Departures, in Order of Importance
1. Mike Daniels, DT; The Iowa defense played better in November than they did in September. Mike Daniels was healthier in November than he was in September. I don't think these two issues were unrelated. Two years ago, none of us really knew who he was; he'd seen spot duty in 2008 and 2009, but nothing that led us to believe he'd start in 2010. But start he did and he had a solid season (40 tackles, 11 TFL, 4 sacks). He became the leader of the defense with the departures of Clayborn, Ballard, and Klug and had a fine season (66 tackles, 13 TFL, 7 sacks). The Iowa defense (and defensive line in particular) struggled last year, but not because of Mike Daniels. He won't be easy to replace.
2. Shaun Prater, CB; Always a bit more beloved by pundits than Iowa fans, Prater was still a three-year starter who leaves Iowa with 7 career interceptions, 19 pass break-ups, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 touchdowns. His coverage struggled some this year with two new safeties behind him and he never quite reached the heights of Amari Spievey, Bradley Fletcher, or Charles Godfrey, but he was a very reliable cog in the Iowa pass defense.
3. Broderick Binns, DE; Binns disappeared in 2010, but he rebounded in 2011 with a good senior campaign (59 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 8 pass break-ups, 6 QB hurries) and, like Daniels, proved to be a bellwether for the Iowa defense: when he was playing well, the defense as a whole was pretty solid, but when he had an off day, the defense struggled. Inconsistency aside, Binns' presence will be missed -- most notably, those crazy go-go gadget arms (responsible for a whopping 21 credited pass break-ups during his Iowa career).
4. Jordan Bernstine, SS; Bernstine had one of the most starcrossed (and injury-riddled) paths to the field of anyone at Iowa in the last decade, but he finally got there in 2011, swiftly earning a starting gig. He quickly earned the nickname "Boomstine," but was not the same playmaker at SS as his predecessor, Tyler Sash (Bernstine was credited with 3 TFL, 2 pass break-ups, and no forced fumbles or interceptions).
5. Tyler Nielsen, LB; After biding his time behind A.J. Edds for two years, Nielsen got a starting job last season -- only to lose it 2/3 of the way through the season to a broken freaking neck. He returned from that injury in 2011, but dealt with other nagging injuries as well as a position switch to MLB. His play was solid enough (73 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble), but also a bit anonymous at times.
6. Thomas Nardo, DL; Despite being the fifth wheel on the defensive line for much of the season, Nardo wound up second among defensive linemen in tackles (66) and third in tackles for loss (6.0). He was the rare out-of-state walk-on (from Pennsylvania) and though there was rarely anything splashy about his play, he was arguably the third best lineman Iowa had this year.
7. Lebron Daniel, DE; Daniel was an occasional starter at DE for Iowa in 2011, but he put up modest stats (31 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and may be most remembered for his struggles in keeping contain on the edge.
What's Left, Also in Order of Importance
1. Micah Hyde, CB; A two-year starter, Hyde enters 2012 as the most experienced member of the entire Iowa defense and the leader of the secondary. Through two years, Hyde has seven interceptions, 15 pass break-ups, and two memorable touchdowns. He made an ill-fated move to free safety to begin 2011, but soon found his way back to CB, which is where he figures to stay. How he handles being the top cornerback could determine much in terms of the success of Iowa's pass defense.
2. Dominic Alvis, DE; A player who may not even be healthy enough to play on opening day checks in at second on this countdown? That says a lot about what we know (or think we know) about the state of this defense heading into 2012. But Alvis is the only returning player on the defensive line with significant experience and while he was painfully inconsistent in 2011, he flashed enough good moments to make you think he could be pretty decent in a year. There's no telling how much of a setback his ACL injury was, though.
