When athletics director Gary Barta and head football coach Kirk Ferentz addressed the media via a Zoom call following the Big Ten’s announcement of a return to a fall football season, Ferentz was asked if he expected any players to opt out of the season. With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to any player choosing to sit out his season for any reason, as well as the potential and unknown health risks associated with the COVID-19 virus, players from around the conference had announced decisions to opt out. Ferentz indicated there may be a few, but did not expect a lot.
On Monday, Iowa fans learned of one such opt out. Redshirt junior Djimon Colbert reportedly confirmed to HawkeyeNation reporter Rob Howe that he will indeed be opting out for the 2020 season to instead focus on graduating (he is entering his fourth year in the program) with the intention to return in 2021.
I have been able to confirm that Iowa Football starting WIL LB Djimon Colbert is opting out for this season. He'll train and focus on graduating. He plans on returning in '21.— Rob Howe (@RobHoweHN) September 28, 2020
Colbert had played through a torn labrum in 2019, which required surgery following Iowa’s Holiday Bowl win over USC. It’s also been rumored that Colbert had a relative pass away from the virus and that may have impacted his decision to opt out this season. At this time, there are no other players confirmed to be opting out.
Whatever the reason, this is a significant blow to the Iowa defense. The Hawkeyes lost middle linebacker Kristian Welch to graduation after a tremendous senior campaign in 2019. They also lost his heir apparent in Dillon Doyle, who is now starting at Baylor.
Entering 2020, the linebacker group was already looking thin. While there is talent in the room, much of it is either young or unproven. Colbert was expected to provide some much consistency in the group, along with Nick Niemann. Now, it appears Niemann will be the lone returning starter.
So, where will Phil Parker turn to fill the void in the middle of his defense? The answer may be defensive backs. While linebacker is thin, there’s a plethora of talent in the DB room as the Hawkeyes have recruited well at the position and recruited it often as Parker has added more and more of his 4-2-5 look with the Cash position featured prominently against opponents who utilize more 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end).
In 2019, true freshman Dane Belton emerged as a potential star, playing in eight games and earning four starts. He’s been named a likely candidate to replace the departed Geno Stone at safety by many in the media, but we could see Parker opt for more of the 4-2-5 look with Belton as the fifth DB and former starter Kaevon Merriweather back on the field at safety or someone like hard-hitting RS freshman Sebastian Castro in place of the departed Stone.
We could also see former 4-star CB prospect Julius Brent slide into the Cash role with Belton back at safety and the corner spots manned by Matt Hankins and Riley Moss. The options in the back end of the defense are far and wide.
In a more traditional 4-3 look, Parker will likely need to turn to a veteran with limited playing experience in Barrington Wade or lean heavily on youth. True sophomore Jack Campbell has reportedly been performing well in practice, as has redshirt sophomore Seth Benson. Neither will have the kind of coverage ability of Colbert, but each appears more than capable of earning a spot in Parker’s defense. There’s also redshirt freshman and former 4-star Ohio State target Jestin Jacobs who could emerge. Injury caused him to take a redshirt as a freshman, but at 6’4” and 235 pounds, Jacobs has all the physical tools to earn a spot if he can get up to speed with the defense.
Whichever direction Phil turns, one thing Hawkeye fans should know by know is it’s not wise to count him out based on personnel we won’t see on the field. Look for the master to figure something out heading into what should be a wild 2020 season.