IOWA CITY — One of the themes that’s been tracked with the Hawkeyes this spring has been the change in thinking on defense.
Last fall, the Hawkeyes moved from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5. Let’s pop in some context here: The Hawkeyes ran that 4-3 alignment and variations of coverage systems for most of Kirk Ferentz’s 20 seasons. Yes, Iowa has run a few different personnel packages over the years, but the thing that made the 4-3 defense so solid against the run left it vulnerable in coverage, especially with the growing prevalence of spread offenses, particularly personnel groups that use three wide receivers.
Cue your least-favorite highlight of an opposing wide receiver outrunning the Iowa outside linebacker during an important part of the game. There weren’t a lot of those, but when they happened, they were obvious.
One happened against Wisconsin last fall. We’ve been over this. Iowa staked itself to a 17-14 lead. Outside linebacker Nick Niemann stood across slot receiver A.J. Taylor. The play wasn’t pretty for Iowa. Taylor caught a 17-yard TD and the Badgers won.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker had seen enough. He was asked during a Tuesday news conference if it was difficult to push away from the 4-3 and move on to the 4-2-5 and cash position.
“No, it wasn’t very hard after I saw what happened,” Parker said. “We’ve been cheating the system for a while. (Christian) Kirksey was there for a while, a very good athlete who can play there. I thought Ben (Niemann) was a pretty good athlete that could run, and we were getting away with some guys, but those were our best guys to put on the field,”
Parker didn’t hesitate to move to the 4-2-5, something Iowa practiced in the spring and then picked up after Wisconsin. You saw safety Amani Hooker move into the cash (safety/linebacker) role. The Hawkeyes allowed just 17.8 points (fewest since 2010). After the move, Iowa picked off 18 passes. Parker was quick to point out that a lot of the good things that happened for Iowa’s defense in 2018 (seventh nationally in total defense) happened because the defensive line constantly threatened offenses.
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Now, on its face, the 4-2-5 thing doesn’t seem like a drastic move, but it was time for a new thought, and Parker might’ve been ready for one.
“At that time and in the moments after that game, we kind of looked at it and you know, I put him (Niemann) in a bad spot,” Parker said. “We could’ve done a better job there, and so I figured if we put a guy there, have a little bit more skill, and can move a little bit better, can help us out in the passing game when they are trying to attack us there ... I think to me, it wasn’t much of a decision after the game. I thought it was time to move forward on that.”
“Cash” exists to cover teams that attack with 11 personnel, one back, one tight end and three wide receivers, so logic says defensive back.
When asked if it could be a linebacker, Nick Niemann even said, “At this point, it’s pretty much a DB 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.”
Parker took that a step further Tuesday.
“I think the way we’re looking at it, to us, it’s like a little bit more of a skill player as a corner than it is as a safety,” Parker said. “You have to be able to see the big picture and be able to pattern match and see things that are happening to you.”
So, you take all of this and Ferentz saying at the beginning of spring that the 4-2-5 is now “part of Iowa’s DNA and then it’s time to talk about what exactly Iowa needs and wants out of the “cash” position in this second round.
Hooker set a high standard. He won Big Ten defensive back of the year and he only kind of played defensive back. And now, he’ll be in the NFL. You’ll probably hear his name Friday.
Who will you see at “cash” against Miami (Ohio) next fall?
Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson has been the constant name brought up when Iowa defensive coaches have been asked about the cash position. Last season, Johnson fought some hamstring issues. That eventually cleared and he made an impression at cash during bowl prep.
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“He has a lot of things to work on, but I think he’s the best fit right now for us inside, even though right now I could sit there and say, Matt Hankins or OJ (Michael Ojemudia), if we had any issues, probably could put it in there and we practiced sometimes as a free and a strong, at times," Parker said.
“I moved these guys around a lot this year, probably more than ever, and feel more comfortable about guys understanding what they need to do.”
Hankins, Ojemudia and corner Julius Brents have gotten looks at the position.
And cash isn’t going anywhere. In the Outback Bowl, Mississippi State attacked Iowa out of an 11 personnel group “99 percent of the time,” Parker said.
“Yeah, basically everybody wants to spread you out,” Parker said.
This is Iowa’s solution. Parker also would love if officials cleaned up the blocking down field that happens with RPOs (run-pass option plays). He’d really love that.
“It’s hard because these guys are running the ball. Whoops, we want to come out and throw the ball and all of a sudden you have a guy 9 yards downfield,” Parker said. “If I’m coaching the safeties and I see that lineman down, you know, 8 yards, I think it’s a run or screen draw, right? That’s what I’m thinking. At least that’s what I’m coaching them.
“But when I see them sitting there hitting the safety and he’s deeper than, you know, 9 yards, it’s kind of a little bit — it’s hard to swallow a little bit.
“But that’s the way the game of football is. It’s all about advertising. You all know that.”
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