3. Steve Bigach, DT; And Bigach would be the second-most experienced defensive lineman returning for Iowa next year, with 24 tackles and 1.0 sacks to his credit in 2011. Given the upheaval along the line, you can pencil him into a starting role (at least at the beginning of the season) and considering the importance of the defensive line to Iowa's defense, we'd better hope that Bigach is able to have a Mike Daniels-like transformation from unknown into productive starter.
4. Darian Cooper, DT; There are going to be a lot of new faces on the defensive line next year -- one of them will hopefully emerge as a star. Cooper, perhaps Iowa's most highly touted DL recruit since Adrian Clayborn, seems like the safest bet to be that guy. He spent 2011 redshirting and building his body for B1G play; hopefully he's ready to hit the ground running.
5. Carl Davis, DT; Davis has been a source of fascination for Iowa fans since his arrival, since he was so obviously different from the typical Iowa DT prospect -- we're so used to the bulked-up Mitch King/Karl Klug projects that a guy who steps in the door at 6', 300 lbs registers as a novelty. Alas, thus far his skills haven't been able to match his size, so the hope is that another year of practice and offseason conditioning has done the job on that front.
6. Louis Trinca-Pasat / Riley McMinn / Mike Hardy / Melvin Spears, DL; Are we sensing a theme here yet? It's been a truism for as long as Kirk Ferentz has been coach at Iowa and likely won't change with the installation of a new defensive coordinator: as the Iowa defensive line goes, so goes the Iowa defense. LTP and Hardy are redshirt freshmen who were expected to push for playing time in 2011; that they apparently couldn't steal minutes from the likes of Daniel, Nardo, and Bigach is not terribly encouraging, but it's certainly too soon to apply the dreaded bust label. McMinn and Spears are rising redshirt freshmen who spent their redshirt years adding bulk to their frames; if anyone is likely to be the next Klug or King, it's likely to be one of those two.
7. Christian Kirksey, LB; To be honest, Kirksey feels too low here, considering there's a very good chance that he'll be our best defender in 2012. Hell, if you wanted to argue that he was our best defender in 2011, I think you can make the case. Per the pundits, James Morris was the linebacker tipped to make the leap to stardom as a sophomore, but Kirksey was the one who came closer to that level. He's emerged as a very strong linebacker, skilled in coverage and run support. He's still a touch undersized, but another year of offseason conditioning and practice should give him the potential to be one of the Big Ten's best in 2012.
8. B.J. Lowery, CB; There was a fair amount of buzz around Lowery during fall camp, but his progress was derailed by a broken wrist that kept him out of action for the first month of the season. He played often as a nickel corner late in the year, though, and looked solid; his coverage on the final series of the Michigan series was instrumental in securing that win. He appears to have the skills to lock down the other starting corner spot opposite Hyde.
9. Tanner Miller, FS; Miller was the beneficiary of the early season move that send Hyde back to CB from FS, but he had a rocky first year as a starter. He tied for the team lead in interceptions (3), but he was also caught out of position fairly often and struggled in coverage. The hope is that a year's worth of experience will pay off for him in 2012, in the same way that Brett Greenwood's painful 2007 paid dividends in 2008-2010. Frankly, there aren't a ton of other options at S right now.
10. James Morris, LB; A little low for the guy purported to be "the next great Iowa linebacker," but the early returns on Morris haven't lived up to that hype. Injuries and inconsistency made 2011 a fairly forgettable one for Morris, as he ended the year being moved out to WLB. He seems like a more natural MLB than either Kirksey or Hitchens, though, so a move back to the middle seems likely; hopefully he plays at a higher level there than he has in the past.
11. Anthony Hitchens, LB; When nagging injuries took Kirksey, Morris, or Nielsen out of action at various points in the 2011 season, Hitchens was often the next man in at LB, so with an opening at one of the starting LB spots (courtesy of Nielsen's departure) he figures to be the favorite to nail down that spot. Whether it's at WLB or OLB is TBD, but he looked promising in his fill-in appearances last year.
