Iowa Football

Iowa's 'driving distance' safety crew looks to pick up where it left off

With junior Amani Hooker taking points off the board, Hawkeyes safeties surged in the Pinstripe


Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Amani Hooker (27) dives into the endzone for a touchdown after intercepting an Ohio State pass on the first play of the game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, November 4, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Amani Hooker (27) dives into the endzone for a touchdown after intercepting an Ohio State pass on the first play of the game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, November 4, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Defense never gets enough credit. That’s just how it goes.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley was named the MVP of the Hawkeyes’ 27-20 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College. He did a ton for the Hawkeyes. He rushed for 88 yards and a TD. He caught two passes for 24 yards. And without Wadley’s one-man crusade against rotten field position — he returned five kicks and averaged 34.2 yards per return — Iowa probably is sunk in a game that went down to the last play.

Still, Iowa would’ve lost by one without safety Amani Hooker.

With 3:58 left in the second quarter, Boston College running back A.J. Dillon broke loose for a 66-yard gain. Hooker, who was initially blocked on the play, caught Dillon from behind at Iowa’s 21. The Hawkeyes defense held BC to a field goal.

With 10:26 left in the fourth quarter, Boston College tight end Tommy Sweeney caught a short pass and broke open. Sweeney kept his eyes to the inside of the field. He never saw Hooker coming.

“I thought he was in the end zone on that last one, but he got caught there at the end,” Boston College head coach Steve Addazio said.

The 6-0, 210-pound junior safety dropped Sweeney for a 48-yard gain to Iowa’s 7. Again, the Iowa defense held BC to a field goal.

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“Coach Parker (Phil Parker, defensive coordinator) always stresses hustle plays,” Hooker said. “I just tried to make one and I got him down both times. I just tried to do my part the best I can.”

That’s eight points in a game decided by seven. And obviously it showed Iowa has something to work with in Hooker.

“Very good athlete, has very good skill,” Parker said last October. “He has the ability to move and run, and he has a great feel for the ball, where it’s at, obviously, and obviously last week’s game, understanding how to get underneath that route and picked that interception off.”

“Last week’s game,” by the way, in this context was Iowa’s 55-24 victory over Ohio State. On the first play of the game, Hooker picked off OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett and returned it 30 yards for a TD.

Hooker finished that game, but suffered a bruised knee and missed the final three games of the regular season. Just when he finally hit ...

“It hurt, but I didn’t want to rush it and hurt it even more,” said Hooker, who finished 2017 with two interceptions and 56 tackles, including 12 in the Pinstripe. “We took time with it and got back for the bowl game and that was my goal.”

So, you know at the very least, Iowa safety 2018 is going to track down breakaways and probably punch in for the dirty work. Iowa’s top four safeties are exactly the kind of players head coach Kirk Ferentz talks about in recruiting. Yes, Iowa wants the best players it can get, but it really doesn’t want to drive past players who will help the cause.

This is a driving distance group.

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Hooker is from the Minneapolis suburbs. His best, supercool offer was New Mexico. Senior Jake Gervase, a former walk-on and Davenport Assumption grad, didn’t even have a Rivals.com profile. Sophomore Geno Stone (New Castle, Pa.) picked Iowa over Kent State. Senior Brandon Snyder (Larchwood) passed on scholarship money from North Dakota State to walk on at Iowa.

Gervase also was outstanding in the bowl game, collecting eight tackles, picking off a pass that set up a field goal and adding a tackle for loss. Stone, a true freshman last year, didn’t see a ton of action until late in the season. He had an interception and stepped up in a nickel role with eight tackles at Nebraska.

Snyder is currently working his way back from a second ACL tear in his left knee. He suffered the initial tear during spring practice in April and then, in his one game back, he tore it again on Oct. 7 against Illinois.

“Brandon Snyder is definitely going to be coming back, and he’s on schedule with his rehab, and we’re really excited to see where he’s going to be in the summer, and definitely next fall he’s going to be a factor,” Parker said.

Snyder’s injury forced Iowa’s safeties to grow up a little faster than maybe they were anticipating. It was shaky at times, but toward the end of the season, things started to fall into place and then in the bowl game, the position was a major factor for Iowa’s defense.

“I think we just got more comfortable,” Hooker said. “It was Jake Gervase’s first year as a starter. Same for me. During the year, you got into the communication and how fast game speed is and the physical mentality.”

Read more: "Secondary" doesn't describe Phil Parker's impact on Iowa football

Safety sets up well enough in 2018 that Parker has talked about a hybrid position, a safety/linebacker type who can defend on passing downs. He called it the “star” linebacker spot. For several years, Iowa has subbed safeties and corners for linebackers on passing downs. Iowa could be on the hunt for a three-down type hybrid player. The two times that Parker mentioned it this offseason he brought up Hooker.

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“At some point in time, we’re trying to keep on building if we can get a guy in there maybe like Amani Hooker, which I’m not saying he’s moving there, but that would be a type of guy that you’d want to put out there in certain personnel groupings,” Parker said.

Iowa is tracking toward four capable safeties in 2018. And you might see more than two of them at a time when it’s time for the opponent to pass.

Hooker is down for whatever, as you’d expect.

“I don’t really mind that. If they do, they do it. I’m just going to play my role and play the best I can,” he said. “I can play the run, I can cover in space. It’s whatever the coaches think.”

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

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