Iowa Football

Iowa's defense might be a 5-11 defensive end this season

Hawkeye linebackers coach Seth Wallace isn't hung up on how the defense looks, it's whatever works

Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace watches the Hawkeyes warm up prior to a game against the Northern Illinois Huskies at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, September 1, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace watches the Hawkeyes warm up prior to a game against the Northern Illinois Huskies at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, September 1, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — OK, Iowa’s defense is in the world of a 4-2-5 scheme now.

Last week, head coach Kirk Ferentz said it was part of the philosophy, part of its “DNA.” What the 4-2-5 or “star/cash” defense does is replace a linebacker with a safety. Last year, that safety was Amani Hooker.

The move from strong safety to “cash” allowed Hooker to display his full skill set, win the Big Ten defensive back of the year award (as a hybrid) and then leave school early for the NFL. You’ll hear his name in the second round, third at the latest.

“One reason I think we were able to make that transition during the bye week after the Wisconsin game, and make it appear to be a seamless transition is because Amani Hooker had seen what the player was doing in front of him for countless numbers of snaps, it was easy for him to transition,” Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace said Tuesday.

The impetus for the change from a straight 4-3 alignment with three linebackers was the game-winner for Wisconsin in the 28-17 game at Kinnick Stadium last fall.

Wide receiver A.J. Taylor lined up in the slot across from outside linebacker Nick Niemann, got Niemann to open his hips to the outside and then darted inside wide open for a 17-yard TD. It gave the Badgers a 21-17 lead.

“It took a really impactful play in the Wisconsin game that really made us make the decision this was what we were going to do moving forward,” Wallace said. “Unfortunately, you have to fight through some adversity or negative situations to find the right answer. And we did that.”

Iowa’s defense was better able to hang with spread offenses. It had more speed on the field in Hooker, who also was strong and physical enough to move a few yards closer to the line of scrimmage. Wallace said the “cash” personnel group fit 80 percent of what teams tried against the Hawkeyes last season (multiple wide receivers with little tight end and fullback).

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This seems simple. This is one position and one player. Of course, the game within the game of football is “Jenga.” You move one block one way and you potentially open yourself up to a big-ass touchdown.

It’s more than just the one position (by the way, the two players mentioned most as candidates for “cash” this year are corner Michael Ojemudia and redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson).

There are recruiting implications. Don’t automatically think fewer linebackers. Wallace said linebackers are crucial to core special teams and said the first place Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods looks for bodies is the linebacker room.

“I think what you’ll find moving forward is us less likely to take three or four linebackers in a recruiting class,” Wallace said. “Maybe that extra scholarship goes to the secondary, because of how the percentages play out.”

If you think the linebackers haven’t noticed hybrid defenders encroaching on their playing time, you’d be wrong.

“With this new defense, you could say it makes it more competitive (to get on the field),” sophomore linebacker Djimon Colbert said. “But we’re not too worried about competition for reps right now. It’s just spring ball.”

The “cash” trickle down doesn’t totally eliminate the outside linebacker position (where Niemann started last season). The guarantee of 80 snaps a game goes away.

The linebacker group, however, does see the logic.

“Putting a defensive back in there does allow you to feel more comfortable playing man coverage on the strong side of the field,” Niemann said. Also, from Niemann, on a question on whether a linebacker could get a look at the hybrid position, “At this point, it’s pretty much a DB,” Niemann said, “who’s going to be able to run man (coverage) with receivers down the middle of the field. It’s a guy who can come in and run a 4.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) or maybe a low 4.5.”

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This is what change looks like. Iowa ran a hard 4-3 with little substitution for most of head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 20 years. When Ferentz started his tenure in 1999, Michigan and Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten played power football. Now, everyone has elements of the spread offense.

“For the longest time, we were stuck in that 4-3,” Wallace said. “‘This is how it looks and this is who they are.’ Now, we’re finding a decision we made last year made it a little bit easier to make a decision right now with someone like Amani Jones.”

Jones, a senior, was the news of the day. He’s the record-setter for linebackers in squats, with a max of more than 600 pounds. He hit a wall at linebacker last season. He has one more bite at this apple and he’s going to do it as a defensive end.

He’s 5-11, 246, so obviously not optimum size (Iowa DEs A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston 6-6 and 6-5), but ...

“You got power, you’ve got explosiveness, you’ve got quick twitch, those are all necessary,” Wallace said. “What you don’t have is the size, and I think he makes up for that.”

At 5-11, Jones would be a stand-up defensive end — a term new defensive line coach Kelvin Bell is erasing and replacing with “edge defender” — and that might look like a whole different defensive thing that Iowa hasn’t been under Ferentz.

“That starts to give you the sense of a little bit of the 3-4 when he’s out there,” Wallace said. “He has enough of a foundation as a linebacker to drop into coverage.”

So, another potential shift in Iowa’s defense based on the personnel at hand. It’s potential. This is spring and a whole lot of crazy stuff is on the board.

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This is what change looks like. And Iowa’s defense doesn’t have to look any particular way as long as it works. Iowa’s defense can be a 5-11 defensive end.

Whatever works.

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

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