Iowa assistant Reese Morgan switches sides
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP)
When Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski left for rival Nebraska after last season, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz predictably replaced him with someone he knew and trusted.
The choice he made in filling that vacancy was a bit unorthodox: He asked assistant Reese Morgan to switch sides and coach the defensive line after nine seasons leading the offensive line. Even Morgan was surprised, but he said Wednesday that he's been energized by the switch.
''The transition has been great,'' Morgan said. ''Really, it's been fun. For me on a personal note, I am absolutely loving it and enjoying it.''
The bottom line to Ferentz is stabilizing a position weakened by attrition and decreasing performance over the past few seasons. So far, Ferentz has been pleased with the work this spring by Morgan, who came to the Hawkeyes in 2000 after a lengthy career as a high school coach in Iowa.
''It's been great and I expect it to keep getting better,'' Ferentz said. ''He's done a wonderful job with every opportunity he's had professionally.''
The Hawkeyes have routinely had All Big-Ten caliber linemen on defense, with the likes of Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug passing through in the past few seasons. But the youngsters behind those standout starters often left as quickly as they arrived, and the lack of depth caught up with Iowa in 2011.
The line wasn't all that went wrong in 2011 with Iowa's defense, which allowed nearly 24 points a game. But the Hawkeyes ranked 62nd nationally in rushing yards allowed per game - a sign of a front struggling to stuff opponents at the line of scrimmage - and picked up a paltry 21 sacks in 13 games.
On the surface, it's tough to find reasons why the Hawkeyes defensive line will be better than it was in 2011. They lost their top two linemen, Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns, from a unit that didn't stack up to previous lines to begin with.
But perhaps that's also why this might be the perfect time to go young.
''No one, not even the guys that have played - which are very few - has a spot set regardless of their age. We're going to play the best four guys,'' Morgan said.
Iowa has three freshmen atop the depth chart in spring practice, rare for a position where on-field experience and years in the weight room are especially important. The lone projected senior starter is tackle Steve Bigach, who's been bookended by freshmen ends Dean Tsopanides and Riley McMinn, and tackle Darian Cooper.
The Hawkeyes are also expecting big things from 6-foot-5, 310-pound sophomore tackle Carl Davis, who is sitting out spring ball after offseason knee surgery but should earn a starting nod in the fall.
''We've got a young, inexperienced group. They're eager to learn,'' Morgan said. ''They've bought into what we're trying to do.''
Iowa might also get some help in the fall from true freshmen like Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie, though if they're playing any more than a few snaps a game the Hawkeyes are likely in trouble.
Iowa is probably looking at a situation where nearly all four spots along the defensive line are rotated among a batch of mostly newcomers, all led by a coach who's a newcomer to that side of the ball himself.
Morgan acknowledged that the defensive line has perhaps more work ahead of it than any other group within the program. But Morgan is confident he's got players willing to put in the work necessary over the next five months and beyond.
''They're kind of the hot spot right now,'' Morgan said. ''If we can somehow help them believe in themselves a little bit more, if they can trust what we're trying to do and if we can get them to play as hard as they can and give effort ... we've got a chance.''
The Hawkeyes are five workouts into camp, which concludes with an open practice at Kinnick Stadium on April 14.