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Hawkeye Football: Midseason Position Grades for the Iowa Defense

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Iowa’s defense has been the reason for their rise to a top-10 team thus far.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

It’s week nine of the college football season and while that technically puts us past the midway point, we find ourselves just past the midway point of Iowa’s season as they prepare for their matchup with Wisconsin fresh off a bye. With no game to recap or hand out position grades for, this is the perfect time to hand out some midseason grades to Iowa’s various position groups.

Unfortunately for you all, your guy Bartt is off enjoying some sunshine south of the border this week so you’re stuck with me. That’s likely to make for some inconsistencies between mid-term grades and the aggregate of the prior weekly grades Bartt has been handing out. Such is life.

So without further adieu, here are the midseason position grades for the Iowa Hawkeyes defense from your substitute teacher.

[Inserts VHS tape of Bill Nye the Science Guy and walks out of the room.]


Defensive Line

Coming into the 2021 season, some of the biggest questions facing this team were along the defensive line. While Iowa lost a lot of production at WR and the offensive line, which have proven to be issues for this group, the defensive line lost three of four starters from 2020’s 6-2 team as well as a few depth pieces.

That has not seemed to matter much in 2021 as this group has performed quite well through seven games. Or perhaps more accurately, they looked very good for six games and had a rough go in Iowa’s loss to Purdue.

This group has helped Iowa to the 7th best rush defense in the country to this point, allowing fewer than 90 rushing yards per game and keeping opponents to 2.7 yards per carry. Given the losses in the middle from last year’s group, that’s a major victory for Kelvin Bell’s group.

On the flip side, however, they haven’t been able to consistently generate much pressure. Iowa is 70th in the nation in team sacks and has come up with just two over their last three games. That came to a head in the loss to Purdue as the Hawkeyes were unable to generate any meaningful pressure up front and allowed Aidan O’Connell to pick apart the usually stingy secondary.

The road trip to Madison will tell us a lot about this group while the remainder of the schedule likely looks more like the first four games of the season where the Hawkeyes created plenty of pressure with their front four.

Midterm Grade: B

Linebacker

As with the defensive line, the Iowa linebacking group has been a very pleasant surprise this season. We expected to see solid play from Jack Campbell after flashing in limited time a year ago and Seth Benson was pegged as a steady hand in the middle, but both of those players have far exceeded expectations and have found a running mate in Jestin Jacobs who would be starting on nearly every other defense in the country.

The trio hold three of the top four spots on Iowa’s leading tackler list with Campbell at the very top. His 67 tackles rank third in the Big Ten while Benson is the one who has really established himself as a run stopper for this group.

As impressive as Campbell and Benson have been thus far, it’s Jacobs who has the most upside. He has the size and athleticism to be a real difference maker roaming the middle and he’s made his impact felt in a big way this season. He has both an interception and a forced fumble (or more aptly, THE forced fumble against Iowa State) and brings the added juice this group needs to play in coverage when opting for a 4-3 alignment rather than using the Cash as a third backer.

Midterm Grade: A-

Defensive Back

We knew coming into the season that the defensive secondary was likely to be solid. Iowa returned both starting corners and safeties with tremendous depth behind them that was bolstered with the addition of UNI transfer Xavior Williams.

At the midway point, they’ve not disappointed. We saw from the jump how talented this group could be as Riley Moss took two interceptions to the house. That set the tone for the first six games of the season where Iowa jumped out to the national lead in takeaways with 16.

The Hawkeyes were giving up just 184 passing yards per game through the first six games of the year with nearly three interceptions per game. That came to a screaching halt against Purdue as the Boilermakers carved up the secondary for 378 yards without an interception.

Despite the one game lapse, this group has been among the best in the nation. Corners Riley Moss and Matt Hankins grade out as the highest rated cornerbacks in the country according to Pro Football Focus. That’s hard to argue with.

Midterm Grade: A

Specialists

Special teams is theoretically its own separate unit. Iowa has a special teams coordinator apart from the offense and defense, but at the end of the day, it’s an extension of the defense (and frankly the offense for the Hawkeyes). This year’s group is very good.

Tory Taylor is one of the best punters in the country. He’s a weapon and when he’s on the field, Iowa is winning. Not just in a satirical kind of way, they’re literally winning the field position game and with the rest of this defense, that’s a recipe for actual wins.

The Thunder from Down Under is 18th in the nation with a 46 yard average, but is tied for the national lead with 22 punts downed inside the opponent 20. If there was a stat for punts downed inside the 10 and inside the 5, he would likely lead those as well.

Kicker Caleb Shudak has also been very solid for Iowa. He’s 26th in the nation with 11 field goals made and has his 85% of his kicks this year. Really, there’s only been one notably bad kick and it came in the loss to Purdue. Otherwise, he’s been very steady both on extra points and field goals out to 50 yards. He’s also been tremendous on kickoffs.

And finally, there were some issues early at long snapper that led to a change at the position, but we’re now to a point where nobody knows anything about the snapping situation which is exactly what you want.

Overall, this is a great group that has had just a few hiccups throughout the year that keep them from being the absolute best they could be.

Midterm Grade: A-


The net-net of all this is Iowa’s defense has been very, very good so far this year. There’s been plenty of talk that this unit is why Iowa has been ranked inside the top-10 much of the year and that’s largely accurate. The offense has worked in concert with the defense to put together six games of Kirk Ferentz nirvana and all units worked together to watch it all crumble against Purdue.

But this is an elite unit that’s deserving of all the hype and publicity. Phil Parker has a defensive scheme that doesn’t rely on elite talent or athleticism, but this group does have some of that in a couple key spots. More importantly, it’s loaded with veterans who communicate and execute to near perfection most of the time.

The result has been one of the best units in the country that has wreaked havoc in six of seven games. It’s hard to argue anything lower than an A for this group to-date.