A piece-by-piece look at the Iowa defense: what's gone, what's left, and what we might be able to expect in 2013.
Departures, in Order of Importance
1. Micah Hyde, CB. In August 1914, as the Germans were invading his badly-outmatched nation and threatening to demolish every building, Belgium's King Albert said, "If we are to be crushed, let us be crushed gloriously." If Iowa was 1914 Belgium this year, Micah Hyde was its King Albert. Hyde played his tail off for a team that was going nowhere, took home the Woodson-Woodson-Woodson-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back Award, and likely kept his draft stock afloat. The continual cheerleading about Iowa's NFL track record is a comical excuse for this staff, but in Hyde's case -- an unheralded two-star recruit turned into one of the country's best defensive backs -- it's probably warranted. He's the next Iowa cornerback to play safety in the NFL, and on the first Kirk Ferentz Iowa defense to have no NFL talent in the front seven, that's saying something.
That's not to say he played well, because I'm not certain he did. He only had one interception this year, and it wasn't because every opposing quarterback was avoiding him. The play at the end of the Central Michigan game was the primary example of his limitations: Smart, athletic, fast, but not as agile as you'd like at times. He'll be sorely missed on a secondary that was otherwise torched like so many Belgian villages, but it remains to be seen just how much.
2. Joe Gaglione, DE. For a moment, it looked like Joey Gags was going to be a competent pass rusher on a defense wholly devoid of a pass rush. That was pretty much done by the end of September, but oh, what a month it was. A guy who stayed with the program through a string of injuries that would send any normal man packing. At the end of the day, though, he's another one of "those guys" -- high character, high "motor", low talent -- on a team desperate for something else.
3. Steve Bigach, DE/DT. Again, sounds like a heck of a guy. But there's not another program in the conference -- not Illinois, not Indiana, not Minnesota -- where Steve Bigach is in the defensive line rotation, let alone starting. Great program guy, probably a great leader, everyone seems to like him. That isn't enough to justify playing time, though, and there wasn't much beyond it.
4. Greg Castillo, CB. If you were going to draw up a Kirk Ferentz fetish object from scratch, it would look a lot like Greg Castillo. The son of an NFL offensive line coach/defensive coordinator from Pennsylvania who was destined for FCS powerhouse Villanova until Kirk Ferentz found him at the same garage sale where he later got Jordan Canzeri and Tanner Miller and Dominic Alvis, who then becomes a "technician" in the secondary and always -- always -- won the position battle in August and lost it by October. He probably got a bit too much criticism this season, mostly because Tanner Miller destroys every cornerback who plays next to him, and Castillo actually played pretty well when called upon. Still, he's a nickelback at best for every other program in the conference.
5. Tom Donatell, S. Another senior defensive back whose dad was an NFL assistant. Another walk-on safety. Another guy who won a starting position this year for experience and technique, only to lose it to an underclassman. I'll give him this: More often that not, he was better than Tanner Miller.
6. Collin Sleeper, S. He got sent home early from last year's bowl game for the most ironic curfew violation ever. That was pretty much the end of the line for Sleeper, whose talent wasn't enough to overcome his spot in the doghouse. He did get some time in the season finale against Nebraska and, shockingly, looked like the most capable strong safety on the roster.
7. Jack Swanson, S. Unlike the predecessors on this list, Swanson actually had a scholarship offer, like, months before Signing Day. Like Castillo and Donatell and Sleeper, though, he got a brief shot at the top spot, did not impress, and was rarely seen again.
What's Left, Also in Order of Importance
1. James Morris, MLB. On the character side, by all accounts James Morris is the ultimate Ferentz guy. He stepped in as a true freshman in 2010 during LINEBACKEROPALYPSE and became a leader on a defense full of NFL-bound veterans. His dad is the team's equipment manager. He was the key on a three-time state champion high school team. He talks about execution way too much. Unfortunately, in three years at linebacker, Morris has all too often proven to be an ultimate Ferentz guy on the talent side, as well. He chronically overpursues rushers -- teams ran the trap at Iowa all year without repercussion because of it -- and is not particularly adept in zone coverage. The worst part of it all is that this was the same problem two years ago, and it hasn't improved at all.
