Depth at defensive end could allow Iowa to crank up ‘NASCAR’ package –

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The worst-kept secret in Iowa spring practice involved defensive end Matt Nelson’s potential move to defensive tackle.

Nelson and defensive line coach Reese Morgan discussed it before practice began.

It kept popping up in interview sessions in March and April before defensive coordinator Phil Parker came out and said what everyone was thinking.

“He’d be a guy,” Parker said about Nelson possibly sliding from end to tackle.

It makes sense to try some sort of “NASCAR” package, such as what the New York Giants used in their 2008 and 2012 Super Bowl championship seasons, with three or even four defensive ends on the line.

Iowa is considering its options. Let’s take a look at why the Hawkeyes would make such a move and, based on interviews with players and coaches, what different lineups might look like.

What is going on?

The Hawkeyes want to get their best 11 players on the field. Playing three or more defensive ends might be the best way to do that because of the depth at end and inexperience at tackle.

Junior Parker Hesse, sophomore Anthony Nelson and junior Matt Nelson rotated at defensive end last year and all three return. Incoming 5-star freshman end A.J. Epenesa is expected to make an instant impact on the line.

Also, the coaches like the progress made by junior Sam Brincks this spring.

Defensive tackle, meanwhile, is full of questions. Senior starter Nathan Bazata returns, but concerns about his health linger. An ankle injury limited him last season, and he sat out this spring. No other returning tackle has extensive experience. Sophomores Cedric Lattimore and Brady Reiff show promise, but they are raw.

Generating a pass rush wasn’t a problem for Iowa last season; the Hawkeyes recorded 28 sacks. But the NASCAR package could help them finish higher than eighth in the Big Ten.

The most likely lineup

Parker brought up the most likely move: Matt Nelson to defensive tackle. Matt Nelson spent the spring in a walking boot, which kept the Hawkeyes from tinkering with the alignment. Still, that won’t prevent them from trying him inside.

Matt Nelson is the most logical end to slide inside. Most defensive tackles aren’t 6-foot-8, but his 285-pound frame is the largest of the returning ends. Defending the run is his strength and that should translate inside.

“He’s got great length, so he creates a lot of frustrations for an offensive lineman,” Morgan said. “If he uses that length consistently, boy, he’s going to be hard to block wherever he plays.”

This lineup is Iowa’s most versatile three-or-more defensive end alignment. If Matt Nelson can hold his own inside, the Hawkeyes could play this lineup on any down and not just in passing situations.

This may not become the default defensive front, but it’s an option that could increase the pass rush without significantly hurting the run defense. It could be a benefit against a spread team, such as Purdue under new coach Jeff Brohm, or in a spot where Iowa holds a sizable lead and an opponent needs to throw the ball.

Iowa can rotate in Epenesa and Brincks at end and Bazata, Lattimore and Reiff at the other tackle spot, giving Iowa the option to keep fresh bodies around Matt Nelson.

What other options are in play?

The 4-defensive end look is an option. Here’s a potential lineup.

This is a situational pass-rush formation, used in third-and-long situations or in a 2-minute drill. The Hawkeyes will have plenty of pass-rushing options this season. Hesse and the Nelsons combined for 15.5 sacks last season. Epenesa can get after the quarterback.

The Hawkeyes’ typical 2-defensive end alignment would keep at least two of the ends on the bench in pass-rush situations. For a team wanting to put its best playmakers in positions to succeed, the NASCAR package is the only one that gets everyone on the field.

The most intriguing part is where the players line up. We know two things: Matt Nelson goes inside and Epenesa plays on the edge.

Parker wants to keep things simple for his incoming freshman, limiting him to one position. Epenesa would prefer it that way.

“In all honesty, I hope to stay at defensive end,” Epenesa told Land of 10 this spring. “That’s where I feel I can do the most to help out. If the call is for me to play defensive tackle, then I’ll play defensive tackle. Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do.”

Hesse is open to playing tackle, and his quickness would pose problems for offensive guards. Anthony Nelson was Iowa’s best edge rusher last season, and the Hawkeyes might want to keep him there.

How open Iowa is to a 4-defensive end look is up for debate, but it could help increase the sack total and take pressure off a young secondary. Following safety Brandon Snyder’s torn left ACL, Iowa will be breaking in three new players in its nickel package.

The more pressure the defensive front can generate, the easier it will be to break in new faces on the back end.

On paper, the move to a 4-defensive end look is a win-win in pass-rushing situations.

Final thoughts

The Hawkeyes are about versatility and ensuring their best 11 are on the field. They already employ unique looks, such as the Raider package on passing downs. A 3- or 4-defensive end look isn’t revolutionary — Ohio State uses a similar package — and fits with what Iowa already does on defense.

The hardest part will be finding the ends capable of playing inside.

“Some players can, some players can’t,” coach Kirk Ferentz said in March.

Matt Nelson is the key. If he can handle defensive tackle, especially in run situations, the team may use the look more often.

The Hawkeyes’ best chance at defensive success starts with embracing its depth at end when opponents throw the football.


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