The Epilogue 2017: The Defense

By Patrick Vint on January 10, 2018 at 12:35 pm
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Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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Departures, in Order of Importance

  1. Josey Jewell, MLB: It has been a popular position in recent years to tie the greatness of an Iowa defense to the greatness of its defensive ends, and sure, there's something to that.  But the truly great Ferentz-era Iowa defenses -- 2003 (11th nationally in yards per play), 2004 (7th), 2008 (11th), 2009 (6th), 2013 (6th) -- had great linebackers in general and middle linebackers in particular.  The years that didn't, didn't.  And while Jewell wasn't ever a part of one of those force-of-nature defenses, I'm not sure there's even an argument that Jewell has become the best middle linebacker to play under Ferentz.  Iowa has no obvious plug for the hole he leaves, and the lack of an answer at middle linebacker could limit Iowa in 2018.
     
  2. Josh Jackson, CB: At the end of the 2017 season, Iowa was asking how it was going to replace arguably the best cornerback in the history of the program.  At the end of the 2018 season, we're asking it again.  Jackson, who was thought to be a platoon starter at best when the season opened, was a force of nature for the Hawkeyes, quieting any concerns over the departure of Desmond King in a matter of minutes.  His performances against Ohio State and Wisconsin cemented his status as one of the nation's best cover corners, and this spring, he'll be the first cornerback of the Ferentz era drafted in the first two rounds as a cornerback.  And then Phil Parker will probably do it again.
     
  3. Ben Niemann, OLB:  Niemann didn't have the numbers or plaudits of Jewell, but he capably manned the most difficult position in the Iowa defense for three seasons without incident.  Finding an outside linebacker who can cover tight ends and slot receivers, read running plays and play proper assignment football isn't easy.  Niemann made those tasks look pretty simple, and much like with Jewell, his consistency at that position leaves Iowa with a gigantic question mark next season.
     
  4. Nathan Bazata, DT:  The senior out of Howells, Nebraska was largely overshadowed by the volume of talented underclassmen on Iowa's defensive line this season, but Bazata quietly held up his spot on the line of scrimmage for three seasons, the rock around which Iowa's young defenders could work.  He had a thankless role, and he performed it well.
     
  5. Bo Bower, WLB: Bower finally turns in his union card after three-plus seasons as a starter.  Iowa tried the former walk-on at outside linebacker early with limited success, but Bower found his own when he moved to weakside linebacker and spent a sophomore season backing up a senior.  When Bower returned to the lineup as a junior, he was solid, and remained so through his final two seasons.  Bower was never going to set the world on fire, and should in theory be the easiest linebacker to replace next year.  But replacing three years of experience isn't easy, no matter what you might think of the player holding that experience.
     
  6. Miles Taylor, SS:  Taylor's recruitment, a case of middle-of-the-night thievery from Georgia Tech, was seen as the first sign that Iowa was taking the gloves off on the recruiting trail.  It might have been the highlight of Taylor's tenure, though.  He was unceremoniously benched in 2016 following an injury, when it became clear that his senior understudy, Anthony Gair, was the better player.  He continued to struggle this year with diagnosing plays and being in position, though Taylor's senior season was by far his best.  By all accounts, he was a leader in a young secondary and a model teammate, and those things have value and will need replacement next year.
     
  7. Kevin Ward, LB/S:  Iowa has used the old "give a spot to a key recruit's brother" tactic a lot in recent years, and it worked when Kevin Ward was handed a preferred walk-on spot next to his four-star offensive lineman older brother, Ryan.  But Ryan barely ever saw the field at Iowa, and Kevin became a special teams stalwart and do-it-all backup on defense, one of the more improbable Iowa success stories of recent years.

What’s Left, Also in Order of Importance

  1. Anthony Nelson, DE:  In 2016, Nelson showed promise as a much-needed pass rusher.  In 2017, he established himself as one of the Big Ten's best three-down defensive ends, and I have to admit: I did not see that coming.  Nelson finished his sophomore season with 41 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four passes deflected.  He's a monster at defensive end, an increasingly difficult matchup problem for opponents whose increased production and persona could open opportunities for the three other pass rushers on the line with him.  Defensive line coaches look for ends who can disrupt an opponent's entire offense.  Nelson looks like one of those rare few that can do it by his mere presence.
     
