Iowa position preview: Long, lengthy Nelsons keys to defensive line

Iowa football is back. The Hawkeyes are in camp, and the season is approaching. Land of 10 is here to keep you informed and get you prepared for the season. In August, we are breaking down position groups. In this edition, we look at the defensive line. 

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Matt and Anthony Nelson aren’t brothers, but they might as well be. Both are defensive ends. Both stand at least 6-foot-7 and look like long, lanky basketball players who stumbled into pads and helmets.

And each, with their unique physical attributes, could be the key to how well the deepest position group on the Iowa football roster performs this season.

“You can cause a lot of havoc when you have guys that can extend and not let offensive linemen touch them,” Matt Nelson said. “That is huge. It’s just big.”

Just like them.

Matt, a junior, is 6-foot-8, 285 pounds and known for his run-stuffing ability. Anthony, a sophomore, is 6-foot-7, 260 pounds and known for his pass-rush moves.

They both started last season and used their size to their advantage. Matt recorded 43 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Anthony made 33 tackles, 8 tackles for loss and 6 sacks.

Frustrating offensive linemen

Their reach presents problems for the opposition. It’s similar to how a long-armed boxer can keep his opponents away from him.

“They are good athletes,” defensive line coach Reese Morgan said. “They are flexible. They use their length, which is really good, and it’s frustrating for an offensive lineman when our guys are out there with great length and they can’t get on their chest. That is the advantage they have.”

But their build comes with problems. Low man wins on the line, and it’s hard for guys looking like power forwards to maintain leverage.

Position work and flexibility drills are vital. It took Matt until the spring practice of his redshirt season to feel comfortable with his pad level.

“A lot of work from [strength] coach [Chris] Doyle and a lot of work coaching from coach Morgan to get your hips down, get extended, get the guys off of you,” Matt said.

Anthony didn’t truly feel comfortable as last season began. Game reps were different from practice.

“There are a lot of things that are tough about it,” Anthony said. “Just finding what things work for you and then learning the technique and picking up the speed of the college game.”

Their biggest advantage may be playing alongside each other. The two chat after practice reps and during games, passing on pointers or tidbits that may only apply to them.

“He just plays with tremendous pad level,” Anthony said. “Obviously he’s a very good player and just the way he has great footwork and great hands and technique and stuff like that. So that is something I’ve really picked up from him.”

Why the Nelsons matter

The Nelsons’ play likely will dictate how well the defensive line performs this season. The Hawkeyes lack experienced defensive tackles. Matt, who missed the spring with a broken right foot, volunteered to slide inside. Iowa isn’t committing to him there full-time, but if he can take a few reps it will ease the burden on the interior linemen. The early returns are positive.

“He has been at both spots and we are going to continue to look at that,” Morgan said. “We want to make sure we get the best four-to-eight number of guys on the field, and he certainly is one of them.”

iowa-football-defensive end-anthony nelson-matt nelson-a.j. epenesa-news-stats-update-2017
Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson. (Photo by Bobby La Gesse/Land of 10)

True freshman A.J. Epenesa is getting most of the attention in preseason camp, but Anthony Nelson may be in better position for a breakout season. Anthony is as physically gifted as any defensive end on the team and has yet to tap into his potential.

“He is crazy athletic for a kid his size and he still has more room to grow,” Matt said. “Just add that together and wow.”

The ‘crazy stuff’ they do

Anthony is working with Morgan to improve his pass rush and fine-tune his techniques. Matt can’t wait for it all to come together because Anthony already makes plays others aren’t capable of making.

“I’ve seen him do pass-rush moves and there will be a swing pass out to one side and he’ll go chase that down,” Matt said. “That is crazy stuff.”

It’s a phrase repeated a lot when it comes to the 6-7 and 6-8 defensive ends. Odds are that will continue.

“Anthony Nelson is going to be fun to watch,” Morgan said. “He is bigger. He is stronger. He is faster and he is going to be playing a lot of snaps. Then Matt Nelson, he is so versatile. He can play a lot of different spots to help us.”

The post Iowa position preview: Long, lengthy Nelsons keys to defensive line appeared first on Land of 10.

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