D-FENSE. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Yesterday we talked about the offense, so today it's time to look at the defense...
1) What's the frequency, Phillip?
For the first time since 1998*, someone other than Norm Parker will be crafting the defensive gameplans and calling the shots for the Iowa defense. Which means... what, exactly? Not huge, sweeping changes, that much we know -- there's no 3-4 or 3-3-5 on the horizon. We're still going to be staying in that base 4-3 most of the time. We're still going to be using many of the same cover-2 principles we've always used. But Parker has openly discussed the notion of utilizing more press coverage, which would be a change. He's also openly discussed the notion of shortening the cushion Iowa defensive backs have routinely given receivers (a long overdue change). And he's openly discussed the need to blitz more -- the open practice alone saw more blitzes from linebackers and cornerbacks than we've typically seen during the season. Like Norm, Phil Parker would probably prefer to see the defensive line generate most of the pressure, but he seems to realize that that may be a tall order for this year's defensive line. That sort of adaptability looks like a very welcome development for the Iowa defense.
* Yeah, yeah, Norm missed a handful of games in 2010 and Phil Parker and Darrell Wilson filled in for him. That still seemed like Parker and Wilson trying to run the system Norm had established, not a defense of their own devising. The 2012 defense should be all Phil.
2) The not-so-great Wall of Iowa.
About that defensive line... it's going to be rough. The first team defensive line at the end of spring was Joe Gaglione and Riley McMinn (ends) and Steve Bigach and Darian Cooper (tackles). Gaglione and Bigach are redshirt seniors who have played only sparingly in their Iowa careers; McMinn and Cooper are redshirt freshmen who have yet to see any live game action. Yep, we've got nothing to worry about. If he's healthy by the end of fall practice, Dominic Alvis likely occupies one of those defensive end spots, which would be a welcome development since a) he has some real experience and b) he showed genuine flashes of potential last season.
Even so, this figures to be the worst Iowa defensive line since 2005. Worse than last year? Yes -- there's no one on this defensive line as good as Mike Daniels or Broderick Binns. We're probably looking at defensive line-by-committee approach, although who the remaining players in that committee is still TBD. The depth chart lists a pair of sophomores (Mike Hardy and Louis Trinca-Pasat) and a pair of redshirt freshmen (Dean Tsopanides and Melvin Spears), so it could come from there. It could include Carl Davis if he can ever get healthy and begin to live up to the potential his massive size promises. It could be an incoming freshmen like Faith Ekakitie or Jaleel Johnson, who have uncommon size for a freshman Iowa defensive lineman (6-2, 255 and 6-2, 277, respectively). Or, hell, it could be BHGP favorite Casey McMillan, who made the switch from offensive line to defensive lien during bowl prep last season. Either way, this defensive line is going to take its lumps -- hopefully they can get better in a hurry under new defensive line coach Reese Morgan.
3) Hyde and go Boots
Shaun Prater was one of the more polarizing players in recent Iowa history, and the rare figure who was more respected by the coaches and media types than by Iowa fans; if I had a nickel for every Iowa fan who expressed shock at Prater winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards or being given preseason (and post-season) All-Big Ten honors, I'd have... well, not a lot of money but that's because nickels are only worth five cents. But still. Prater was meant to be the latest in the line of standout Iowa corners (Charles Godfrey, Bradley Fletcher, Amari Spievey) and whether you think he lived up to that standard or not, he's out of eligibility, which meant Iowa entered spring needing to find a new starting cornerback to partner with Micah Hyde.
