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THE PRELUDE: IOWA FOOTBALL’S 2016 DEFENSE

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The offense has C.J., the defense has Desmond. What more do you need to know?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at just about every metric, one could determine that Iowa’s defense had a good year in 2015. You could look at specific measurables, like rushing defense, and surmise that Iowa had an elite year, where the Hawkeyes gave up just 121 yards/game on the ground. And that includes the Rose Bowl, where Stanford sort of just had its way and ran for 206 yards against the Hawks.

All things considered, Phil Parker and co. are tasked with building upon a defense that ranked 19th in the nation in points allowed a year ago, when the Hawkeyes gave up just under 3 touchdowns a game. And, well, they all have their work cut out for them.

Iowa returns just about the best defensive back in the nation in Desmond King, an all-American who looks to defend his Thorpe Award. Then there’s linebacker Josey Jewell and hole-plugging defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson. This unit is full of other familiar faces like Ben Niemann, Bo Bower, Nathan Bazata, Parker Hesse, Greg Mabin and others.

That’s a really, really solid foundation right there, and when I look at the two-deeps I see nothing but upside. And that all starts on the defensive line, where most of the questions marks reside.

The Push

Lot’s of people threw a hissy fit when Drew Ott wasn’t granted an extra year of eligibility. But he’s not coming back, and dwelling on the past serves little purpose if you didn’t go to Notre Dame [Editor’s note: or Nebraska]. So let’s take a look at what we got:

DE: Anthony Nelson/Matt Nelson—0 combined starts

DT: Jaleel Johnson—14 starts in 2015

DT: Nathan Bazata—14 starts in 2015

DE: Parker Hesse—eight starts in 2015

Ideally you’d like to see a little more experience out of this group, but there’s still a lot to like here. Also, Matt Nelson played in 13 games last year so it’s not like that side of the line is completely fresh.

Obviously the strength of this line comes on the interior, which should free up the linebackers to compensate for any weaknesses that the ends showcase. No one else on Iowa’s roster has seen any starts on the line, and the end behind Hesse on the two-deeps, Cedrick Lattimore, is a true freshman. So we’re looking at some uncharted territory if someone goes down here. Faith Ekakitie will see solid reps on the interior, but that’s about it as far as depth goes. Still, I see more positives than negatives on this line, and think they’ll allow Iowa’s linebackers and defensive backs do what they do best, which is dominate.

The Monster With Three Heads

It’s uncanny how often Iowa finds itself with three outstanding linebackers, even when the rest of the team can’t put out a product worth remembering on the field. In recent memory Iowa had the luxury of relying on trios that consisted of Anthony Hitchens-James Morris-Christian Kirksey and Pat Angerer-Jerimiha Hunter-A.J. Edds. I see no reason why the current group of Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann can’t play better than them all.

OLB: Niemann—14 starts in 2015

MLB: Jewell—14 starts in 2015, 4 starts in 2014

WLB: Bower—13 starts in 2014, saw action in all 14 games in 2015

There’s a lot to like behind these guys, too. Jack Hockaday has been earning praise, while at the same time none of us will be surprised once Aaron Mends proves to be productive on the field. The other guys on the two-deeps—Kevin Ward and Kristian Welch—are largely unknown, though, with Welch being a true freshman. There’s also a chance Amani Jones, another true freshman, sees the field as well.

All said in told, I think this is going to turn out to be a really special group if everyone can stay healthy, and I look forward to them making some spectacular plays, especially with Josey Jewell playing field general.

The Kingsguard

And here we are. Not unlike the linebackers, Iowa’s secondary is anchored by one supremely talented individual next to a group of other solid players. I forgot how experienced this secondary was until writing this, and my expectations for this unit and defense as a whole are even higher than before.

CB: Desmond King—14 starts in 2015, 13 starts in 2014, 12 starts in 2013 (see a pattern here?)

FS: Brandon Snyder—0 Starts in 2015.

SS: Miles Taylor—14 starts in 2015.

CB: Greg Mabin—14 starts in 2015, 12 starts in 2014.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what Phil Parker cooks up here for this unit. He’s as much a guru of defensive backs as Kirk is with offensive linemen or Jim Reid was with linebackers. This unit had 11 interceptions last year (8 coming from King) and one can expect a whole lot more action to go Mabin’s way, which is something I’m sure he’s prepared to handle. The other two corners to crack the two-deeps—Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia—are both freshmen. King saw lots of time as an underclassman, so I’m not reading too much into those designations.

Anthony Gair will likely see time in nickel formations and other packages, and he brings a lot of experience as a fifth-man type. Amani Hooker was given the weird and/or slash with Gair, but as a true freshman I don’t see him getting much time over the fifth-year Gair.

All in all, I see this defense carrying Iowa throughout the year, and bailing the offense out quite a bit if and when it sputters. C.J. Beathard is going to be breaking in some receivers and a couple lineman, but expect the defense to pick up right where it left off.