  2. Matt Nelson, DT:  The other half of the Nelsons (half Nelson?) didn't much look the part of a defensive tackle when he shifted inside this August, but the 6'8" senior-to-be quickly came into his own.  His height gave short quarterbacks fits, and his five-tackle Pinstripe Bowl performance showcased what everyone watching this season had already figured out: That Matt Nelson had become a pretty good defensive tackle.  Iowa needs to find an answer for the block-swallower spot that Bazata is leaving open, but the counterpart is settled.
     
  3. Matt Hankins, CB:  Entering this season, we were fairly sure that Manny Rugamba would become the top cornerback, with Josh Jackson the question mark and Michael Ojemudia waiting in the wings.  But this is Iowa, and a freshman had to emerge at corner.  And so we have Matt Hankins, who had beaten out Ojemudia and Rugamba for a starting spot by the end of November and looks set to inherit the mantle as Next Great Iowa Cornerback Find.  He's the favorite to be Phil Parker's top prospect and Iowa's best defensive back in 2018.
     
  4. Jack Hockaday/Kristian Welch, MLB:  Iowa rotated a bunch of guys at the defensive line spots this year, but linebacker was effectively manned by the same three seniors all season.  That means we're starting from scratch, and there is no more important position to fill than middle linebacker.  Jack Hockaday had filled in for Jewell when he was briefly injured against Illinois, and was thought to be the heir apparent during much of 2016.  But Kristian Welch, the sophomore from Wisconsin, was ahead of Hockaday on the depth chart for most of 2017 and got mop-up duty work against Nebraska.  It could well be that we see one of these guys at middle linebacker and the other at weakside, but the resolution of this depth chart battle could determine how good Iowa's defense -- and, by extension, Iowa football -- is in 2018.
     
  5. Cedric Lattimore, DT:  Lattimore is probably better positioned as a three-technique defensive tackle, but with Nelson already holding that spot, Iowa is going to have a choice: Move the junior-to-be to the run-stuffer position in order to get the best guys on the field, or rotate Lattimore and Nelson opposite Brady Reiff and, potentially, Parker Hesse.  We're betting on Nelson and Lattimore, at least in run-favored or neutral down-and-distances, because Iowa's defensive line is going to need to hold up a half-second longer than usual to make up for inexperienced linebacker play.
     
  6. Amani Hooker, SS: The first OSU pick-sixer is a lock at strong safety for as long as he's on campus, having proven his worth through a 13-tackle performance against Penn State, the aforementioned OSU game, and a 12-tackle Pinstripe Bowl.  The only real question is whether Iowa moves him to outside linebacker in order to better utilize his talent.  He's going to be on the field, one way or another.
     
  7. Parker Hesse, DE:  Hesse added experience and versatility to an Iowa defensive front in need of both last year, working as a run-first defensive end on first and second down and moving inside to make way for Mongo in obvious passing situations.  It worked well enough that we have to consider him a potential defensive tackle for 2018 (especially considering how effective he was late in the season as a tackle).  Iowa's line has an abundance of young talent to fit into four spots, but it is highly unlikely that Hesse doesn't get at least one of those four positions next fall.  He's simply too valuable to lose.
     
  8. Amani Jones/Nick Niemann/Djimon Colbert, OLB:  If outside linebacker isn't the most important position in Iowa's defensive system, it's certainly in the top four, and Iowa's depth chart for the entirety of 2017 listed two seniors.  That means we have no earthly idea what Phil Parker intends to do here.  Nick Niemann makes sense, as his brother held the same spot for the last three seasons (and Parker says the younger Niemann is a better athlete).  Amani Jones has been a man without a home, which could land him here (although more likely weakside).  And Djimon Colbert, the high school safety converted to linebacker last year, looks tailor-made for this spot.  Iowa has also discussed playing in a default nickel next season, with a third safety effectively filling this spot, which would open the door to Hooker.  Watch this spot closely in August.
     
  9. Michael Ojemudia/Manny Rugamba, CB:  My, how one year has changed things at cornerback.  Entering August camp, Rugamba appeared destined to take over Desmond King's spot, and Ojemudia wasn't far behind.  But most of this season's defensive stinkers can be tied to CB2, being manned almost exclusively by these two once Josh Jackson ascended.  Pass-happy offenses at Iowa State and Purdue victimized them both.  And so here we are again, wondering if Rugamba or Ojemudia will have what it takes to become competent defensive backs.
     
