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IOWA FOOTBALL LOOK-AHEAD 2017: THE DEFENSE

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A pretty solid unit returns six starters next year

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Florida vs Iowa Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The hangover following Iowa’s putrid bowl performance still lingers thick in the air. There’s only one way we at The Pants know how to cure this feeling: look ahead to next year, where there’s (hopefully) more promise for the Hawkeye football team.

This is a way-too early look at the defense. Lately, Kirk Ferentz has gotten in the habit of releasing a prospective depth chart in January, for whatever reason. So this might already be wrong by the time you read it!

No matter. Here, we’ll take a look at some projected two-deeps, make predictions, talk about things we want to see but almost certainly won’t and other musings.

Before that, a quick word on this defense:

I don’t think Phil Parker gets enough credit for what his unit does. This Iowa defense bailed its offense out countless times. Iowa was No. 23 in total defense this year, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story. It was tied for No. 13 in the nation in fewest points given up on average (18.8) and tied for No. 13 in red zone defense, allowing teams to come away with points just 75 percent of the time they got in Iowa’s red zone. Only Alabama, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin conceded fewer touchdowns than the Hawkeyes did while its opponents were in the red zone. That’s pretty damn good.

If not for this unit, Iowa possibly sees losses to Minnesota, Michigan and hell, Rutgers this year. Save nothing for keeping the Hawkeyes competitive in the Wisconsin and Florida games. Admittedly the defense kinda laid an egg against Northwestern and Penn State, but the offense did very little to help there anyway.

What I’m trying to say here is we’re very lucky that Phil Parker is loyal to Kirk, because I am certain he has received calls to visit greener pastures now and then, but for whatever reason feels the need to stay in Iowa City.

And now, on to this look-ahead:

The Personnel

Who’s definitely leaving? Desmond King, Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekaktike are gone after what I would call very successful campaigns. Anthony Gair and Greg Mabin are leaving too.

And that’s really it. Some postulate that Josey Jewell may test the NFL draft waters, but I don’t buy it. Iowa has six starters returning to a very solid unit next year, and the backups to the five guys leaving saw some pretty significant playing time in 2016.

Who’s fighting for a spot? On the defensive line, I’d say Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse have solidified themselves on the end positions, with Anthony Nelson rotating in when one or the other needs a breather. Brady Reiff and Sam Brincks saw some action at the end spots too, and I think Reiff could end up somewhere on the interior line. At tackle, it’s Nathan Bazata and likely Cedrick Lattimore. Garret Jansen and Reiff are the only other DTs that saw any sort of action last year to my knowledge.

All three starting linebackers return. We’d love to say Aaron Mends or Jack Hockaday challenges Bo Bower for his spot, but if it hasn’t happened by now it probably won’t.

In the defensive backfield, we have Miles Taylor coming back at strong safety and Brandon Snyder returns at the other safety position. Neither turned many heads with their play this year, but I think the ceiling is still pretty high with Snyder, who’s got two more years of eligibility left. Taylor, on the other hand, has some room for improvement—especially when it comes to tackling. And pass coverage.

Finally, we have Manny Rugamba and Joshua Jackson at the corner positions. Rugamba made a name for himself as the savior of the Michigan game, while Jackson was largely untested this year. Both are young guys, and Phil Parker has a pretty good track record when it comes to developing young corners. Behind them is Michael Ojemudia and then I have no idea.

Let’s look at some probably wrong two-deeps!

LE: Matt Nelson/Anthony Nelson

DT: Cedrick Lattimore/Brady Reiff/Garret Jansen

DT: Nathan Bazata/Brady Reiff/Garret Jansen

RE: Parker Hesse/Anthony Nelson/AJ Epenesa

OLB: Ben Niemann/Kevin Ward

MLB: Josey Jewell/Jack Hockaday

WLB: Bo Bower/Jack Hockaday/Aaron Mends

LC: Joshua Jackson/Michael Ojemudia

RC: Manny Rugamba/Michael Ojemudia

SS: Miles Taylor/Amani Hooker

FS: Brandon Snyder/Jake Gervase

Who’s coming in that could make an impact?

A.J. Epenesa could probably see some reps right away on the defensive line even though our defensive end situation is pretty solid. After that, I wouldn’t rule out any of the incoming defensive backs from seeing some time. And that’s about it. This recruiting class isn’t great, especially on the defensive side, Epenesa notwithstanding.

I don’t know much about the underclassmen who were redshirted, but Iowa usually has a guy or two turn some heads, so there is that.

Things we want to see but won’t

It would be nice to see someone challenge Bo Bower for the WLB spot, but again, if that hasn’t happened by now it probably won’t. Other than that, I think we should really like what this defense is going to bring next year. It’s going to be really tough to replace Johnson and Ekaktike in the interior, but Bazata was solid last year and Lattimore has some upside. All three backers return, and Josey Jewell is a legit B1G defensive player of the year candidate, especially if ESPN Golden Boy Jabrill Peppers goes to the NFL. The defensive backs are young, but that’s Parker’s coaching strength.

Final Verdict

All said and told, I think we should expect a really solid defensive unit next year. There are some concerns on the interior line and the youth of Iowa’s corners, but I think there’s enough playmakers at the other positions to offset those worries.

The only thing that really concerns me is the absence of Desmond King. His impact on this team cannot be stressed enough, and he literally commanded 50 percent of the playing field, severely limiting what opposing quarterbacks could do. He will be severely missed and isn’t someone you just go out and replace.

I am also not encouraged with how this incoming recruiting class looks on the defensive side of the ball. There are no linebackers in this class as of now, and I may be overreacting since there were four in the class of the 2016, but still. Epenesa is the highest-rated defensive recruit since Ekaktike, so there’s that to look forward to.

*Puts on homer hat*

With Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan seeing some key departures on their defenses next year, we could be looking at one of the top units in the conference right here.

Now if the offense could score some points...