In terms of experience, the most obvious (though certainly not the most popular) name was Greg Castillo, who'd already started a handful of games in his Iowa career. Castillo had struggled when thrust into a starting role, though, and barring significant improvement this offseason, it was hard to imagine him getting -- and keeping -- the starting cornerback job for twelve games next year. Indeed, Castillo didn't get the nod -- B.J. "Boots" Lowery did. Lowery was a sophomore who served as frequent nickel corner this past season and who displayed some impressive coverage skills (most notably on the final play of the game against Michigan). Lowery was a guy who had buzz around him last offseason, but an injury in training camp (broken wrist) slowed his development. Lowery is the man, but Iowa's also recruited a lot of interesting athletes at cornerback over the past two years: Torey Campbell (a speedster out of Florida) and Jordan Lomax (Nico Law's buddy from the DC area) redshirted this year and Maurice Fleming Jr. (a superb athlete out of Chicago) and Kevin Buford (speedy, undersized guy from Michigan) are part of this year's recruiting class.
4) No linebacker injuries, no linebacker injuries, no linebacker injuries...
Like cornerback, linebacker was another spot that worked itself out this spring -- at least in terms of the starters. James Morris, Christian Kirksey, and Anthony Hitchens ended the spring as starters at linebacker and it's hard to imagine they won't begin the season that way next fall (barring any injuries between now and then -- KNOCK ON WOOD). And that should be perfectly fine: Kirksey made huge strides forward last fall and while Morris had a somewhat disappointing season, persistent injuries may have been the biggest cause for that. He's still a very good athlete with strong instincts -- it's hard to think that he won't come good at linebacker if he can stay healthy. Hitchens has the weakest track record of the starting three, but he earned favorable reviews this spring and seems pretty entrenched at the third linebacker spot.
The problem is what happens if any of those guy down with an injury. The spring ended with four redshirt freshmen (Travis Perry, Cole Fisher) or sophomores (Quinton Alston, Marcus collins) listed in the two-deeps behind the starting trio. That's... not really optimal. The depth situation took another hit when Shane DiBona (one of the more experienced options at linebacker) was forced to retire from football due to to persistent injuries. Pray nothing happens to the starters at linebacker this fall because if the options behind them are forced to play heavy minutes, things could get very rocky.
5) Safety dance
WAZ GOOD? Nico Law ended spring as the starting strong safety. Tanner Miller retains the starting free safety job. The safety position appears to be a mash-up of our concerns with the defensive line (the slated starters are either inexperienced freshmen/sophomores or upperclassmen who have played sparingly/been mediocre) and the linebackers (what depth?). The depth issue is a definite concern -- all of the safeties listed behind Law and Miller can best be described as "scrappy" -- but ultimately we're going to sink or swim based on how quickly Law can get up to speed and how much of a leap Miller can make between Year 1 as the starter and Year 2.
6) Kickers, kickers, and more kickers.
It was hard to get much of a feel for special teams at the open practices -- they don't practice kickoff or punt coverage or punt or kickoff returns. They don't even practice kickoffs; the only special teams activities they really work on are field goal kicking and punting. And on that front the verdict was... so-so? Mike Meyer, Trent Mossbrucker, and Marshall Koehn each practiced four field goals apiece in the drills portion of the practice and Meyer took the only field goal attempt in the scrimmage portion. Of those 13 attempts, 12 were good. Mossbrucker had the day's only miss (a 27-yard attempt from the left hash). That sounds fairly indicative of their spring performances as a whole. Meyer ended spring as the first-choice kicker, although there was also talk of using Koehn as the kickoff specialist. (Frankly, whoever can actually kick the ball into the endzone should have the kickoff job.)
As far as punting goes... a guy who came to Iowa on scholarship as a quarterback is still our first-team punter. Yeah. Wienke's one punt at the open practice went for 39 yards, so he didn't look like a terrible option there... just a not-really-good one. Mullings' two punts looked better -- they went longer (41 and 46 yards) and had a bit better hang-time -- but still probably took too long to get off. It's pretty clear that if Mullings could ever quicken up his release, he would be the #1 punter (and probably be a pretty good one). Alas. In the meantime, write Wienke's name on top of the depth chart in pencil -- and hope that incoming freshman Connor Kornbrath can make the job his own this fall.