There is one inalienable fact about Kirk Ferentz football: He doesn't win without an exemplary defense, and he's never had an exemplary defense without an NFL-level linebacker in the middle. When Abdul Hodge left after 2005 (along with Chad Greenway), Iowa's fortunes faded; the sight of Mike Klinkenborg futilely chasing wide receivers all over Ames is still fresh in my mind. When Pat Angerer (and A.J. Edds) left, Iowa's defense again folded despite the best defensive line in program history. Morris needs to reach that level to bring a turnaround in 2013. The talent is there, if you ask the coaches. It's time we actually see it.
2. Christian Kirksey, SLB. As noted above, every standout Iowa defense needs a pro-caliber middle linebacker. It also needs someone to help. Kirksey is probably that guy, since he's almost certainly the best returning player on the defense. The best thing you can say about him is that, despite being continually put in coverage against slot receivers and tight ends, you really couldn't notice him. The guy can cover, and he can tackle, and that's a good start. He'll need a bit more in 2013.
3. B.J. Lowery, CB. The entire secondary should probably be set on fire after this season, but with five of seven graduating seniors in that secondary, attrition will take care of the purge on its own. That leaves Lowery and three question marks, which might be preferable to the previous secondary of "Micah Hyde, a question mark, and two horribly overmatched walk-ons" but still demands that Lowery keep up his steady improvement, particularly in coverage.
4. Louis Trinca-Pasat, DT. Figuring out what will happen on the defensive line is going to be a crapshoot right up until August, as Iowa has at least nine viable options vying for four starting spots. As close to certain as anything will be between now and then is the proposition that Louis Trinca-Pasat will be a starter at defensive tackle. LTP's ascendance in August gave the defense some hope, some youth up front, a bit of stability inside. His clear fade to the finish coincided with Iowa's implosion as much as any other player's injury or weariness. We're chalking it up to a player who bloomed late in high school and hasn't played 13 games before, and expecting the first half LTP throughout next season.
5. Darian Cooper, DT/DE. If 2012 is 2007, here's your Clayborn. Nobody on the line moved further this year than Cooper, who started the season with promise and ended it looking like one of the few bona fide Big Ten-level defenders on this team. He still didn't crack the starting lineup, as the big leap came too late to bust through the Bigach-Gaglione glass ceiling, but he's a prohibitive favorite to start somewhere in 2013. At 280 with some quickness, that place could well be on the end.
6. Anthony Hitchens, WLB. When was the last time that a player led the conference in tackles and yet played with the mediocrity of Hitchens? The junior was tops in the Big Ten at 11.3 tackles per game and 124 tackles total, yet was benched at least once for poor play (while Ferentz said it was for sickness, Hitchens later admitted he was fine) and always on the firing line. And that was despite the fact that Kirksey was his backup (and Kirksey's backup was a walk-on, because of course he was) and James Morris was being distracted by shiny objects. Hitchens is no certainty to keep his starting spot at the beginning next season, and if he does, he's far from certain to hold it throughout.
7. Nico Law, SS. He's this high mostly due to position scarcity: Law is the only player on the roster actively recruited by Iowa as a safety. That is a staggering fact, but it's true. Everyone else listed as a safety was either a last-second scholarship offer or a walk-on. And, as we saw this year, not every walk-on safety is senior year Brett Greenwood. Law's going to have to improve dramatically this offseason, particularly in understanding coverage responsibilities, if the secondary is going to recover.
8. Tanner Miller, FS. For two seasons, Tanner Miller has singlehandedly destroyed the cornerback lined up next to him. In 2011, he probably cost Shaun Prater a couple million in NFL money by being perpetually out of position in cover 2 (which, if I'm not mistaken, is no more complicated than "sit deep"). In 2012, it was Lowery and Castillo and any other poor soul with the misfortune of counting on him for over the top help with the deep ball.
There was also this (click to play) (via MGo):
Iowa got Bob Sanders and Sean Considine and Brett Greenwood off the scrap heap and decided that every safety should be walk-on calibler. This is the inevitable byproduct. Nevertheless, there isn't much on the roster that will stand in the way of him again getting the starting free safety spot and wreaking havoc on our eyeballs.
9. Dominic Alvis, DE/DT. Look, Dom Alvis is a good story. He's a guy from a really small town who was going to grayshirt, got a late offer due to some attrition issues, worked his tail off in the weight room, and got himself into the defensive line rotation as a redshirt freshman. The thing is, there's a ceiling for most guys like this, and Dominic probably hit his as a defensive end right about the time that Devin Gardner was given 13 seconds in the pocket while Alvis futilely flailed against Taylor Lewan. He's meant for the inside, and if Iowa's serious about playing him, they finally have some outside talent and need to consider that move.
