IOWA CITY — A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston have demonstrated game-changing, big-play potential while sharing the field at defensive end spots for Iowa.
Now, they’re working to get the detail work down as a new generation of leaders move into starting roles on the Hawkeye defensive line.
As Iowa works to replace its entire starting front four during spring practices, Epenesa and Golston are embracing the challenge of growing their games.
“It’s a totally different situation now and I think we’re realizing every day that it is our time to step up,’’ Epenesa said Tuesday.
The Hawkeyes rotated eight players on the defensive front frequently while building a 9-4 record last season, providing significant game experience.
Epenesa led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks last season as a sophomore, counting 16.5 tackles for a loss among his 37.5 tackles. He also was second in the conference with four forced fumbles and returned one fumble for a touchdown.
Golston split time between end and tackle a year ago, recording nine tackles for a loss. The junior also recovered three of the four fumbles caused by Epenesa and intercepted a pass which set up the Hawkeyes’ final touchdown in its Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State.
“We’ve got a pretty good vibe going, me and A.J. and we want to keep that going,’’ Golston said. “We want to bring some energy to the defensive line and make some things happen.’’
To be in a position to accomplish that, both see a need to improve their attention to detail.
They’re realizing together that three-year starter Parker Hesse is no longer there to call out signals.
Both used a situation that took place during Iowa’s Tuesday morning practice session as an example.
The defensive line got stuck on a run call, something Hesse provided.
“If the offensive line was sliding, he’d call it down to us and we’d adjust,’’ Epenesa said. “This morning, it was like ‘wait, I’ve never made that call before.’ It was just something Parker always did. Now, that’s on me.’’
Epenesa doesn’t mind that.
“That’s part of the challenge and I think I’m ready for it,’’ Epenesa said. “It’s something all four defensive linemen are adjusting to, taking on greater leadership responsibilities. Parker’s gone, the Nelsons (Matt and Anthony) and Sam Brincks are gone, it’s just different right now for us.’’
That realization hit home at the onset of Iowa’s spring practices.
“The older guys, they would help us with what they knew and we would pass along things to the younger guys,’’ Golston said. “Now, we’re the older guys and the expectation is that we have it down.’’
The group is working with a new coach as well in Kelvin Bell, promoted from an assistant line coach to fill the sizeable shoes left behind by retiring 19-year Hawkeye assistant Reese Morgan.
Bell, a former Hawkeye lineman who has spent the past six seasons on the Iowa staff, said expectations for Iowa defensive linemen won’t change.
“We’ve had all-American players, all-Big Ten players. I know those guys. I know those guys personally and it’s a tremendous responsibility I’ve been given when you look at the faces on the wall in the back of that room,’’ Bell said.
“There’s a standard to uphold and it started here long before Reese was the D-line coach, well before I got here. There’s a tremendous responsibility and yes, I do feel it. It’s important to me.’’
It’s important to the personnel he coaches as well.
Senior tackle Cedrick Lattimore said Bell’s expectations mirror those Morgan brought to the practice field every day.
Younger players like redshirt freshmen Noah Shannon and John Waggoner and sophomore Daviyon Nixon are getting opportunities to move into a defensive rotation Lattimore expects to continue.
“Those guys, they’re getting it down and they’re bringing a lot energy to our defense,’’ Lattimore said. “It’s up to the guys who have been around, it’s our time to lead and do the things we know we are capable of doing.’’
Epenesa sees that as well.
“The only thing I’m focusing on this spring is to become the best me I can be,’’ he said. “Whether that’s at end, on special teams or wherever I’m asked to go, I want to become a more consistent player, just continue to grow and get better.’’