12. Nico Law, S; He's been a favorite of Iowa fans since he committed a year ago, thanks to a gregarious personality, a solid highlight reel, and a fun name (never underestimate the importance of a catchy name in winning over fans). He made an impact in 2011 as a special teams demon, frequently getting in on tackles on kickoff coverage. Bernstine's departure opens the door for a new starter at SS and people's choice will certainly be Law. Whether or not he'll be the coaches' choice depends on how quickly he can pick up Iowa's defensive schemes.
13. Greg Castillo / Torrey Campbell / Jordan Lomax, CB; As a more-experienced upperclassmen, Castillo is nominally the favorite to land the other starting CB instead of Lowery, but Castillo's play in the past suggests that even if that's true, he'll have a hard time keeping the job. No, the more likely reality is that he, Campbell, and Lomax will battle it out for a role in Iowa's nickel coverage. Campbell redshirted in 2011 while Lomax played sparingly and both are probably more likely to make an impact on special teams in 2012, but cornerback is a spot where young guys have been able to earn early playing time, so they're worth watching.
14. Quinton Alson / Dakota Getz / Jim Poggi / Shane DiBona, LB; Iowa's linebacking corps has been the walking wounded for much of the last two years, but if they're healthy, they should provide Iowa with some options at those positions in 2012. Alston is a quintessential MLB and it's certainly possible that he could push Morris for the starting spot there. It's unclear where Getz, Poggi, and DiBona fit into the picture, but they should have the opportunity to battle Hitchens for the unclaimed LB gig.
15. Joe Gaglione, DL; Gaglione has played inside and outside during his tenure at Iowa (when not injured, which hasn't been very often), but he's rarely distinguished himself. He'll be in the mix in 2012, but we're not expecting great things from him.
16. Colin Sleeper, S; Sleeper began 2011 as the starter at SS, but that experiment didn't last long and when the secondary was rejiggered, he was the odd man out. He played sparingly after that (just 14 tackles on the year) and his inconsistent play combined with his Insight Bowl indiscretion means that there's plenty of reasons to believe that he's the low man on the totem pole when it comes to the secondary.
Three Signs of Hope
Blooding youngsters then, success now? It's not true at all levels of the defensive line (cough cough defensive line cough cough), but there's been a bit of a youth movement at work for the last few years at the LB and DB levels. Guys like Micah Hyde and James Morris now have two years worth of starts under the belts and Tanner Miller and Christian Kirksey have significant experience as well. They've all shown flashes of strong play in that time; now the onus is on them to play at a high level consistently and lead the way for the Iowa defense.
Recruit *s, ???, profit! Given the fairly extensive rebuild job on the defense this year, it's gratifying to see that Iowa's defensive recruiting over the past few years has been strong in terms of star ratings and offer sheets (and also they're (mostly) still here, which is a victory in itself right now). Alston, Cooper, Law, Poggi, Davis, Hardy, and LTP (among others) were all 3-4* talent and most of them had offers from several other BCS schools. On paper, at least, there appears to be talent for Iowa's defensive coaches (new and old) to work with -- that's a good start.
New blood, new ideas? Losing Norm Parker sucks and we'll undoubtedly miss his defensive acumen, but a new defense doesn't automatically mean a worse defense (although given the massive reboot on the defensive line, we should probably give the new defensive coordinator a bit of a pass this year, regardless). New blood can bring new ideas, which can be a very good thing. Iowa's defense has been very good (good enough to be the backbone behind several 10-win seasons, as well as giving Iowa the opportunity for several other good seasons), but it wasn't perfect. Hope springs eternal and the injection of new defensive coaches at Iowa could be the jolt the program needs to rouse it from its current slumber.
