"Third best back of the Big Ten Network era my ass!" (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images).
When Iowa hired Phil Parker as Norm Parker's replacement at defensive coordinator last January, it raised few eyebrows. Phil was seen as a natural progression from Norm, from philosophy right down to the last name. It was widely assumed, at least then, that there would be no change in the Iowa defensive system. Iowa would continue to be staunchly conservative, uniformly dedicated to the cover 2/quarters zone pass defense, singularly reliant on the defensive line for pass rush.
And why wouldn't it be? Iowa's defense has become the bedrock of its success over the last ten years. In that decade, Iowa finished outside the top five of the Big Ten in scoring defense once (2011) and in the bottom half of the conference in total defense, again, just once (again 2011). Norm's philosophy of stuffing and funneling the run, taking away the deep ball, and forcing opponents to throw a large number of short passes to score worked; that it was so effective is proven by the fact that Iowa's defense was always as good or better in scoring defense than it was in total defense. Teams could pile up yardage, but they weren't getting points. Bend, don't break.
Everyone -- us included* -- eventually bought Phil as the new Norm. Sure, there was talk of press coverage from the cornerbacks and more blitzing, but anyone who took the Iowa job would say that. It certainly didn't mean it would happen. And then, at Iowa's spring game, the defense ran more zone blitzes than I've seen in eight years. And then Micah Hyde told reporters he'd play cover 1 on every down if he could. And then Travis Perry got some love at outside linebacker, and Nico Law is playing awfully close to the line, isn't he? And it's then that you realize this is not Norm's defense anymore. This is Phil's defense, and Phil's background makes that defense extremely unique.
Phil Parker learned from Norm, to be sure. He played at Michigan State while Norm was there, and he spent twelve years as his assistant at Iowa. But it's another Michigan State assistant that might give us the better view of what Iowa is going to do on defense this year. Nick Saban was Parker's position coach at Michigan State, and kept Parker on as a defensive assistant at Toledo while head coach there. Nick Saban is known for a few things defensively: The 3-4 alignment (which Iowa will not utilize as long as Ferentz is here, this I can assure you), physical play from the defensive backs, and cover 1 robber coverage. Saban has called cover 1 "rat in the hole" the best defense on the planet, mostly because "the rat in the hole" (usually a middle linebacker or strong safety, sitting in a shallow zone in the center of the field; pretty good explanation here and here) is frequently missed by quarterbacks. It's also built to stop the inside run and stretch the play outside where linebackers and secondary can clean up. It requires man coverage from the corners, safeties, and outside linebackers, though, and so it was anathema to Norm. There are no such qualms now. Man coverage is in. Press is in. MIcah Hyde is giddy.
A couple weeks ago, Smart Football posted this video of Nick Saban talking about nickel concepts learned from Bill Belichick:
Saban Thursday Press Conference (via 247SportsStudio) (go to 5:30 if it doesn't queue to that spot)
Essentially, what Saban is discussing is the Belichick concept of a hybrid safety/linebacker to use in nickle and dime packages. When four wideouts went into the game, Belichick and Saban would replace the strongside linebacker with a "sub-linebacker" or defensive back to cover the slot, and would occasionally replace the weakside linebacker with a defensive back who is strong against the run. The "star" position covering the slot must be a good cover guy against the slot (meaning strong at the line, physical in coverage, and able to rely on assistance from the middle of the field. Iowa has those guys this year: Greg Castillo, Travis Perry, possibly Nico Law. And Law fits the bill for the "money" position to a T (though it remains to be seen whether Iowa would play six defensive backs, especially since it would require they remove Morris or Kirksey).
If you're going to sell a new defense to any coach, college or pro, it's going to be a defense Nick Saban endorses. And if it's a Nick Saban defense that he got from Bill Belichick (a defense Saban picked up while he was on the same Belichick staff as Ferentz, no less), you can get the Kirk Ferentz seal of approval. Given Hyde's comments and what we've seen in limited action these past six months, Phil Parker might have already received it.
Make no mistake: The cover 2 is still going to be here, in one form or another; remember, there is no press coverage in straight cover 2 defense, and there certainly isn't press in the Norm Parker cover 2/quarters hybrid, so if Phil wants to run press coverage in a cover 2, it will have to be in cover 2 man. But don't be shocked when Iowa switches coverages for the first time in ten years. You're going to see things we haven't seen since the early-00's from the Iowa defense, if the indications are indeed indications. The offense might get all the publicity, but for the Iowa defense, it's a brave new world.
* -- I initially intended to write this post back in June, when I thought I had some inkling of what Phil Parker might do, but some quotes from people who know things about this team begged me off the topic.