and Hankins finished with 21.

Who left: For the second consecutive season, the Hawkeyes lost an all-time great at cornerback. Josh Jackson, a unanimous All-American who led the nation in both interceptions (8) and passes defensed (26) declared for the NFL draft and is a likely first-round pick.

Newcomers: Iowa has a boatload of freshmen entering who will compete right away for playing time. Cornerback D.J. Johnson, versatile defensive back Julius Brents and cornerback Terry Roberts all could see action at cornerback and perhaps work their way into the lineup. It’s possible all three play next season with maybe one earning a starting role or playing nickel.

Depth chart projection: Entering the spring, there’s a clear line between those who have played and those who haven’t. Josh Turner was a borderline candidate to see action last year but ultimately redshirted. All of the holdovers had better make strides this spring because a talented batch of new players will make up ground this summer.

First team Second team Third team
LCB Matt Hankins, soph., 6-1, 175 Michael Ojemudia, jr., 6-2, 200 Cedric Boswell, soph., 5-11, 187
RCB Manny Rugamba, jr., 6-0, 185 Josh Turner, fr., 6-0, 180 Trey Creamer, fr., 6-0, 175

Iowa safety

Who returns: Three Iowa safeties have starting experience, led by senior Brandon Snyder with 14. Jake Gervase has 10 starts and Hooker has opened six games. Snyder, who will miss the spring after suffered two ACL tears within the last 10 months, started one game last year and had an 89-yard interception return. Hooker began the Ohio State game with a pick-6 and Gervase was second on the team with 3 interceptions. Sophomore Geno Stone saw action on special teams and intercepted a pass.

Who left: Iowa loses veteran strong safety Miles Taylor, who opened 32 games the last three seasons.

Newcomers: Like at cornerback, Iowa has a talent infusion coming this summer. Rivals 4-star safety Dallas Craddieth joins the competition as does the versatile Brents, another Rivals’ 4-star talent. Late signee Kaevon Merriweather might be raw and a year away, but he oozes talent and could become a potential strong safety.

Depth chart projection: Hooker has earned the job at strong safety and could become an all-conference candidate this year. If Snyder can rebound from his second ACL tear, plus a team suspension for a drunken driving arrest, he should start. Otherwise, look Stone for to battle Gervase for the starting free safety spot.

First team Second team Third team
FS * Brandon Snyder, sr., 6-1, 214 Geno Stone, soph., 6-0, 195 John Milani, , jr., 6-0, 195
SS Amani Hooker, jr., 6-0, 210 Jake Gervase, sr., 6-1, 210 Wes Dvorak., jr., 6-0, 192
* Will miss spring with injury

Iowa special teams

Who returns: Senior Miguel Recinos picked up a scholarship after winning the kicking job last year as a junior. He was 11 of 13 from field-goal range and was solid all year. Keith Duncan, who booted Iowa past Michigan in 2016, redshirted last year and now is two years behind Recinos. Punters Colten Rastetter and Ryan Gersonde return. Gersonde, a sophomore, punted just 13 times last year and averaged 42.5 yards per kick but was sidelined with a back injury. Rastetter was decent with rugby kicks but struggled as a traditional punter.

Who left: Iowa lost dependable long snapper Tyler Kluver, who also caught a pass on a fake field goal against Ohio State.

Newcomers: At this point Iowa has no incoming kickers or punters.

Depth chart projection: Recinos has his spot just about locked up. If Gersonde is healthy, he should win the punting position. As for long snapper, Jackson Subbert is the favorite at long snapper but there will be a long-term battle in the spring and training camp to replace Kluver.

First team Second team
K Miguel Recinos, sr., 6-1, 192 Keith Duncan, soph., 5-11, 173
P Ryan Gersonde, soph., 6-4, 185 Colten Rastetter, jr., 6-2, 210
LS Jackson Subbert, jr., 6-3, 237 Austin Spiewak, soph., 6-2, 230

Iowa returners

Who returns: Running back Ivory Kelly-Martin led the team in kickoff returns with 19 last year, but he was replaced late by wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who averaged 33.5 yards on his four returns. Receiver Max Cooper is the only returnee with a punt return. All three players are sophomores.

Who left: Receiver Matt VandeBerg was the primary punter returner and running back Akrum Wadley flashed his talents in replacing Smith-Marsette in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Newcomers: Two incoming freshmen who have an outside shot at returning kicks are receivers Tyrone Tracy and Samson Evans.

Depth chart projection: Smith-Marsette’s long-striding speed makes him a potentially dynamic kickoff returner. Cooper has good hands and quickness, which makes him a logical candidate to return punts.

First team Second team
KR Ihmir Smith-Marsette, soph., 6-2, 175 Ivory Kelly-Martin, soph., 5-11, 195
PR Max Cooper, soph., 6-0, 175 Nick Easley, sr., 5-11, 203

The post Projecting Iowa’s 2018 defensive and special teams depth chart, post-National Signing Day appeared first on Land of 10.

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