Three Reasons for Panic
In Norm we no longer trust. On the other hand... Norm Parker was one of the top defensive minds in college football and his ability to craft (mostly) rock-solid defenses out of whatever parts were available and to mold unassuming players like Chad Greenway or Karl Klug into high-end players coveted by NFL teams was invaluable to Iowa. He won't be easily replaced and as much as we might want to hope for improvement on the defensive side of the ball, it's probably more realistic to expect some sort of a decline. As frustrating as the dogmatic obsession with 4-3, "bend but don't break," quarters coverage, and corners giving receivers 5-7 yard cushions could often be, the end results usually made it worthwhile. We now enter the realm of the unknown when it comes to the Iowa defense, which is disconcerting.
About that defensive line... It's going to be rough. Let's just get that out of the way now. It's a virtual certainty that 2-3 freshmen will be playing extensive minutes along the defensive line and even among the upperclassmen who might play (which would be Bigach, Gaglione, and, um.... that's the list), there's not much in the way of experience. You can probably count the combined returning starts among defensive lineman on one hand. The last time Iowa had a defensive line this inexperienced was 2005, when King and Kroul began their fruitful partnership at DT and Bryan Mattison and Kenny Iwebema had the unenviable task of replacing Matt Roth and Derrick Robinson at DE. There was pain aplenty for that group that year, although the good news is this: they got better. Better by the end of the season and better still in the ensuing years (especially King and Kroul). But there will be pain in the short term.
A lack of safety. Like good defensive line play, good safety play is vital to a good Iowa defense and that's something that was largely absent in 2011. Miller and Bernstine were painfully inconsistent in 2011 and now there will be another new face in there in 2012. There figures to be a lot of pressure on the Iowa secondary in 2012 and a lot of its strength will depend on Miller's improvement and the ability of Bernstine's replacement to play well early. But we should probably prepare ourselves for more pain -- more miscommunication, more blown coverages, more big plays conceded -- here.
Three Things That Could Change Everything
A star is born. Inexperience -- and a lack of options -- creates opportunity; chances are at least one player will seize that opportunity and make a name for himself in 2012. From Tyler Sash in 2008 to Karl Klug in 2009 to Micah Hyde in 2010 to Christian Kirksey in 2011 there's always one guy who emerges as a player and someone whose strong play proves invaluable to the defense. And as you can see from that list, it's rarely the player you expect it to be. Which means I have no idea who it might be in 2012. But there will be someone and depending on who that player is and just how good he is, it may change a lot for this defense.
Injuries, transfers, and suspensions oh my. This is a given for any team in any year, but it's still true: injuries, transfers, and/or suspensions could absolutely change the face of this defense -- and not in a good way. Iowa can't afford any misfortune to strike the few proven players they have returning on defense, but they also can't afford it among the vast number of players who aren't yet proven commodities. We need as many options as humanly possible.
Deus ex defensive coordinator. Maybe all of the dithering and delay behind the hiring of a new defensive coordinator has been a smokescreen and Ferentz has a big-name hotshot candidate lined up that will turn heads, get recruits to flock to Iowa City, and set us up with a bounty of talent and a brilliant set of defensive schemes to utilize it, allowing us to take the B1G by storm. Hey, I never said it was likely, now did I?
There will be much wailing, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments as the new-look defensive line struggles to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and struggles to maintain contain. Overworked linebackers will too often make tackles too far downfield while an inexperienced and inconsistent secondary will fail to force turnovers at a high clip and also concede more than a few big plays. The 2012 Iowa defense is not going to be a vintage Iowa defense. It's just not. It's not going to make you forget about the 2004 or 2009 incarnations. There's too much turnover, too much uncertainty, and too much inexperience at play. The best thing to do is probably to hope for two things: one, that it can at least be competent this year (in other words, don't bottom out -- we're not Indiana, for god's sake) and two, that these growing pains are the precursor to the birth of much stronger defenses in 2013 and beyond. (It's conceivable that Iowa could return every defensive starter except Micah Hyde in 2013.) And I don't think those are unreasonable goals: there is talent among this crop of defensive players (just precious little experience) and the experience they gain this year absolutely should pave the way for better times in the years ahead. In the meantime, strap in -- it's bound to be a bumpy ride.