Iowa Football

Amani Hooker will be the latest addition to Iowa's NFL defensive back network

The mentoring going on with the Hawkeyes' secondary runs deep and is only getting deeper

Amani Hooker at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. (Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports
Amani Hooker at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. (Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Amani Hooker said Desmond King is his mentor. Then, he mentioned Josh Jackson as a mentor. Micah Hyde also made the list.

Yes, Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson were the stars of the NFL combine show on Saturday. Let’s take a second and consider Hooker and the fraternity of defensive backs the Hawkeyes now have in the league.

Little-known fact: Defensive backs are the second-most drafted position during head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 20 seasons. Offensive line leads the way with 17, and then it’s defensive line (11) and tight ends (nine).

Since 2013, the Hawkeyes have put Micah Hyde, Desmond King and Josh Jackson into the league. Hyde has been in the Pro Bowl. King was named All-Pro last season. Jackson was a rookie with the Packers.

It’s starting to become quite a network.

“I have a good relationship with Des, I hit him up every once in a while,” said Hooker, who announced his decision to skip his final year at Iowa and enter the draft in January. “Before I came here, I asked if he had any advice for me. He said be yourself, be honest and ball out.”

Hooker also looped in Jackson.

“They’re like my mentors,” Hooker said. “Whenever I text them or call them, they answer. They give me their feedback. I’ve also been talking to Micah Hyde, too. He’s my mentor as well.”

Of course, Hooker was reverential when Iowa defensive coordinator/secondary coach Phil Parker’s name came up. The coaching, love and competition in his secondary has fused this network of Iowa NFL defensive backs.

What is it with Parker?

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“It’s the details,” said Hooker, who tied for the team lead last season with four interceptions. “He doesn’t let anything slip. If your foot is off a little bit, he’s going to correct you regardless if you get an interception. You’re not going to get a congratulation until he talks to you individually.”

The buy-in for Parker’s secondary runs deep, even in the face of relentless coaching.

“My mindset is he obviously appreciates me and understands my ability,” Hooker said. “I know he’s not going to try to kiss my tail. He’s not going to let me get a big head.”

After game 4 against Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes' schedule was pretty much a parade of spread offenses, so Parker moved Hooker into the “star” position, a linebacker/safety hybrid. Maybe Parker doesn’t do that if Hooker isn’t there?

During bowl prep in December, Parker said the way Hooker read and diagnosed plays made the decision to go with the 4-2-5 look an easy one.

“He’s going to play over the slot, that big nickel,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He’s at his best when you kind of let him float and he can just use his instincts and make plays.

“I wrote down in my notes he almost looks bored when he’s playing as the high safety. He likes to kind of be down there in the action and mix it up and get involved in the run game there a little bit with some physicality.”

Hooker talked about his versatility Sunday at the combine. He showed it all last fall, earning Big Ten defensive back of the year as a hybrid player. Hooker was second on the team with 65 tackles, 3.5 for loss. In addition to tying for the team lead with four interceptions, he led Iowa with seven pass breakups and also had a safety.

Hooker had to learn how the defensive line and linebackers worked together. He was responsible for a different set of run fits and was closer to the line of scrimmage, where it’s physical and fast.

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Hooker said the Hawkeyes installed the “star” position in the spring and then didn’t practice it during fall camp before calling on it after the bye week.

“A lot of man-to-man, a lot of reading the No. 3 receiver (tight end or slot receiver) and having good eyes and good vision,” Hooker said of the star’s responsibility.

Maybe this personnel group sticks for the Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes finished second in total defense in the Big Ten this season. The 6.0 yards per pass attempt Iowa allowed was tied with Georgia for 16th nationally.

Hooker said he could see five or six players competing for the position, including freshman D.J. Johnson, sophomore Julius Brents and senior Michael Ojemudia.

“Who knows what coach Parker is going to do, but I’m pretty sure it’ll work,” Hooker said.

This started with the notion of mentorship. Hooker received mentoring and was mindful about being one himself, with Johnson, Brents and others in mind.

“I tried to be the best mentor I could for them,” Hooker said. “I told them when they came in it wasn’t going to be easy. You might not start right away, but keep your head down, do the daily disciplines, the small things and come to me whenever you want, text me whenever you want. I’ll help them out.”

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

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