Amani Hooker very well might have changed Iowa’s philosophy at defense forever with his play last year.
If that sounds familiar, it is because I plagiarized Jordan Hansen’s opening from last week’s linebacker preview as the reduction in linebackers in Iowa’s base defense means an increase in the defensive backfield. It was more or less spurred by a play I feel disinclined to embed (but willing to link) and while the change to a 4-2-5 will allow Iowa to counteract the modern offense, it does have a downside, especially in a division where fullbacks and/or a second tight end are not extinct.
So the question will be: can Iowa have someone replicate the aptitude Hooker displayed last year?
(he guards three guys on this play)
There are certainly enough bodies for Iowa to throw into the defensive backfield, as five guys return with starting experience, and the talent level is as high as ever, at least in terms of recruiting stars.
The funny thing is, stars don’t matter in Phil Parker’s thunder dome.
While Amani Hooker was the guy who moved into the unique role, it was arguably Geno Stone’s talent who forced Iowa into the defense they did. Defensive line rotation aside, Stone proved time and again that he was one of the 11 most talented players Iowa had on the defensive side of the ball.
He tied with a team-high four interceptions, including a pick six where he displayed some of his two-way prowess against Penn State when Iowa needed points more than anything:
Despite having just the third most starts of Iowa’s defensive backs (8), it feels like there is no more important player on this unit and arguably, the defense. The drop-off from Stone to his backup, converted wideout Devonte Young, is unknown. So Stone’s ability to transition into the leader of the unit will be paramount to the overall performance of the team.
The Starting Corners?
Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia have 10 starts apiece but they’ve come across multiple seasons as they have battled inconsistency and injury during their Hawkeye careers. There’s plenty to like from both, as Hankins has demonstrated natural talent at the position and Ojemudia has shown a knack for the ball, tallying three interceptions.
But both have had some, um, frustrating moments, particularly against Purdue (two years ago but this stretch still sears in my brain).
Hankins certainly has the talent - and the disposition (Scott Dochterman wrote he got rid of his video games in high school to redirect his focus) - to become Iowa’s next elite junior cornerback.
Ojemudia, on the other hand, strikes me as the classic Hawkeye of yore: redshirt, spot duty across his career, relied upon to have a strong senior campaign. His inclusion in Iowa’s media contingent is as much a function of how this staff views his off-field capabilities as how he can produce on it.
The question for both is whether either can turn into the lockdown corner Iowa fans have grown accustomed to throughout much of this decade.
Horrible pun, I know, but Kaevon Merriweather really snuck through the cracks of high school recruiting as he focused primarily on basketball before picking up the football (again) his junior year of high school. After switching schools his senior year, he found himself amidst a ton of D1 talent but proved himself capable. Last year he proved himself so much during his maiden fall camp that he became a full-time special teams player as he shirked the redshirt.
With more highly recruited players staying on the sidelines, it was an interesting development. But Parker has never let stars get in the way of making his defense better, and Merriweather hopes to become the latest in a list of unknown prospects who found their way into the starting lineup and never let go of it.
As the free safety, he’ll share play calling duties with Stone as outlined in the link above. But he has the size (6’2”, 210 lbs) and athleticism (ferocious dunker) which puts him in as good a position as any to backfill Jake Gervase’s steady hand.
(Editing to include two links I missed because of a Twitter hiatus which posit FS may not be so locked down. Mark Emmert noted walk-on sophomore Jack Koerner has made some moves in fall camp and Chad Leistikow has identified Dane Belton as a freshman making a name for himself at strong safety.)
D.J. Johnson was among the most highly rated defensive backs to pledge to Iowa at the the time of his commitment. Though Julius Brents and Dallas Craddieth were also a part of Iowa’s 2018 class, it was just Brents who saw the field as Johnson battled injuries. As the projected starter at the CASH (Hooker’s old position but Iowa should really call it the HOOK), his performance could make or break Iowa’s transition to the 4-2-5.
He stands at 5’10”, 183 lbs which feels wildly small compared to Hooker’s 210 lb-frame. He will have to prove he can stand up to the test of run defense. There are others who could possible slide into that position (most likely Ojemudia) but there is a lot hinging on Johnson fulfilling the expectations set by an early entrant in the NFL Draft. Big shoes to fill.
Brents (6’3”, 203 lbs) and Riley Moss (6’1”, 191 lbs) have 11 starts between them despite being true sophomores. If Brents is able to play his way onto the field, Iowa will be better for it. Moss has some issues right now and they’re not necessarily getting fixed in practice. But the experience is the experience and the speed is the speed. If he can put it together, he’ll have a good career.
Iowa feels impossibly deep and impossibly young at the position but the guy I’m most excited about, if not this year then later, is Sebastian Castro. Daraun McKinney and Terry Roberts are two freshman (true and redshirt, respectively) who fit the mold of past Phil Parker finds.
While there are a lot of question marks - and there’s certainly enough reason to be hesitant about the group - there’s also plenty of talent in the room and a huge reason to believe things will be alright in the defensive backfield: