Iowa Football

Iowa football 2018 depth chart projection: Defense

How will the Hawkeyes line up? Some spots you know, some won't be known until post camp

Head coach Kirk Ferentz works with defensive players at an Iowa football practice at the team's indoor practice facility in Iowa City on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Head coach Kirk Ferentz works with defensive players at an Iowa football practice at the team's indoor practice facility in Iowa City on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Twenty years of Kirk Ferentz now and not a lot has changed since 1999. We’re talking Ferentz, his approach and core football beliefs.

Ferentz holds defense way up there, maybe No. 1, as far as what he wants to see consistently out of his team. In that regard, it’s been a successful 20 seasons.

Between the late Norm Parker and now Phil Parker over the last 20 years, you can argue that Iowa’s defense has stood the test of time.

Here’s where it’s finished nationally in total defense since 2008: 12th, 10th, 25th, 60th (2011 was rough), 49th (4-8 team), 6th (the power of pro linebackers), 22nd, 22nd, 23rd and 36th last season.

In an era that has seen the rise of spread offenses, these results are consistent and sparkling. Iowa doesn’t have the conference titles that you might expect would come along with these kinds of rankings. Offense has to punch in at some point, too, with consistency and all of that.

As offenses look more and more to keep the run-pass decision-making process going as long as they can during a play, defenses will have to adjust. Iowa has dealt with run-pass option offenses, but Parker and his staff have evolved in subtle ways.

A lot of that discussion comes down to the outside linebacker spot. Iowa has had a good run here the last few years, starting with Christian Kirksey and ending with Ben Niemann, a graduating three-year starter.

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Can Iowa defend the spread/read-option better with a linebacker or a safety body? The Iowa pattern the last two or so seasons has been base 40 defense on first and second downs and then sub package. The packages have evolved from a three-man front built for pass rush to a speed rush group with seven defensive backs.

This doesn’t have to be a locked decision. As football becomes more and more customized (see Iowa State’s defense last season), defenses are going to have to rely on quick changes with mostly the same guys.

The “uh-oh” example linebackers coach Seth Wallace used was an offense moving cornerback Josh Jackson close to the line of scrimmage with motion and then snapping as he’s over the B gap, leaving a 190-pound defensive back as the first responder to a lead play with a fullback or guard or H-back quickly coming to say hello.

The first rule of Iowa defense is stop the run, but Iowa wants to defend space and with more speed on the field.

Phil Parker talked about this transition. Wallace said, “There is time to give thought to what this transition is. We’re not there yet and I’m not sure we will be.”

It’s May. No need for conclusions, not yet anyway. This might simply boil down to finding the best 11 and morphing them into what you need for a given situation.

Defensive ends

The Guy: Anthony Nelson

The Dudes: Sam Brincks, Chauncey Golston, Brandon Simon

 

The Plan: Keep doing what you’re doing, Anthony Nelson. First, we need to come up with some sort of word for one who is good at sacking quarterbacks. “Sacker” just doesn’t do it. “Sack artist” is just dumb.

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Five of the top seven players who are good at sacking return in the Big Ten this season. Three of them are defensive linemen — Northwestern end Joe Gaziano, Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Nelson. All three have 13.5 career sacks.

Nelson uses all of his 6-7 frame and has kind of amazing “slither” for a 271-pounder. After Nelson? You’ll probably see Brincks rotate at end. He also worked some tackle this spring, same with Golston. If Nelson rotates out, probably one of them goes in. Nelson will rotate out. Iowa seems to be seriously committed to playing two shifts of D-linemen again in 2018. It’s the right move.

The Guy: Parker Hesse

The Dude: A.J. Epenesa

 

The Plan: Parker’s dad, Perry, has a Twitter account and the guy has a great sense of humor. At some point this spring, he tweeted “Starting at right defensive end for Iowa this fall will be a kid named Hesspenesa. Can stop the run. Can dump the QB. Never gonna quit. This kid and rest of defense will be a game changer. Grand opening Sept. 1 in Iowa City!”

Yep. Let’s leave it at that.

But wait, some of you will lose your minds that Epenesa isn’t the starter. Some of you who just like to complain and don’t really know your team will say that. Hesse has 10.0 career sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss (10.5 last season, behind only Josey Jewell for the team lead) and two interceptions at Nebraska, including a pick six that gave Iowa operating room and helped close a 12-0 2015 season.

#Hesspenesa — officially a hashtag.

Defensive tackles

The Guy: Cedrick Lattimore

The Dudes: Chauncey Golston, Sam Brincks, Dalles Jacobus

 

The Plan: Daviyon Nixon is being held out for academics in 2018. Expectations were probably a little nutty for Nixon, but he was a 6-3, 305-pounder who would’ve eaten some snaps and might’ve made a splash. In 2019, Nixon will help.

