SAN DIEGO — Iowa’s secondary started the season with the No. 5 cornerback starting at Iowa State.
Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson came through. He had seven tackles, two pass breakups, including one on Iowa State’s final drive, and a sack. Johnson earned Big Ten freshman of the week.
He started two more games while junior Matt Hankins worked through a hamstring injury and then he only saw special teams.
Sophomore Riley Moss started just one game when senior Michael Ojemudia was injured at Wisconsin. Moss was one of the injured corners whose absence put Johnson in as a starter. After nearly a year without a lot of football, Moss came up with key interceptions against Purdue and Minnesota.
The last big project for secondary coach Phil Parker was finding a replacement for Amani Hooker at the cash safety. It took probably too long, but true freshman Dane Belton emerged against Northwestern and could end up being a key cog in the No. 16 Hawkeyes’ (9-3) matchup with No. 22 USC (8-4) in Friday's Holiday Bowl.
Parker, who’s finishing his seventh season as Kirk Ferentz’s defensive coordinator, has spun a lot of plates in 2019.
The injuries this and last season have led to some stops and starts in careers. You do wonder what happened to a player like cornerback Julius Brents. He had a promising start to his career in 2018. He started games and was eventually replaced by returning starter Michael Ojemudia, who knows the sting of being pulled due to performance during his career.
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Brents spent most of 2019 dealing with nagging injuries, FYI, and couldn’t consistently be available.
These are a lot of bodies Parker is juggling and probably a few egos he’s trying to keep healthy. Parker acknowledged during Holiday Bowl prep week, the competition in Iowa’s secondary is fierce.
“Everybody wants to be the starter,” Parker said. “They’ve got to show they’re the starter and that’s the hardest thing about it, competing. Everyone is good on this level.”
Like coaches who’ve been around as long as Parker has (he’s finishing his 21st year at Iowa), Parker plays his coverages to the strengths and weaknesses of his players and that’s how roles and personnel packages are decided.
“Some guys do things better than others,” Parker said. “If we can fit them in and they can do something better, we’ll try to substitute that situation, but it’s hard to do that. The guys you’re going to live with out there, those guys need to know what to do all of the time.”
So, the competition is always open. It might seem jumbled. You do wonder where players like Johnson go. He started three games and then it was special teams for the rest of the season. But Parker has a track record. In his seven seasons as defensive coordinator, Parker has fielded top 25 defenses in all but one (36th in 2014). When the current NFL season started, Iowa had six defensive backs in the NFL. Parker has had 14 defensive backs drafted during his time at Iowa.
Players have to trust Parker will give them a full and fair measure. Parker has to trust the players to do their jobs. Without the trust, truthfully, it’s click into the portal time.
“They’ve got to gain my trust,” Parker said. “Can I trust them? Am I putting the right guy on the field who’s going to go out and help the other 10 guys? To me, that’s the important thing.”
And the trust is measured in more than just practice.
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“What time are you supposed to be at a meeting? Are you on time?” Parker said. “Can I trust you to be at a certain meeting? Where are you at with team meetings, with position meetings? What’s your class schedule like? Are you going to class? How are you doing in class?
“Lots of things.”
Parker is upfront with the trust. Starting to use that word a lot here. Fairly important concept for a secondary coach.
“That starts when you recruit,” Parker said. “And the expectations change all of the time. Once you get to a certain level, what’s the next level? I dictate what I think your expectations need to be. I dictate that. If I’ve seen you do it once, I expect you to know how to do it.”
Johnson was a 3-star recruit with offers from LSU and Notre Dame when he signed with the Hawkeyes in 2018. Yes, he’s not on the field. Yes, he’s earning his trust stripes right now.
“We talked about that trust, and he understands that,” Parker said.
Johnson was a starter due to injury. He gave up a big play at Michigan that led to the game’s only TD. Hankins got healthy and he took the trust back to the starting job.
“The trust really had to be picked up,” Parker said. “I think he’s really worked hard. Kids go into a lull, but I’ve really liked watching him work the last three or four weeks, how he’s attacked it and playing multiple positions at the corner and star (safety).”
So, the next time you wonder where a defensive back that you liked and maybe wanted to see start more went, that player is digging in the quarry looking for that trust. You’re not going to see him until he finds it.
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