Anthony Nelson believes he is ready to take his quarterback-sacking game to the NFL.
The defensive end who finished first or second on the Iowa football team in sacks in each of his three seasons with the Hawkeyes announced Monday he will be forego his senior season of eligibility, declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Nelson is the third Iowa player to announce plans to leave the program early for the upcoming draft, joining tight end Noah Fant and defensive back Amani Hooker.
“As a kid, I always dreamed of one day being a Hawkeye and to be able to live out this dream has been one of the best experiences of my life,’’ Nelson wrote in announcing his decision on Twitter. “I am excited to now have the opportunity to pursue another of my dreams and cannot wait to see what the future holds.’’
Like Fant and Hooker, Nelson thanked coach Kirk Ferentz and strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Doyle for the opportunity to compete for Iowa. He went on to thank defensive line coaches Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell for their help in his development.
“The lessons I have learned from them will serve me for the rest of my life,’’ Nelson wrote, going on to thank his teammates and Iowa’s football and academic support staff.
The 6-foot-7, 271-pound Waukee, Iowa, native redshirted at Iowa as a true freshman in 2015, but has made an impact from an end position on the defensive line in three seasons since.
In the Hawkeyes’ recently-completed 9-4 season, Nelson finished second on the team to Big Ten leader A.J. Epenesa with 9.5 sacks. He was also second on the team with 13.5 tackles for a loss and ended the season with 45 tackles, eighth on the Hawkeye tackle charts.
In Iowa’s Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State, Nelson counted 2.5 tackles for a loss among his four tackles and one quarterback hurry.
His work included two critical stops after the Bulldogs gained a first-and-goal at the Iowa 1-yard line in the fourth quarter.
He dropped quarterback Nick Fitzgerald for a one-yard loss on first down and shared a tackle with Parker Hesse for a one-yard loss on second down of a drive that saw Iowa deny Mississippi State a go-ahead touchdown and limit the Bulldogs to a field goal.
A three-time academic all-Big Ten selection, Nelson led the Hawkeyes with 7.5 sacks during his sophomore season, including a pair in Iowa’s Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College. He finished second on the team with seven sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2016.
With Nelson’s announcement, Iowa will need to replace its entire starting defensive line from the Outback Bowl. Hesse at the other end position and tackles Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks completed their eligibility in the bowl game.
The Hawkeyes do return experience on the defensive front. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston return after seeing considerable playing time at the end positions as part of a rotation, combining for 72 tackles, 14 sacks and 25.5 tackles for a loss during the 2018 season.
Nelson is the 19th Big Ten underclassman to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft, among a group of more than 100 players from across the country who have already announced ahead of a Jan. 14 deadline plans to forego their final seasons of collegiate eligibility.
Among Big Ten programs, only Ohio State and Penn State have had more players announce early exits than the three from Iowa. Five players from both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions programs have declared for this year’s draft.
Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson, who also submitted his name to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, has not publicly announced whether he will join Nelson, Hooker and Fant in this year’s draft class or return for his junior season at Iowa.