IOWA CITY, Iowa - Lukas Van Ness saw the snap fly over the head of Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum. And he reacted.
Iowa’s defensive end beat left guard Adam Gregoire, who tried unsuccessfully to drag him down from behind, and did a beeline for Crum.
“Before I knew it I was in the end zone, making a tackle for a safety,” said Ness, a redshirt freshman.
As it turns out, Van Ness spent a lot of time in the Kent State backfield during the Hawkeyes’ 30-7 victory last week. He finished with two sacks and seven tackles, both career highs. And this new face on Iowa’s defense is quickly becoming someone to watch.
“Every snap is important for these younger guys,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “On both sides of the ball. We’ve got a lot of guys that haven’t played much, and Lukas is one of those guys. We’ve liked him. He works hard in practice, and you like what you see. There wasn’t room for him last year. We didn’t have openings for him to get involved.”
This is Kelvin Bell’s third season as Iowa’s defensive line coach. And it’s the third season he’s had to rebuild his line.
He had to replace four starters - Anthony Nelson, Samn Brincks, Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse - after the 2019 season. A.J. Epenesa, Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore were gone after the 2020 season, and Chauncey Golston was the lone returning starter.
Zach Van Vaklenburg was the only returning starter heading into this season. The losses included consensus all-American Daviyon Nixon, Jack Heflin and Golston, who earned all-Big Ten honors.
That left plenty of openings, and Van Ness has worked his way into the rotation. He’s one of several newcomers in that rotation, joining fellow redshirt freshmen Yahya Black and Deontae Craig and sophomore Logan Lee.
Ferentz calls their contributions “encouraging, really encouraging.” They join some experienced players in Van Valkenburg, a senior, and juniors Noah Shannon, John Waggoner and Joe Evans.
The play of that defensive line, a question mark when the season started, has been a positive through three games. They’re part of a defense that ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense at 10.0 points a game. A defense that has now played 25 straight games without giving up 25 points, the longest streak among the nation’s Power Five programs.
Evans also had a career-best two sacks against Kent State. Van Valkenburg had one and shared another with linebacker Jack Campbell. Waggoner also had a sack. The seven sacks were the most for an Iowa team since the Northwestern game in 2000.
“It starts out with Coach Bell, the way he runs things, the way he runs film,” Van Ness said. “He’s a great coach. He teaches us great fundamentals., great pad level, great separation. Just all the things we need to be great defensive linemen. I think we’ve all taken it in and trust and believe what he says. I think it works for every guy in our (position) room.”
Van Ness was a defensive end at Barrington High School in Barrington, Ill. Illinois, Minnesota, Kansas State were among the schools offering him a scholarship. He stands 6 feet 5 inches tall, which isn’t a big deal as a defensive end. But Iowa’s coaching staff moved the 264-pounder inside, where his height was a challenge.
“I’ve always been a relatively tall guy, and I struggled a little bit with my pad level,” Van Ness said. “I think it’s been great for me to work on my pad level, my hands and my extension, because everything happens a lot faster in there. I thought at first I wouldn’t like it, but I love it in there. It’s been a great opportunity for me to get out there and see some playing time.”
Iowa’s secondary played big in the season opener against Indiana. The secondary and linebackers earned headlines in the victory at Iowa State. Last Saturday, it was the defensive line’s turn to shine.
“That’s exactly the way it is in practice,” Van Ness said. “We all contribute. We all have a part of this defense and we all do our job. That shows on game day. But it happens during the week, with our preparation and our film work. I think we’re goIng to continue to grow.” The same can be said for Van Ness.
“I know there’s a lot to work on and improve on,” Van Ness said. “I think every game is an opportunity to get some experience out there. There are a lot of forces that want to go against you. As I go out there and I get more comfortable, I feel I can continue to excel.”
The same can be said for Iowa’s defense, impressive through three games.
“As our unit continues to build trust, communication and grow, the sky’s the limit,” Van Ness said.