"Improvement-driven" has been a buzzword for Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz. And no position on this year's Hawkeyes is taking that phrase more to heart than the defensive line.
The players there have heard all the criticisms: They're too young. Too inexperienced. Didn't play well enough last year. Aren't good enough for Iowa to win big this season.
So there's plenty of fuel for that drive to improve.
"We have a lot of people questioning us," junior defensive end Dominic Alvis said. "That's OK. The way we can shut them up is with our play. It starts right now, in practice each day. We're being improvement-driven, like coach says."
Alvis and Steve Bigach are the only defensive linemen with any starting experience, and that amounts to 13 games total. Alvis began last season playing at defensive tackle, even though he was only about 255 pounds. He said he felt "uncomfortable" playing inside but did so because the team needed him there.
He moved to his more natural position of defensive end by the third game and came up with a sack and a forced fumble against Pitt. He had a pair of tackles for loss against Northwestern and was playing well against Michigan until a torn ACL ended his season.
"I really thought I was kind of getting into my groove" before the injury, he said.
Now, Alvis -- who missed spring practice -- finds himself healthy and about 10 pounds heavier. But he's trying to regain the mental edge he had in the middle of last fall.
"It's amazing how those tools and skills diminish as you're sitting on the couch for six months after an injury," he said. "I'm getting back to that each day and can feel it coming along, but it's a process."
Alvis also has a new position coach in Reese Morgan, who moved over from coaching the offensive line to tackle the young defensive front. Morgan recruited Alvis out of high school, so the relationship there was good from the start. Alvis sees Morgan making a difference with the line.
"The thing he does best is, he is a teacher," Alvis said. "He can make anybody understand the most complex things in very simple terms. We're learning the defense conceptually and honing in on the smallest details needed to beat offensive linemen. Obviously, he's worked with offensive lines, so he knows their weaknesses and plays. He gives us some tips here and there, and it's great to have."
Asked which young players were standing out in camp, Alvis pointed to freshman Darian Cooper, sophomore Louis Trinca-Pasat and sophomore Carl Davis, the latter of whom is a talented player who has turned some heads at Iowa's open practices. The ability is there; it's a matter of putting it all together.
"Consistency is the hardest thing to master," Alvis saud. "Play after play, focusing on technique and being perfect at it is the hardest thing you'll ever do. You have to be able to play four quarters in Big Ten games."
The Hawkeyes are flying under the radar in the Big Ten, largely because of questions about that defensive line. All they can do is focus on improvement and hope to prove doubters wrong.