Now? Defensive coordinator Phil Parker was careful to say that Golston and Brincks were getting looks at DT, but they still would play some DE. Fueling an eight-man DL rotation is going to take some different bodies. There’s going to be some trial and error. Maybe the bigger question is will a true freshman have to gear up at DT? There are probably enough bodies here to avoid that, but if Tyler Linderbaum, Noah Shannon and John Waggoner show up in August and throw some weight around, that would obviously change things.

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Lattimore had a fairly quiet 2017 with 15 tackles. Still, that’s not the overall value of a DT. Josey Jewell’s 136 tackles last season show that a little better. Last year also was Lattimore’s first regular time in the lineup and he had to deal with injury. He’ll have his feet more firmly on the ground this year.

The Guy: Matt Nelson

The Dudes: Brady Reiff, Garret Jansen

 

The Plan: Everybody kind of freaked out on DT depth this spring. Everybody kind of forgot about Nelson. He missed spring practice after suffering a shoulder injury in the Pinstripe Bowl. He’s expected to be full go for summer conditioning in June.

He’s 6-8, 295 pounds and played DT exclusively last season. Reiff was elevated to starter this spring. He’s 272 pounds, so fighting inside and holding point will need to prove out. Jansen is listed at 6-2, 280. He looks like one of the quicker inside players Iowa has.

Matt Nelson, Lattimore, Reiff, Jansen, Brincks and Golston are probably the candidates to rotate inside. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges in third-down pass rush, but defensive coordinator Phil Parker said this spring that Hesse will continue to rotate inside on passing downs.

Middle Linebacker

The Guy: Amani Jones

The Dudes: Jack Hockaday, Dillon Doyle

 

The Plan: The pieces aren’t done moving here. Linebacker could look totally different after fall camp. But Jones led the Hawkeyes in “good spring” this spring.

Jones was listed as the No. 2 weakside linebacker when spring started. He ended as the starter at middle linebacker in the spring game.

“Commitment and the way he puts his effort and the time in, watching film, preparation, the energy and the excitement that he brings to the field, and then obviously when he finishes plays, I mean, he likes to go after guys, and he does a good job of tackling guys,” Parker said. “We just like his enthusiasm.”

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Couple that with what Kirk Ferentz said about middle linebacker at the start of spring: “Mike position is a communicator position, so he’s got a lot on his shoulders, lot of things to process and think about. That’s part of the equation, for sure. To me he’s got to give you a spark in his own way. Personalities can be different, certainly, but he’s got to be the guy that gives you a little spark in there.”

That’s Jones.

Weakside Linebacker

The Guy: Kristian Welch

The Dudes: Djimon Colbert, Hockaday

 

The Plan: In the wake of Aaron Mends’ ACL injury suffered during the last week of spring practice, this position is sort of starting from scratch.

Mends was a senior who finally clawed his way into a shot at serious playing time. At the very least, you knew Mends was an athlete who traded the inside linebacker squat record with Jones. Maybe Welch also squats 600 pounds, but we don’t know.

Welch played special teams his first two seasons. He has speed and height and that gives him range. Can he shed blocks and do all of the keying and diagnosing? Obviously, that remains to be seen.

Welch started spring as the No. 1 middle linebacker, so we know that he’s tangibly climbed the ladder. For now, for this post, that gets him the edge.

Not a lot to go on right now at this position. Injuries will do that.

Outside Linebacker

The Guy: Nick Niemann

The Dudes: Barrington Wade, Nate Wieland

 

The Plan: From the dialogue among Iowa’s defensive staffers this spring, it sounds like Iowa wants to do something with the outside linebacker position.

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Can Iowa get a little more speed on the field and not give an offense any sort of numbers advantage in the running game? Do you want a linebacker body or a safety/smaller linebacker? Injuries this spring didn’t allow this to progress much in practice, but that doesn’t mean the discussion ended.

Parker referred to safety Amani Hooker as a potential “star” linebacker. Iowa has a few more proven safeties for 2018, so the discussion is healthy.

Parker showed last season if he can get the sub package in on passing downs, the outside linebacker will come out of the game.

Let’s not get carried away with the “star” linebacker discussion (maybe we already have), because what do we all do when we’re taking a chance and we have doubts? We leave ourselves outs. Niemann is that out. If Parker doesn’t feel comfortable, what better default than the younger brother of the guy who played the position for the last three years? (Soon, you’ll know Ben Niemann as “Nick Niemann’s brother.”)

One of the fun things about speaking weekly with coaches during spring practice is you really can tell when a player spikes. Not a lot was said about Wade at the beginning of spring, but he turned it on and got on the map.

Free Safety

The Guy: Jake Gervase

The Dudes: Brandon Snyder, Julius Brents

 

The Plan: Gervase had a bad game at Iowa State last season and lost his starting job. After Snyder suffered his second ACL tear against Illinois, Gervase was back to full-time and he was much improved.

Gervase didn’t need an extreme makeover. He tightend up alignments and put a tighter focus on where he was on the field. His confidence grew and Gervase was playing his best football at the end of the season. In the Pinstripe Bowl, Gervase had eight tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception.