10. Sean Draper/Jordan Lomax, CB. One of these guys is going to take over the other corner spot, and will have to do a capable B.J. Lowery impersonation with the aforementioned Miller as the safety net. Iowa hasn't had a problem at corner #2 since Adam Shada, and it's not a problem they're built to handle.
11. Quinton Alston, LB. On their podcast last week, Morehouse and Dochterman argued that Iowa's best move was to put Kirksey at weakside linebacker and put someone at strongside in his place. I don't agree. Kirksey's got a particular skill set that makes him an excellent outside linebacker, far better than anyone else on the potential roster. If there's a move, it's to bring in Alston between the guards, either for Morris or Hitchens. Which, of course, means Hitchens.
12. Bud Spears/Riley McMinn/Mike Hardy/Drew Ott, DE. Iowa needs a pass rush. Bud Spears is a pass rusher (unfortunately, he doesn't look like much more than a pass rusher). The other three are something, what we do not know. But one of them will have to either provide the rush while Alvis does whatever Alvis does when the quarterback is in the pocket or play strongside to Cooper's bull rush. This is where a little interior pocket-collapsing pressure would help.
13. Carl Davis, DT. It ain't coming from here.
14. Jaleel Johnson/Faith Ekakite, DT. That's more like it. We can't expect much from a redshirt freshman in the Iowa defense. Even when they've gotten a chance to play -- think Mitch King and Matt Kroul in 2005 -- they were grossly outmatched. But maybe, just maybe, the youth movement in the defensive line lifts these two schooners.
Three Signs of Hope
The Return of Talent. I've been writing about Iowa football for seven seasons, and this was by far the most talentless defense I've seen. For comparison, here are Iowa's 2009 and 2012 defensive starters, with Rivals ranking:
|Pos||2009 Starter||Rivals||2012 Starter||Rivals|
As a rough guide, players ranked over 6.0 are five-star recruits. Players below 5.0 get one star. On the Rivals scale, the 2009 Iowa defense averaged 5.59, a solid three-star rating. It included three linemen and two linebackers with a 5.7 rating or above, meaning five of the front seven were a high three-star or four-star talent. Contrast that with Iowa's 2012 defense, which averaged a 5.37 rating without even factoring in Tommy Donatell. That's a middle-of-the-pack two-star rating, with only one player in the entire starting eleven -- James Morris -- garnering a 5.7. Seven of Iowa's eleven defensive starters ranked at or below 5.4, which is the cutoff for two-star ratings. Just three failed to meet that criteria in 2009. This is not a defense lacking in discipline or heart or any other defensive buzzword. This is a defense lacking in athletic talent on an unbelievable scale.
The good news? The graduating starters have an average rating of 5.23, again without Donatell's zero. It's also without Greg Castillo's 5.3, Jack Swanson's 5.3, and Collin Sleeper's zero. In their place is a small abundance of typical Iowa talent. The most likely lineup for next season (Alvis, Cooper, LTP, McMinn, Kirksey, Morris, Alston, Lowery, Draper, Law, Miller) is a 5.52 average. It's not hard to trade out a player or two and get it above 5.6, even higher than the 2009 team. Recruiting ratings aren't gospel, of course, but they're a better barometer than most, and the flush of the final bits of Ferentz's horrendous 2008 recruiting class should clear the way for bigger and better.
Year Two. Iowa's defensive staff had four coaches in new spots this season: Phil Parker went from secondary to defensive coordinator, Darrell Wilson shuffled from linebackers to defensive backs to make room for newcomer LeVar Woods at linebackers, and former offensive line coach Reese Morgan switched sides to handle the defensive front. It was the same old system, but two coaches were instructing on it for the first time, with the other position coach handed a group of defensive backs so top-heavy in talent that they should have been called the Buddy Rich Big Band.* Next year should, at least theoretically, be sharper.
* -- Yes, in this analogy, Micah Hyde is Buddy Rich, which works well, because no man since Rich has been able to use style, hustle, and god-given talent to hide deficiencies in simple execution better than Micah Hyde did in 2012. Great guy, great teammate, should have a solid NFL career, throws a killer party, but that last touchdown by Central Michigan should have disqualified him from any award for anything ever.
