IOWA CITY, Iowa — It’s en vogue to be bullish on Iowa’s defensive line. Matt Nelson, though, likes that characterization for a reason beyond the depth and playmaking potential of his fellow ends.
“We can kind of play anyone, anywhere,” Nelson said. “That most of us know all of the positions on the line and you can say, ‘Hey, go jump in at tackle and play a position without a hitch.’ I like it a lot.”
No one is more versatile up front than Nelson. He is a 6-foot-8, 285-pound Swiss Army knife and likely is Iowa’s best bet to swing between defensive tackle and defensive end.
After a spring spent on the sidelines, the Hawkeyes need to find out if Nelson is a unique solution to its lack of depth at defensive tackle. It’s why he’s the team’s most important defensive lineman in camp.
“It’s a different kind of alignment for stuff,” Nelson said, “but I like the challenge and hopefully in the future it pays off.”
Let’s get this out of the way: Nelson doesn’t need to move to defensive tackle full-time if he takes to the position. His ability to set the edge in the run game and the depth he creates is too valuable.
On paper, his skill set makes him the ideal target to help out inside. He wants to give it a try, and playing the run is Nelson’s biggest strength.
Nelson isn’t the only end flirting with the tackle position. Parker Hesse slid inside during the 15-minute media availability on Monday. But as the biggest end, Nelson is best built to handle the rigors of playing in the trenches.
“There is not as much of an edge in the pass rush so [the rush defense] translates more inside for run stoppers,” Nelson said. “I hope it translates for my game.”
Iowa’s defense could use the help inside. The tackles are untested outside of returning starter Nathan Bazata. Nelson could help take a few reps and decrease the burden placed on inexperienced tackles such as Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff.
Moving an end inside also allows Iowa to play into its desire to be versatile, play to its strengths, and potentially unveil a NASCAR package in pass-rush situations.
The Matt Nelson experiment
Iowa didn’t get a chance to see what Nelson could do at defensive tackle in the spring. He broke his right foot in the first practice in March.
“I kind of stepped wrong,” Nelson said. “I kind of felt [that] this doesn’t feel right and talked to the trainers and got it all checked out. That was that.”
Nelson rehabbed throughout the summer. He feels good, but still isn’t 100 percent. Iowa will be cautious with Nelson, but isn’t hesitating trying him at defensive tackle.
“I’ve had a few reps at it,” Nelson said. “So far I like it. It’s different. It’s a different look, a different feel.”
Defensive line coach Reese Morgan is willing to bet Nelson makes it work. He believes in Nelson’s versatility, physicality and ability to maintain a low pad level despite his size.
“He’s got great length, so he creates a lot of frustrations for an offensive lineman,” Morgan said in March. “If he uses that length consistently, boy, he’s going to be hard to block wherever he plays.”
The Hawkeyes need Morgan to be right. They don’t need Nelson to thrive inside, but odds are the defensive front will be at its best if he does.
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