  10. Aaron Mends/Amani Jones, WLB:  Weakside linebacker is usually reserved for the best linebacker who doesn't fit anywhere else.  That describes both Aaron Mends and Amani Jones, whose names have been dropped by Iowa coaches for what feels like a half-decade but have barely seen the field.  Mends was supposed to win this spot two years ago, but lost out to Bo Bower and has suffered through off-field issues.  Jones played as a freshman and recorded a handful of tackles in the first half of last season, but was missing after mid-October.  Again, this is a key spot left open.  Again, we have no idea what Iowa intends to do to fill it.
     
  11. Brandon Snyder, FS:  The last time we saw Snyder, he was running a pick six back on Illinois during a triumphant one-game comeback from a spring ACL tear.  The time before that, he was getting torched by Florida in a bowl game.  The point: There probably isn't a better free safety on the Iowa roster at the moment -- Jake Gervase was competent last season, but hardly spectacular -- and Snyder should get this spot back once fully recovered, but that doesn't mean that free safety is locked in.  It's just not that important a position in Iowa's scheme, and so we will probably see at least some of the same problems we saw the last time Snyder was fully healthy.
     
  12. A.J. Epenesa, DE:  Iowa didn't redshirt Epenesa last year, and for good reason.  He's ready, as he showed.  But it would feel like a loss if Iowa didn't somehow fit him into more than just third-down pass-rushing duty in his sophomore season, right?  If the staff burns two of its three or four seasons with the best recruit they've ever had on spot duty, it's wasting that talent, yeah?  My guess is that Iowa gradually works him into three-down use this year, with Hesse making way or moving inside to get Epenesa the room he needs to shine. That doesn't mean full-time use, even late, simply because Iowa has enough talent to rotate.  But it does mean considerably more than last season's role for Mongo.
     
  13. Geno Stone, S:  Stone looks like the potential beneficiary of a move inside by Hooker, even though he spent much of last season backing up Gervase at free safety.  There  aren't many other options for Iowa at safety if it elects to go all-nickel; Gervase and Snyder in the same backfield isn't an answer to anything, and Stone quickly built a reputation amongst the staff as a hard worker and hard hitter.  I don't think Hooker moves, but if he does, Stone is likely a starter.

Three Signs of Hope

Morgan's Town

The biggest problem for Iowa's defense in past years has been the gradual deterioration of the defensive front over the course of a season, brought on by a lack of depth behind the front four. That wasn't a problem last year, and it won't be again this fall.  Iowa is as loaded on the defensive front as it's ever been, and defensive line coach Reese Morgan remains the most effective assistant coach on the staff.  The man knows how to coach leverage better than anyone else.  He did it with Iowa's offensive line for a decade, and now he's done it with Iowa's defensive front.  And while his work with converted running backs and undersized tackles has been impressive, watching the product of his labor with five-star material like he has now could be the most fun we've had in years.

Phil Gonna Fill

After a rough start in his first season as a defensive coordinator, Phil Parker has settled into his own style and template and found consistent success.  Iowa's defense truly does reload every year, and 2018 should be no different, particularly at Phil's specialty position: Defensive back, where he has a handful of raw talents to form into a cohesive defensive backfield.  Anyone want to bet he doesn't pull it off?  Didn't think so.

OMG A PASS RUSH

It's been seven years since the Clayborn-Ballard-Binns-Klug-Daniels quintet left Iowa City (Daniels was here for an extra year, but c'mon), and Iowa's staff has been searching for a consistent pass rush ever since.  Anthony Nelson coming into his own and a five-star legacy recruit falling in our laps certainly didn't hurt, but the unsung part of why the four-man pass rush has returned is simply in the name: All four guys can get to the passer, no matter what four guys are out there.  Iowa once needed to create chaos through gimmick third-down packages in order to pressure the passer.  Now, Iowa's line is the chaos, taking pressure off the back seven and putting it squarely on the offensive line.