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Snyder is going to get healthy very soon. He tore the ACL in his left knee for the first time in spring 2017. He did it again in his only appearance of the season Oct. 7 against Illinois. Snyder returned an interception 89 yards for a score in the game.

Snyder’s knee has progressed and he’s definitely in the plans.

“I think it will be good for us to have the capability to have two deep at safety, and it might give us a little bit more flexibility on some of our other packages that we want to use,” Parker said.

Strong Safety

The Guy: Amani Hooker

The Dudes: Geno Stone, Dallas Craddieth

 

The Plan: Hooker isn’t a finished player, but there’s no arguing that he kept climbing the ladder in his first season as a starter.

The Ohio State pick six on the first play of the game is the big highlight. Hooker picked off OSU’s J.T. Barrett and returned it 30 yards for a TD. Iowa rode that start to a 55-24 victory in what maybe was the most talked about result in college football in 2017.

Hooker, a junior, has arrived. He missed three games with a bruised knee, but rebounded with a Pinstripe Bowl performance that included 12 tackles, including two that stopped what would’ve been sure touchdowns.

Stone didn’t play a ton until the end of 2017. Then, it felt like he led the Hawkeyes in impact per snap. Stone had an interception and 12 tackles in very little playing time. Stone is probably safety No. 4 for the Hawkeyes. It’s a quality group that, as Parker said, should give Iowa options in personnel packages. It also might get better with a group of quality incoming freshmen.

Cornerbacks

The Guy: Matt Hankins

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The Dudes: Trey Creamer, D.J. Johnson, Cedric Boswell

 

The Plan: During his recruitment, Hankins got a late offer from Michigan, said no thanks and showed up in Iowa City last fall looking for playing time. He faced a stacked deck. Hankins worked his way into nickel packages and then in the third quarter against Purdue, Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia were burned for long plays and the Boilermakers swooped up all of the momentum. Hankins was the third corner inserted into the game. He stopped the bleeding and he kept the job.

Creamer was one of Iowa’s more noticeable defensive backups in the spring game. He was very active as a tackler and held his ground in coverage. Johnson is a 3-star Rivals signee who had offers from Notre Dame and LSU. He could be the 2018 Matt Hankins.

The Guy: Michael Ojemudia

The Dudes: Manny Rugamba, Josh Turner

 

The Plan: Of course, you remember Josh Jackson. Unforgettable 2017 and maybe the best single season for an Iowa defensive back ever. Wait, did Jackson or 2015 Desmond King have the best Iowa defensive back season ever? Pretty good, fun debate.

Jackson started all 13 games at one corner spot. Three players started on the other side: Ojemudia, Rugamba and Hankins.

Ojemudia had a tough first quarter at Michigan State, He was one-on-one with wide receiver Felton Davis. On the first drive of the game, Davis caught four passes, including a 31-yarder and a 22-yard TD. Davis is 6-4, 200. That was Ojemudia’s first start since the opener, and the Spartans went right at him.

Review the film and grow. Ojemudia made one more start and saw plenty of time in nickel/dime. Maybe he hangs onto this.

Rugamba is probably at a career crossroads. After putting up some impressive moments as a true freshman in 2016, Rugamba started 2017 with a one-game suspension and he suffered an ankle injury. And then the Purdue third quarter happened and that opened the door for Hankins.

The ball is in Rugamba’s court.

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“I think it’s a challenge as a true freshman to come in and play against Michigan and having a great year, and a lot of people patting you on the back, and I think maybe he might have lost his focus a little bit, not as detailed, maybe not as much of a time commitment,” Parker said. “I’m not really sure. But you’re right, up and down a little bit. But I thought for this spring, at times I think he’s been really good, and he’s working his tail off.

“His job is to go ahead and prove that he’s a starter, and obviously he’s a starter at nickel, but he wants to be a starter in regular base defense.”

Punter

The Guys: Colten Rastetter and Ryan Gersonde

 

The Plan: You kind of know what you’re going to get out of Rastetter. He’s the rugby punter who also can do traditional punting. He also showed last season that he’s a good athlete, completing two passes on special teams fakes. If you can get 39 yards and no return out of rugby punt, teams can live on that. With 50 or 60 yards in front of him, that totally can work.

It’s harder to say exactly what Iowa has with Gersonde. He’ll be a sophomore in 2018. He was born in Milwaukee, Wis., and moved to Australia for most of his childhood before moving back to Milwaukee before high school.

Last season, Gersonde punted 15 times and averaged an impressive 42.4 per attempt. He certainly got everyone’s attention with a 52.6 average on five punts at Northwestern (and, no, that wasn’t a terribly windy game with speeds between 6 and 12 mph). At some point, Gersonde suffered an undisclosed injury and was shelved for the season. That Northwestern game ... that certainly was intriguing. Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods wants him to pick a punt style (two-step punter or jab, two-step punter) and stay with it.

There’s work to do. Iowa was 114th in the nation in punting with a 38.6 average. Last year was the first real action for Rastetter and Gersonde. Year two should come with improvement.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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