Iowa Football 2023 Winter Position Breakdown: Line of Defense

Iowa defensemen Joe Evans (13) and Deontae Craig (45) celebrate during a game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, October 29, 2022 in Iowa City. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — It’s hard to top the numbers Iowa’s defensive frontline has put up in 2022.

The Hawkeyes allowed just 2.83 yards per carry in 2022 — the best rate among Power Five defenses. Iowa’s 2.69 sacks per game was second in the Big Ten to Penn State.

While Iowa will have quite a turnover at the linebacker, the defensive line room will feature many familiar faces in the 2023 football season.

Here’s a first look at the Hawkeyes’ line of defense for 2023 in part two of The Gazette’s winter positions breakdown series:

who is gone

Iowa will be without two players who played important roles in the defensive line rotation last year — Lukas Van Ness, who is leaving the NFL draft, and John Waggoner, who was a senior.

Van Ness had 478 defensive snaps and Waggoner 444, according to Pro Football Focus.

Van Ness’ departure is particularly significant given his production in 2021 and 2022, both of which ended seasons with more than six sacks.

Several mock drafts have predicted Van Ness to be selected in the first round, including up to 8th overall in an NFL.com mock draft.

who is back

Noah Shannon and Joe Evans, both defensive line starters in 2022, are using their extra COVID-19 eligibility years to return for a sixth season.

Logan Lee, after starting every game in defensive tackle as a sophomore and junior, will be back for his senior year.

Deontae Craig didn’t officially have a starting role, but his 6.5 sacks tied with Van Ness and Evans for the team-high in 2022. Craig was the only player in the Big Ten with more than six sacks not to receive All-Big Ten recognition.

Yahya Black, who sustained a foot injury in 2022, appeared as a runner-up in eight games.

Aaron Graves, a former MaxPreps male national athlete of the year, appeared in 12 of Iowa’s 13 games as a true freshman in defensive tackle.

Graves wasn’t technically on the two downs, but he was eighth among Iowa defenders in snaps in 2022.

Cedar Rapids native Ethan Hurkett saw a dramatic increase in his role over the past year, going from 40 defensive snaps in 2021 to 226 in 2022. He had two tackles for one loss as the second-team defensive end.

Louie Stec and Chris Reames will be seniors and could potentially have bigger roles in 2023. When Black was injured last year, Stec joined the Two-Deeps in defensive tackle.

Max Llewellyn, Jeremiah Pittman, Jeff Bowie, Brian Allen Jr. and Caden Crawford, among others, return to the defensive line.

Who is taking part?

Three high school recruits — Maddux Borcherding-Johnson, Chase Brackney, and Kenneth Merrieweather — signed with Iowa in the early signing phase. All three have three-star ratings from Rivals and 247Sports.

Coming from Iowa Western as a junior college transfer, Anterio Thompson is choosing Iowa over scholarship offers from Illinois, the state of North Carolina, and others.

Iowa Western defensive end Jackson Filer, the 2022 NJCAA Division I Defensive Player of the Year, moved to Iowa as the preferred walk-on.

Much too early two-deep projections

With the return of six of the eight players from last year’s Two-Deeps, defense certainly doesn’t have as many question marks as other position groups.

Left end:

  1. Deontae Craig
  2. Ethan Hurkett

Left tackle:

Get it right:

Right end:

  1. Joe Evans
  2. Max Llewellyn or Chris Reames

outlook

Many defensive lines would step back after losing a likely first-round NFL pick. However, all indications are that the Iowa Defense Line will be exceptional in 2023.

Even without Van Ness, the Hawkeyes will return three starters and one other player who shared the team lead in sacks.

Especially as Iowa looks to replace significant portions of other positional groups — namely linebackers Jack Campbell and Seth Benson, and defensemen Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather — the defensive line should be the 2023 defense’s strength.

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