Cloverfield. Nowhere should the change in personnel be more pronounced than on the defensive line, where Iowa's slowly put together three solid recruiting classes with four-star centerpieces. Cooper, Johnson, and Ekakite should be the building blocks for three years of line dominance. Iowa's always shown a propensity for finding ways to change the game on the defensive front, whether it be oversized defensive ends like Clayborn and Ballard or grossly undersized defensive tackles like Mitch King and Karl Klug. It should not be difficult to devise a way to get these three on the field together.
Three Reasons for Panic
"That Steering Wheel is Huge." Of course, that defensive line renaissance is far more likely for 2014 and beyond. For 2013, we continue to have question marks in the most important collective group on the defense. There's Dominic Alvis, who continues to play end despite obvious tackle tendencies. There's Carl Davis, who isn't suited for a 4-3, or a 3-4, or 5-2, or any other defensive system that would have him. There's the perpetually injured Bud Spears, who I desperately want in the starting lineup because his name is "Bud Spears" but who was so bad last year that the staff burned Drew Ott's redshirt in November to avoid putting him in. There's Mike Hardy and Riley McMinn and Drew Ott and the rest of the cast of characters Iowa has to choose from. They basically have LTP and a bunch of question marks or square pegs, and we haven't found the ability to change the scheme to fit square pegs in 14 years.
Phil Parker Can Lose. It's probably time to address this: His team sucked out loud for most of this year, and there wasn't any serious attempt to fix it beyond "try harder" from Iowa's new defensive coordinator. We'd hoped for some sort of nuanced evolution from Parker, still reliant on the Cover 2 but willing to expand into other areas of modern defensive strategy. What we got instead was blown assignments (especially with the safeties), half-assed head fakes toward man coverage that were never going to work because they were run with all the conviction of a Kirk Ferentz two-minute drill, and the world's worst Cover 6 against Michigan. If Iowa's going to run its usual "by god don't give up the run and don't give up the deep ball" defense, then it sure as shit better not give up the run and the deep ball as readily as it did in 2012. Ferentz's execution focus was right in that one respect: If they can't run the basics without letting Venric Mark go for 200, they definitely can't run the new stuff.
Progression to the Mean. At one point this year, Iowa's offense was in the nation's bottom 20 units in passing offense and ranked sixth in the conference. This was, in other words, the best possible season to field a horrendous secondary against the Big Ten. Somehow, Iowa's was hideous enough that it could make these pedestrian passing attacks look Leachian. The Big Ten could not possibly get worse at offense next season, and Iowa's defense is going to have to improve at double that rate just to show visible improvement against them. I'm not sure that is possible.
Three Things That Could Change Everything
First, the Obvious. We, as fans, have an extremely short memory when it comes to coaches. It was only a couple of years ago that Darrell Wilson was earning plaudits as one of the nation's top recruiters after barnstorming the mid-Atlantic and Reese Morgan was celebrating another trio of Iowa offensive linemen making the pros. Now they are both in the crosshairs, none more so than Wilson. Ferentz has never fired an assistant (still one of the most baffling factoids of his 14 seasons at Iowa), and I don't expect him to can either one. However, if one of them gets another opportunity elsewhere, they're making the move.
Help Wanted. Iowa's oddball JUCO wide receiver pickup over the weekend might leave the door open for some further junior college help, particularly at defensive end and safety. Iowa did a terrible job of recruiting both positions over the last four years, and the results are now here. If Kirk really wants to win now, he's looking for a plug-and-play pass rusher and someone who can play free safety without the Benny Hill soundtrack in the background.
Power Ups. Iowa's decided advantage in player development was nullified right around the time Lloyd Carr left Michigan, but the progression of some guys over last offseason -- looking at you, Brandon Scherff -- shows Doyle can still make it happen with the right tools. That applies equally to defensive linemen, as well, and there's talent to cultivate. As they stand right now, that bevy of nondescript strongside defensive ends doesn't do much for us, but if one or two can break out and give Iowa the pass rush it desperately needs, then it's all up to Morris and the linebackers doing their job against the run.
I'm far more optimistic about the 2013 defense than I ever was about 2012. Iowa's early-season defensive play against Northern Illinois, Iowa State, and Minnesota showed that the coaches can, in fact, coach when the team is relatively healthy and focused. The late-season collapse of the Iowa defense, beginning with Penn State and culminating at Michigan, was the trademark sign of a bad team that was banged up and didn't want to do it anymore. That can be fixed, and fixed easily, when there is some raw material in the pipeline. There is in 2013, which bodes well for the program as a whole the next couple of years.