Three Reasons for Panic

Linebacker, Linebacker, Linebacker

Back in 2013, Iowa rode a trio of linebackers to a top 20 national defensive rating and a surprising return to success.  Chrsitan Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens weren't the names that Angerer-Edds or Hodge-Greenway were, but they each had more than two years as a starter and enough athleticism to get by when they singlehandedly destroyed Bo Pelini's career that November.  And then they all left, and Iowa simply called up the guys behind them, and it could only charitably be described as a disaster.  So here we are, four years later and facing the same issue again.  And where 2014 had some clear-cut linebackers-in-waiting, 2018 is a gigantic question mark made all the more dangerous by the fact that none of these guys could even come close to challenging for playing time in a 2017 linebacker corps not nearly on par with 2013.  When Iowa has linebackers out of position, Iowa's defense collapses.  It feels a lot like the entire 2018 season relies on the answer to this question, and we're answering by closing our eyes and picking a number.

Jackson, King, Hyde, Lowery, Prater, Fletcher, Godfrey, Spievey, etc.

It's taken as a given that Phil Parker is going to locate and develop a star cornerback every year, mostly because he's done that every year.  Iowa's run of top corners is as good as any program's, and it's been done with little more than a keen eye for talent and the hard work of Parker and his pupils.  So what happens if it doesn't happen?  I know we thought that might be the case last season, only for Jackson to emerge.  But if Iowa is merely competent at cornerback, can this defense be great?

Glitches in the Matrix

Iowa has been better about adapting to its opposition in recent years, moving beyond Norm's old complaints about the illegality of the spread.  The staff seems set to move toward smaller, faster defenders going forward, at least against the teams that warrant them.  The problem is that there are starting to be a lot of teams that warrant them.  Nebraska is likely going spread under Scott Frost.  Same for Minnesota under P.J. Fleck, Purdue is spread-ish, and Northwestern is always just a minute away from moving back to old habits.  Big Ten football is still largely Big Ten football, but navigating the current conference might require a versatility that Iowa's scheme and personnel simply don't allow.

Three Things That Could Change Everything

A.J. Epenesa, Defensive Tackle

I've never understood the people clamoring for this, but if Epenesa were to move inside and pair with Nelson or Lattimore, and makes the move early in the offseason so that he can fully understand the new role, Iowa could be fielding Nelson-Epenesa-Nelson-Hesse/Waggoner across the front.  Good luck blocking that.

Someone Grows Up

Kirk Ferentz likes to talk about the lightbulb coming on for players in this program, usually around Year Three.  Sometimes, the development is arrested: Remember the great senior season that Cole Fisher had in 2015 after four seasons sitting on the bench?  Iowa needs something like that, preferably at linebacker, if 2018 is going to work.  Aaron Mends, flip that switch.

Iowa Puts Fran in Charge of the Defense

Iowa then gives up a billion points. 

I mean, it's Iowa defense.  It has been consistently good-to-great for fifteen seasons, except for that one season where they had to change out all the linebackers.  And that other season where they had to change out all the linebackers.  It's going to be good to great in 2018 so long as it doesn't have to change out all the...

Damn it.

Dartboard Guess

Your level of confidence in this defense going into next season is probably based on which of these two things carry more weight in your mind: The consistent, effective success of Phil Parker in twenty years at Iowa and that of his stable of assistants, or the cavernous roster holes that Parker and his staff need to fill.  If Phil is able to do his thing -- carve a couple of linebackers out of wood, find a defensive back that nobody else wanted and turn him into an all-conference-caliber defender, and teach them all how to play complimentary, assignment, bend-don't-break Iowa defense, then Iowa willl be fine.  It likely won't be a vintage Iowa defense, but even the run-of-the-mill Hawkeye defenses under Parker have generally been 20th-35th nationally.  If Iowa's offense develops enough in its second season under Brian Ferentz, the gap might not even be noticeable. 

But if you're concerned that Iowa loses two consensus All-Americans on defense for literally the first time in program history and doesn't have a clear succession plan for either, or that history is not great when you couple that with four of the top six linebackers on the depth chart departing, or that Phil's cornerbacks are possibly going to be hoping for over-the-top help from another round of inexperienced safeties, then there probably isn't enough goodwill in Phil's regime to get you past that until you've seen it in person.  And that's fair.

Me, I'm in Camp A.  Phil Parker and Reese Morgan have earned the benefit of my doubt, and they'll come up with something to make this work, because at least Iowa has a freakish front four and its best assistant coaching them on how to stop offenses by themselves.  We'll figure out the rest as we go.

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