IOWA CITY – Reese’s pieces have come together just the way the Iowa defensive line coach envisioned.
An eight-player rotation is working for the Hawkeyes’ defensive front four, keeping fresh bodies and fresh minds on the field as Iowa works toward the homestretch of the regular season.
That was goal Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan hand in mind in a rotation which has grown from six to eight players this season.
“I feel like all of us make one team,’’ defensive end Chauncey Golston said. “No one piece is better than the sum of the parts. So, you just do your part and we’ll get better as a team.’’
Defensive tackle Sam Brincks sees that as well.
“The rotation is making a difference for us. It’s keeping everybody on top of their game and I think we’re working well as a team,’’ Brincks said.
The rotation has taken a few different forms as the Hawkeyes work toward Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium against Northwestern.
At times, the change has been wholesale with four linemen coming into the game at the same time.
On other occasions, change has been more piecemeal with one or two players taking the field at a given time during a drive based on down or distance.
When circumstances warrant, the Hawkeyes have shifted an end into a tackle’s spot to add additional quickness and create additional pass rush opportunities.
Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse at the end positions and Matt Nelson and Brincks at the tackle spots have started every game during Iowa’s 6-3 start to the season.
Golston and A.J. Epenesa rotate in at the defensive end spots while Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff fill second-team roles at defensive tackle.
“We have enough players that we can rotate and keep everybody fresh and keep them productive,’’ Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.
It’s a rotation that is working.
Collectively, the eight players account for 23 of the 26 sacks Iowa has recorded this season and they have been responsible for 35 of the Hawkeyes’ 47 tackles for a loss.
Epenesa leads Iowa in both categories, counting seven sacks among his nine tackles for a loss in addition to leading the team with six quarterback hurries.
Anthony Nelson and Hesse each have eight tackles for a loss and are second and third on the team in sacks with seven and 6.5, respectively.
Penn State coach James Franklin said prior to facing the Hawkeyes last month that the rotation Iowa has utilized throughout the season has created the best defensive line the Nittany Lions have faced In the past two seasons.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald isn’t disputing that.
“With the eight players they rotate, it’s as good of a defensive line as there is in the league,’’ Fitzgerald said.
The results of their work have helped Iowa rank fifth among the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in defending the run, eighth in total defense and 14th in scoring defense, where the Hawkeyes are surrendering 18.6 points per game.
“They don’t give you anything easily,’’ Fitzgerald said.
Iowa will be looking to rebound Saturday after giving up 38 points in a two-point loss at Purdue last week, the most points the Hawkeyes have allowed in a defeat since giving up 44 in a three-point loss to Iowa State in 2011.
That has put the focus back on fundamentals for Iowa’s defensive front as it looks to bring a two-game slide to an end.
“We need to show up to practice every day and improve, just like we have been doing since week one,’’ Epenesa said.
Golston sees that happening.
Joining Epenesa as the only sophomores in the Hawkeyes’ defensive line rotation, the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Detroit native feels like this year’s rotation is positioning him well not only for now but for the future.
He leads Iowa with two fumble recoveries and six of his 23 tackles have come behind the line of scrimmage.
“I’m learning every day and I’ve got a great group of teammates to learn from,’’ said Golston, a high school teammate of Lattimore at East English Village Prep in Detroit, the same program which sent Desmond King to Iowa.
He finds himself following the lead of Hesse, the only senior among Iowa’s four ends.
Golston has made a habit of sitting next to Hesse in position group meetings, soaking in as much as can. He now takes notes the way Hesse does of everything there is take down.
“When it’s my turn to take control of the defensive line, I want to lead like how he’s leading us,’’ Golston said.
He also learns from Morgan and Kelvin Bell, who assists Morgan in working with Iowa’s defensive linemen.
The biggest thing he has picked up this season has been what playing with tempo can do.
“When I got the fumble recoveries, you can’t get those if you’re not running to the ball,’’ Golston said.
That’s how Reese’s pieces perform.
“You’ve got to be giving constant 100 percent effort,’’ Golston said. “For all of us, that’s where it begins.’’