Another Iowa football season is in the books, which means it is time for us bloggers to continue overreacting and make ill-informed speculations about the state of Iowa athletics.
Today, we’re going to take a guess at what the makeup of Iowa’s defense will look like in 2018. We’re probably wrong about everything except for the defensive ends.
All things considered, Iowa’s defense had a great year in 2017. We’ve waxed poetic about defensive coordinator Phil Parker on here nonstop, so let’s continue that love letter:
Iowa allowed a total of 259 points this year, good to be tied for 14th in the nation. For those keeping score at home, that’s just about 20 points a game. Iowa ranked 29th for third-down defense, allowing opposing teams to move the sticks on third down just 34 percent of the time. Iowa leads the nation in interceptions with 21, thanks largely to Josh Jackson, who has a nation-leading 8 picks.
When opposing offenses got in the red zone against Iowa, they scored a touchdown just 45 percent of the time, good for sixth in the nation. The bend don’t break defense is real.
Alas, some key cogs of 2017’s stout defense will not be back for the 2018 campaign. The aforementioned Jackson announced his declaration for the NFL draft yesterday.
Starting linebackers Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann are all seniors and have a very good chance to play on Sundays next year. Those three linebackers combined for 866 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 55 tackles for a loss, 11 interceptions and 7 forced fumbles over the past four years.
Frankly, that sort of production and stability is impossible to replace. Nothing to say for the fact Jewell is a consensus all-American, and is arguably the greatest linebacker—if not player—to ever wear the Black & Gold. His impact on this team cannot be overstated.
Along with the linebackers and Jackson, safety Miles Taylor and defensive tackle Nathan Bazata are leaving for graduation. Backup linebacker Kevin Ward is a senior as well; he often was the fourth linebacker rotated in for Bower or Niemann.
In sum, Iowa has a lot to replace on the defensive side of the ball, but enough playmaking pieces are there to feel good about where things stand.
Here’s way-too-early depth chart predictions!
LE: Anthony Nelson, Sam Brincks
DT: Matt Nelson, Daviyon Nixon
DT: Cedrick Lattimore, Brady Reiff
RE: Parker Hesse, AJ Epenesa
Iowa has a good problem with three supremely talented defensive ends. Four even if you don’t count the fact Matt Nelson is really playing out of position on the interior. He was decent this year, but I expect him to get better. Chauncey Gholston has been seeing some run recently as well, though I’m not sure if he’s more of an end or tackle.
Next to Nelson on the interior we’ll probably see Lattimore who was Iowa’s third DT more or less in 2017. Do not discount Daviyon Nixon, however, who spent last season at Iowa Western, and got a look from Alabama in the offseason. Nixon could be the run-stopping interior lineman we haven’t had since Carl Davis.
Now, to the linebackers:
OLB: Amani Jones, Jack Hockaday
MLB: Kristian Welch, ???
WLB: Aaron Mends, Nick Niemann
Things get a little hairy here, simply because we’ve only seen all these guys play sparingly. I’m really excited for the Aaron Mends experiment to finally begin, because he seems to be one of the most athletic defenders whenever he takes the field.
Really, though, I have no idea what to expect from Jones, Welch, Mends and Niemann (brother of Ben). And behind Welch in the middle, there’s a whole lot of question marks. We could see Hockaday or Niemann move there, as defensive back Djimon Colbert has slid to an outside backer position, and coaches are apparently going to test another safety on the outside as well.
I have high expectations for Mends, but after that, let’s hope this experienced defensive line and backfield make the learning curve less steep for these backers. And that brings us to...
LC: Michael Ojemudia/Manny Rugamba
FS: Brandon Snyder, Jake Gervase/Julius Brents/Dallas Craddieth
SS: Amani Hooker, Geno Stone/Julius Brents/Dallas Craddieth
RC: Matt Hankins, DJ Johnson
All things considered, that’s a pretty solid group right there. Brandon Snyder, Amani Hooker and Jake Gervase can all make plays from the safety positions and Matt Hankins had some flashes of brilliance ... to go along with some not-so-brilliance.
Ojemudia and Rugamba were both disappointments this year IMO, but I’m willing to chalk that up to the fact everyone not named Josh Jackson was targeted heavily all year long.
Behind Hankins I have incoming freshman DJ Johnson. Other recent signees Julius Brents and Dallas Craddieth are also pegged at the safety positions and could see some time.
All three of those guys are coveted four-star recruits and Iowa ALWAYS plays a couple of true freshmen in the defensive backfield. This year it was Hankins, the year before that it was Rugamba, the year before that it was Snyder, and before him it was Kevin Draper and Desmond King. Phil Parker loves trial by fire and it’s hard to argue with his results.
I’m not writing about the punting situation, because I don’t want to write about the punting situation and you probably don’t want to read about the punting situation.
Lately, we’ve seen Iowa defenses bail out the offense time and time again. The amount of attrition this unit is experiencing this year, however, doesn’t lend much confidence in this unit. Coupled with the fact Iowa has the pieces for a more explosive offense in 2018, I think we see a relatively down year for Phil Parker’s unit.
That being said, the defensive line and backfield should make strides this offseason with some really experienced players returning. Normally, Iowa has at least one NFL-caliber linebacker on the field, however. And that question mark next season is enough for concern as to how the Hawkeyes will keep opponents off the scoreboard.
Tomorrow we take a look at the offense!