football Edit

Iowa D-Line Runs Deep: Kelvin Bell on the Hawkeyes in the Trenches

Kelvin Bell leads the defensive line for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Kelvin Bell leads the defensive line for the Iowa Hawkeyes. (© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Widely considered the strongest and most deep position unit on the 2023 Iowa football squad, Kelvin Bell leads the defensive line group in Iowa City.

Though the Hawkeyes lost John Waggoner to graduation and Lukas Van Ness to the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the NFL Draft, Iowa is expected to have eight-to-nine players see snaps on the D-Line this season.

Bell hesitates to call his group deep, though.

"Deep as in we have old guys -- let's look at it that way," he laughed. "They're deep as in guys who have been around here that know every year is a new year. This is the 2023 Iowa defensive line that hasn't done anything."

"I stress to them, 'Guys, we haven't taken over a game, we haven't gotten any sacks. Do not fall victim to the hype or the expectations on the outside because we've actually got to go out and do it.'"

Though he's cautious to praise the collective defensive line before the season starts, he's not afraid to dish out praise to the individuals he coaches -- in particular, the guys who have been there and done that.

For Bell, that starts with Deontae Craig, who wracked up 31 tackles, 6.5 sacks, ten tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2022.


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"He's got the ability to rush inside and outside which makes him incredibly versatile," Bell said. "He's a guy that in pass-rushing situations, you don't ever want to take him off the field because he can be productive both ways. That kind of helps us because you never know where he'll be. He won't definitely be on the left side or the right side, he'll just be on the line somewhere."

"What [Craig] has done from a mental standpoint is allow himself to play all four of those spots," Bell continued. "He has allowed himself to be effective at all those spots, which helps us because you can't get a bead on where the guy is. He can play all over the place, which is going to be a problem for offenses."

Then there's guys like Aaron Graves and Yahya Black who haven't seen a ton of time on the field so far in their careers as Hawkeyes, but are expected to bring big things to the defensive line this fall.

"[Aaron's] growth hasn't been physical so much," Bell said. "What he has done pre-snap -- his ability to understand the calls that are happening behind him and the role that he's going to play in -- that has been huge. It allows him to play faster, more confident and to get the most from his physical abilities. Now that he understands our defense and the calls more, I'm excited."

"Yahya is a big guy," he continued. "From an injury standpoint, he hasn't been able to put enough off-seasons together -- or has been slowed during the season -- to show off what he can do. But, he's healthy now, knock on wood."

"[Black]'s one of the sharpest guys in the room, just in terms of understanding what's happening defensively," Bell said. "He's so big and so athletic that he can make up for a lot of mistakes. He doesn't always need to be perfect. If he's healthy and plays the way he's capable of playing, it's going to be really good for Iowa. But he's got to be healthy."

With the raw ability and newfound understanding of their roles, Coach Bell expects to give them both more freedom in the Hawkeye defense in 2023.

"These guys have boundaries -- once they start to grow and to understand our scheme, we start to give them latitude within those boundaries," Bell said. "That's what really makes the defense click."

Two players that saw the field in 2022 who may not have the reputation or the latitude of a Black or Graves are Ethan Hurkett and Max Llewelyn. Bell has seen substantial growth out of the lesser-known pair since last season, though.

"Max Llewelyn has grown a ton physically," Bell said of the sophomore. "When we got him, he was like 230. He's 260 pounds now, but he also understands what's going on in the classroom more. He understands our defense more. He's being more physical and training with better technique. I expect a big year from Max, he's a guy who has taken another step from bowl prep to now."

Hurkett, who recorded 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in 13 games last season, is expected to be fully healthy this season after previously dealing with a knee injury.

"I think Hurkett has bounced back from the injury he suffered in 2021," Bell said. "Man, he's just a hard-nosed kid. You forget sometimes that he didn't play defensive line in high school. What you're seeing here is a guy that after being here for three seasons, he's really starting to take hold of that position and understand how to play up front. He's going to be a real asset for us this year in terms of that defensive line rotation. I'm really looking forward to getting him on the field, getting him more reps, because he has definitely earned it."

Lastly, another lesser-known commodity with plenty of potential is sophomore and Iowa Western transfer, Anterio Thompson. Though he may not be expected to compete for a significant amount of time with 2023's loaded rotation, Bell likes what the 6'3", 293-pound Dubuque native has done since he arrived on campus in the spring

"We've seen a lot of improvement," Bell said. "Improvement in the classroom and on the field. It's a totally night-and-day difference from the guy we got in January to the guy we have right now. Obviously, he's behind the guys who have been here for three or four years, but physically he's got unique tools and unique gifts. We've got a Big Ten body, he's just got to learn our system."

"That jump he's made -- that was my hope for us bringing him in here. My hope was that we get him in here and to have him assimilate to how we do things. Obviously, coming from junior college, he had a totally different system and set of expectations. He definitely does fit here. His arrow has done nothing but go up since he got here in January till now. He's starting to understand what it takes to play here."