Iowa’s defensive line for the 2022 season will have experience. The Spring depth chart released in March listed three seniors and a junior on the defensive front. Their former leader Zach VanValkenburg signed with the Las Vegas Raiders, but he helped build a group of players in Iowa City that are ready to step in next season. VanValkenburg chose to remain in school for the 2021 season, opting to become the veteran leader on the defensive line of scrimmage. This helped to continue the chemistry with the guys next to him as well as develop the younger players. The next men in for Iowa’s defensive line have experience and potential all-conference talent.
Replacing VanValkenburg at defensive end next season will be Joe Evans. The incoming senior saw action in every game last season but did not start. He recorded 33 tackles and seven sacks, making a huge impact on defense off of the bench. Evans will line up this season opposite John Waggoner on the other defensive end. Waggoner will also be a senior this fall and started every game but one of the 2021 season. As a junior last season, Waggoner had two sacks, three pass deflections, and 25 tackles. The returning veterans at the position despite losing a key player is essential to their continued success.
At the two-deeps, the defensive ends have some young, but talented guys. Deontae Craig and Max Llewellyn are sophomores and redshirt freshmen, respectively. Craig saw action in 12 games last season, not playing in the only two regular season losses of the year. He recorded one-and-a-half sacks and three tackles for loss. Last season, Craig was listed second behind VanValkenburg and was able to get quality snaps all season. With VanValkenburg gone and Evans stepping in next year, it’s likely that Craig will see the field in a way similar to that of Evans last season. Expect Craig to put up some quality numbers in his redshirt sophomore season this fall.
All-Big Ten Sleeper
Turning heads at the spring scrimmage was Lukas Van Ness. The redshirt sophomore has put on substantial muscle and dominated the offensive line all morning in the Spring scrimmage. Van Ness was listed with the second team on the spring depth chart, off of a seven-sack freshman campaign. His footwork and hand quickness can make him a force this season to potentially earn big numbers off the bench or claim a starting spot.
At interior defensive line, Van Ness stands at 6-5 and around 275 pounds with agility. He has the potential to make an impact on the defensive front similar to that of AJ Epenesa in the 2018 season. Epenesa played off the bench that year and managed to record 10.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Not to mention, he earned first and second-team All-Big Ten honors from multiple publications following the season. Epenesa was a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft who now starts for the Buffalo Bills. It’s a big name to draw comparisons to, but Van Ness has the tangible skills and upside potential to meet that expectation. Don’t be surprised to see Van Ness put together an All-Conference season regardless of his position on the depth chart.
Iowa’s Next Man In: Defensive Line
VanValkenburg’s decision to stay in Iowa City for a fifth season, and third with the program, laid the foundation for this group. He provided veteran leadership that helped shape the immediate future of the Hawkeye defensive line. Stepping in to replace him are talented upperclassmen who have proven themselves on the field already in Evans and Waggoner. Behind them are Craig and Llewellyn, who will likely see the field often. On the inside, Van Ness has an opportunity to come off the bench and put up all-conference numbers this fall. The Hawkeye defensive line gave up 3.1 yards per rush last season, good for 13th best in the nation. With the returning experience and talented younger guys in the position group, Iowa has the ingredients for another top-ranked defense.