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Now is the time to turn up the defense.
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IOWA CITY — Jordan Lomax’s spring started in December. That’s when the junior started his move toward free safety.
Maybe his spring started last September. As a sophomore in 2013, Lomax won a cornerback spot out of fall camp and held it for all of three quarters. He suffered a hamstring injury in the opener. The injury lingered. Then-freshman Desmond King took root at corner and Lomax was out a job.
During Iowa’s bowl prep, defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker nudged Lomax over to free safety. And so here he is this spring. Lomax is the No. 1 free safety and it’s starting to feel like home.
“It feels good,” Lomax said after the Hawkeyes’ spring game on Saturday. “I played some safety in high school. It’s just getting used to being on the back end, getting a whole wide-view perspective of the offense and defense.”
That’s part of the reason why Parker felt comfortable shifting Lomax to free safety. He’s an economics major who was academic all-Big Ten last year. Brains are a huge part of free safety.
“The safeties are very vocal,” said senior John Lowdermilk, who started last season at strong safety. “They have to tell the corners what to do. They have to know everything, the formations. [Lomax] has picked it up really well.
“He’s extremely smart, extremely smart. I wish I was as smart as him. He makes fun out of me. He’s picked up on it really well.”
This compliment made Lomax laugh.
“Anytime, they have a question, they always come to me,” Lomax said laughing. “They make jokes about my GPA because it’s high.”
You can already gauge Lomax’s comfort level. Iowa’s secondary was abused during the team’s open practice in Des Moines on April 12, allowing three TD passes of 50-plus yards. Saturday, the defense gave up two long TD passes, a 42-yarder that freshman wide receiver Derrick Willies converted against the second-team defense and tight end Ray Hamilton finished a 54-yard scoring play after breaking a Lomax tackle.
That happened. Free safeties aren’t built in a day or even a spring. Brains were part of the reason why Parker saw a safety in Lomax, and so was his physical play.
“I know he’s a smart kid and I know he’s a tough kid,” Parker said. “We thought, ‘Hey, we’re going to get our best guys on the field,’ so we made that adjustment, who’s going to control the secondary, and that’s why we did it.”
Don’t discount the mental game that a defensive player in the Big Ten needs to master. Just like his studies, Lomax has dug in. He described what he needs to see from behind the facemask.
“First, when the offense comes out, you have to look at the formation,” Lomax said. “Once you understand the formation, you have to make the call. Once you make the call, you have to look around and get reads, any player who could give away whether or not it’s a run or pass.
“If there’s motion, you have to decide who you give the check to. And then, once the play actually goes on, you have to make your reads and read the quarterback. There is a lot of information. It’s not an easy transition.”
Did you get all of that? And, yes, Parker expects his defensive backs to be physical and provide run support as solid as a linebacker.
“You have to be physical at the free safety spot,” said Lomax, a 5-10, 200-pounder from Upper Marlboro, Md. “You have to be able to come down hill and make plays. That’s what they saw from me at cornerback, I was a pretty physical cornerback. Coaches figured the physical part of free safety was something I could handle.”
It remains a work-in-progress. Lomax is sponging it up.
“I think he is more comfortable now after 15 days being the quarterback back there,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s practice.
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