IOWA CITY, Iowa — Drew Ott’s world changed quickly last fall.
After growing up more than a couple of dusty gravel roads away from tiny Trumbull, Neb., population 205, and starring on the eight-man football team at his high school in nearby Giltner, things took an unexpected turn when Ott found himself in the fast lane to playing time in the Big Ten.
“It wasn’t something I anticipated, but looking back now, I’m glad I had the experience. I think it can help me now,’’ Ott said. “It was just another change for me to get used to.’’
That was common as Ott adjusted to city life and the fast-changing ways of a football program in search of a pass rush.
“The best thing about being here is that I don’t have to drive 30 minutes to get to a Wal-Mart anymore,’’ Ott said. “It’s all good.’’
The sophomore defensive end got a taste of Big Ten competition when injuries changed his plans to redshirt eight games into Iowa’s 4-8 season last fall, providing Ott with a full-speed demonstration of what Big Ten football was all about.
“I grew up last year, but I didn’t have a lot of choice,’’ Ott said. “I was needed and I did what I could to help the team. Everybody has to start someplace and I’ve got those first-game jitters out of the way. I know what it is like to play at this level.’’
Ott enters his sophomore season better prepared to deal with what lines up across from him than he was a year ago.
He’s added 20 pounds and now carries 265 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame as he competes for a starting opportunity at an end position.
The extra weight — good pounds as he puts it — should benefit Ott as he duels with offensive linemen and works to disrupt whatever play he finds himself defending.
Ott shares the hopes of nearly every player on the Hawkeyes' defensive line.
He’s hoping to help Iowa create a little more havoc this fall as part of a more effective pass rush.
The Hawkeyes ended the 2012 season ranked last in the Big Ten with 13 sacks and 53 tackles for a loss, the lowest totals in the 14 seasons Kirk Ferentz has coached Iowa. The numbers also ranked below 100 among the nation’s Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
“I think the objective is to always put a little more pressure on the offense, get the quarterback to move a bit and make him uncomfortable,’’ Ott said. “We’re always looking to do that.’’
Ott feels better prepared to help make that happen this season.
“A year ago, everything was new. The biggest crowd I had played in front of was maybe 1,000 people,’’ he said. “All of a sudden, I’m on the field at Michigan and playing and it’s like, ‘Whoa, this is a brand new ballgame.’ But, you learn from the experience.’’
It is the same type of experience that benefited returning starters Louis Trinca-Pasat and Dominic Alvis as they added starting roles to their resumés last season.
The Hawkeyes return juniors Carl Davis, Mike Hardy and sophomores Darian Cooper, Riley McMinn and Melvin Spears to a defensive line mix which will also include redshirt freshmen Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie this fall.
They’ll form the nucleus of what coach Kirk Ferentz expects to evolve into an eight-player rotation.
“The good news is that we have some candidates to make that work,’’ Ferentz said. “With all of the up-tempo looks out there, it doesn’t hurt to have that. It probably helps us play a little more effectively if we can keep fresh bodies on the field.’’
Alvis is the lone senior in the group, although there is some collective experience.
“The key will be for that experience to show on the field in terms of the consistency we have in our game,’’ Ferentz said.
Ott hopes that proves to be the case as well.
“We’ve got to be able to work our hands inside and we’ve got to put more pressure on the quarterback,’’ he said. “We made things too easy for them last fall. We’ve got to put ourselves in a position to go get the sack.’’
Ott believes experience will help make that happen.
“I think a year ago a lot of us, myself included, were just trying to make sure we were in the right place and not reacting instinctively,’’ Ott said.
“I think you’ll see more of that because we are a more veteran group. We can just go out and play and make like tough on the other quarterback. That’s certainly what we’re going to try to get done.’’