Iowa Football

Iowa makes do with what it has in the secondary

No 'Cash' early, as injuries stack up

Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Nick Niemann (49) and defensive back Geno Stone (9) bring down Miami (Oh) Redhawks defensive back Jayden Russell (1) in the second quarter of their NCAA football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Nick Niemann (49) and defensive back Geno Stone (9) bring down Miami (Oh) Redhawks defensive back Jayden Russell (1) in the second quarter of their NCAA football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The ‘Cash’ has been pocketed. For now.

But, make no mistake, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker will dig it back out and spend a lot of it at some point. Probably this week against Middle Tennessee.

So much has been made about the Hawkeyes’ philosophical switch to a 4-2-5 look. Ditching the traditional 4-3 simply had to be done because of the preponderence of spread offenses in today’s college football.

Linebackers matched up against wide receivers isn’t an optimal defensive formula.

Amani Hooker went from safety to cash in the middle of last season for Iowa and was brilliant as a safety-linebacker hybrid, improving the defense as a whole. He’s in the NFL now, but cash was the intent this season, too, with redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson playing the role.

Yet the 14th-ranked Hawkeyes (3-0) have been so banged up in the secondary, cash has made a fast dash elsewhere. Johnson started at cornerback two weeks ago against Iowa State because of an injury to starter Matt Hankins.

Iowa also has been without sophomore corners Julius Brents and Riley Moss so far because of injury. Starting free safety Kaevon Merriweather has missed the last two games.

Not a lot of healthy bodies in the back, especially experienced ones. The 4-3 has had to come back by necessity.

“With the linebackers we have, they have done a good job. You always want your best players on the field, whether it’s a 4-2-5, whatever it is, you want the best out there,” Parker said.

Parker stressed he’s not a physician, but thought perhaps Merriweather might return this week. Everyone should find out more at Tuesday’s press conference with head coach Kirk Ferentz about Merriweather, Hankins and the others.

At any rate, get to know guys like redshirt freshman defensive backs Terry Roberts and true freshmen Jermari Harris and Daraun McKinney. Roberts has played in all three games this season, while Harris saw his first playing time against Iowa State, and McKinney dressed for the game but did not play.

“(True freshman) Dane Belton is another guy that we thought ... was moving up, and he fell back down a little bit, and now he’s moving back up. So interesting to see where he is here in the next week and a half,” Parker said, adding he could play some cash. “I like Harris, what he’s doing. He’s making a lot of progress, is very athletic. Very good skill. I think he’s grown and grown, and I like the way he’s going. McKinney is another guy that we had to bring, and he’s a guy that’s been here since January. So he’s been around the program a little bit longer probably than Harris, a couple months. But I think they have both done a good job.”

Middle Tennessee (1-2) employs an offense with no tight ends, one back and four wide receivers. Quarterback Asher O’Hara has thrown for 785 yards and eight touchdowns in three games, and leads the Blue Raiders in rushing (202 yards, with a touchdown) as well.

As many healthy corners, safeties and cashes as Iowa can have will be important.

“Whoever you’ve got over there, you coach the guys that show up to practice and get them ready to play,” Parker said. “If they are injured, what are you going to do about it? I can only play with the guys we’ve got and get them in the right spot. If they are learning every day, because they are in meetings, too, and they are practicing, they have the same opportunity.

“We are not very complicated on defense, they should pick up on things well. I’m going to coach like I expect you to be (ready). If you put somebody in, you’ve got to be the guy.”

Parker’s group dominated Rutgers, was decent against Miami (Ohio) and bent but didn’t break for the most part against Iowa State.

“I think the last couple games, what happens during a game, can we make adjustments? I think we have been making some adjustments and (trying to make) sure that the kids can see things,” Parker said. “I’m looking at the players gathering more information rather than telling them what is going on and what to expect. I think we always need to be growing like that.

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“Then, obviously, the tackling I think should be better. The communication that we’ve got to have ... There’s a couple plays out there that we left out there that (against Iowa State). If we would have made the right call, something could have been different. Once again, in an atmosphere like that, you miss some things, but we have to be better communicators. That’s everybody, including myself.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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