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THE PROLOGUE 2015: THE DEFENSE

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The Hawkeyes are strong in the front four and back four; it's the middle that causes concern.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

THE PROLOGUE 2015: THE OFFENSE

DEFENSIVE END

ASSUME THE POSITION

STARTERS: Drew Ott, 6'4", 272, Senior; Nate Meier, 6'2", 252, Senior

BACKUPS: Matt Nelson, 6'8", 270, Redshirt Freshman; Parker Hesse, 6'3", 240, Redshirt Freshman; Bud Spears, 6'2", 268, Senior

There's some reason to believe that this is the strongest set of starters on Iowa's entire roster, and it'd be great news for the team as a whole if that's true; Ott and Meier absolutely victimized the tackles put in front of them during spring practices, to the point of having to be pulled off the field in order to conduct plays as normal, so the better these guys are against competition, the less likely it is Iowa has a dumpster fire situation at OT.

Ott's great. If he stays healthy he's a defensive MVP in the making. The man likes eggs. Meier's up to 252 pounds and holding off some serious talent in Nelson—more on him in a bit—and if he can hold the line against right tackles and provide some addition pressure on third downs, the rest of the defense's job is a whole lot easier.

Past the starters, Nelson is almost certainly at least 25% polar bear genetically, and Hesse has encountered little resistance on his way into the two-deeps and looks like the latest in a long line of Kirk Ferentz's pipeline of small-town Iowans ready to mash with the big boys. Credit the weight program; Hesse came in at 205 pounds and he's already listed at 240. Nelson's projecting to LDE, which means less pass rush and more space-eating, and he looks like a unique Ferentz LDE in his ability to stonewall attempts to set a corner. Considering Iowa's recent difficulties with rushes to the outside, a player like Nelson looks instrumental in a coming revamp of the Iowa front four. Maybe not this year, but soon.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

ASSUME THE POSITION

STARTERS: Jaleel Johnson, 6'4", 310, Junior; Nathan Bazata, 6'2", 284, Sophomore

BACKUPS: Faith Ekakitie, 6'3", 290, Junior; Kyle Terlouw, 6'4", 288, Junior

INJURED: Darian Cooper, 6'2", 282, Senior

It was a little surprising to see Louis Trinca-Pasat go undrafted, considering the vitally productive year he had at DT, and he and Carl Davis are now where they belong as professional football players. That's scant solace for Iowa football and its fans, now facing the job of replacing the two monsters of the interior. Johnson has Davis' size and athleticism and has looked unblockable at times, while Bazata is the easy frontrunner for the Matt Kroul Honorary Trophy For Space-Eating Farm Boys At The Three-Gap.

Depth is a concern. Everyone's been waiting for Ekakitie to be better than he currently is, and Terlouw has essentially been an addition by necessity from his origins as a JuCo walk-on. Cooper's lingering injuries likely spell an effective end to his Hawkeye career; perhaps he can go the Ettore Ewen route and dominate the WWE on his tired legs instead. Shame, though; one must think that if the Iowa coaching staff had its way, Cooper would be as spry as his freshman year and wrecking fools as part of the DT rotation.

LINEBACKER

ASSUME THE POSITION

STARTERS: Bo Bower, 6'1", 228, Sophomore; Josey Jewell, 6'2", 230, Sophomore; Ben Niemann, 6'3", 225, Sophomore

BACKUPS: Aaron Mends, 6'0", 212, Freshman; Travis Perry, 6'3", 234, Senior; Cole Fisher, 6'2", 236, Senior; Justin Jinning, 6'2", 210, Freshman; Angelo Garbutt, 6'2", 210, Freshman; Jack Hockaday, 6'1", 215, Freshman; Nick Wilson, 6'2", 206, Freshman

There's no need to sugar-coat things: Iowa struggled at linebacker in 2015, and the strugglers are virtually all back. Bower and Jewell have moved to more interior positions and have an extra year of S&C, and the staff is reportedly high on Niemann at OLB.

But one gets the sense that mere incremental improvements aren't going to get the job done here, not with the substandard level of play in 2014, and the door is wide open for freshman involvement as fall camp and the season go on. Iowa added four linebackers in its most recent recruiting class, and the plan cannot have been "stash and wait" for all four, as much of a luxury as it'd ordinarily be. There'll be some special teams opportunities for at least one of the four (Hockaday?), and if someone shines in practice, the opportunity to see the field is probably there.

CORNERBACK

ASSUME THE POSITION

STARTERS: Desmond King, 5'11", 200, Junior; Greg Mabin, 6'2", 200, Junior

BACKUPS: Sean Draper, 6'0", 190, Senior; Maurice Fleming, 6'0", 205, Junior

Desmond King is an absolute boss. If there's one player Iowa can't afford to lose to injury in 2015, it's... well, okay, it's C.J. Beathard. But King is second on the list without protest. It'll be interesting to see how King's return duties factor into his work load as the shutdown corner, especially with a pair of experienced backups also on the depth chart in Draper and Fleming.

Mabin struggled down the stretch last season, but as a player still learning his position he was outstanding in 2014 and should be in line for a very effective 2015. Physically, he's getting to Richard Sherman's level; he's big, stretchy and fearless, and his work down the stretch helped Iowa seal its victory at Pitt last year.

Ferentz gets a lot of credit for his player development, but not enough attention gets paid to the pipeline he's created to the NFL for his cornerbacks; five have been drafted in the last eight years. King's an obvious next pick, and Mabin has the potential to join him. If King departs early for the draft, Fleming may step in to start next season; as it stands he's a fine third option.

At any rate, Iowa is set to be strong-to-quite-strong at cornerback in 2015. There's star power, depth, and no need at safety to steal talent away to fill stopgap holes.

SAFETY

ASSUME THE POSITION

STARTERS: Jordan Lomax, 5'10", 205, Senior; Miles Taylor, 6'0", 195, Sophomore

BACKUPS: Anthony Gair, 6'2", 210, Junior; Brandon Snyder, 6'1", 210, Redshirt Freshman; Michael Ojemudia, 6'2", 190, Freshman

This feels like a broken record, but one hallmark of great Ferentz teams has been strong play in the secondary, and the Lomax-Taylor duo feels like it fits the criteria. Like, the two won't make Iowa great by themselves (if the linebacker trio of Hitchens-Kirksey-Morris couldn't do it, a pair of safeties sure as heck can't), but if Iowa's defense struggles in 2015, Lomax and Taylor probably won't be The Problem. Lomax has strong centerfield skills and Taylor is likely the hardest-hitting safety Iowa has boasted since Miguel Merrick, and that is high praise.

Depth is going to be an interesting issue, because with Iowa's rather weak linebacker situation, it's naive to imagine there'll only be two safeties on the field at any given time. The coaches have trusted Gair with playing time already—he even started a game last year—and Snyder has gone from walk-on to backup SS in his second season after garnering Team Leader awards on both defense and special teams as a true freshman.

Keep an eye on Ojemudia, though, as he's been heavily praised and the notion that he'll play as a true freshman is a virtual lock at this point. Given his high school experience as a linebacker, Ojemudia just may be the rover/hero/joker/whatever-you-call-it type of secondary member we really haven't seen Iowa embrace but might need to soon. It's about the best 11, right?

All that said, this is a young group. Among all defensive backs there are only six upperclassmen, all on the two-deeps, and Lomax and Draper are the only two seniors. Perhaps King heads to the NFL after this season, but perhaps not. Either way, Iowa has a lot of room to grow here, and the potential is solid.