Few Hawkeyes during the Kirk Ferentz era left as large an impact on the future of the Iowa football program as Amani Hooker. Hooker’s legacy as Hawkeye goes far beyond his statistics or individual accolades, both of which are impressive, but not unprecedented relative to his equally accomplished peers. Instead, Hooker is credited with changing the very face of the Iowa defense. Looking to capitalize on Hooker’s versatility and better position Iowa to contend with the spread offenses proliferating the sport, defensive coordinator Phil Parker made Hooker Iowa’s first starter at the newly created “Ca$h” position, a hybrid safety/linebacker/slot corner who possessed the physicality to play the run in the box and the speed and cover skills to hang with opposing tight ends and wide receivers. The advent of the Ca$h position did not alter Iowa’s underlying defensive philosophies, but it did allow the Hawkeyes to change their base defense from a 4-3 to 4-2-5; not a complete overhaul, but a way for Iowa to evolve with the times. A “bend but don’t break” approach to defensive schematics, if you will.
While the switch to the 4-2-5 has paid dividends for Iowa’s defense as a whole, no position group has seen its role diminish more due to the change than that of the linebacker. For most of the Ferentz era, the Hawkeyes played three linebackers on the vast majority of defensive snaps. However, the advent of the Ca$h position has seen Iowa play with five defensive backs far more often than not. Iowa lined up in the 4-2-5 on 76% of its defensive snaps in 2021, relegating one of Iowa’s “starting” linebackers to the role of a de facto substitute for the bulk of the game.
Therein lies Iowa’s dilemma; a team that is committed to running the 4-2-5 as its base defense has one of the best linebacker trios in college football. Middle linebacker Jack Campbell is an All-American and one of the most country’s most feared defenders, while weakside linebacker Seth Benson is a battle-tested veteran who racked up over 100 tackles last season en route to earning third-team All-Big Ten honors. This often left starting outside linebacker Jestin Jacobs as the odd man out last season, logging only 593 snaps in 2021 compared to 1,004 for Benson, 1,024 for Ca$h starter Dane Belton, and a whopping 1,121 for Campbell. Despite his limited action, Jacobs proved to be a wildly productive player for Iowa, racking up 53 tackles along with a forced fumble and an interception. Jacobs is an excellent athlete with great size at 6’4, 238 lbs. and is viewed as a future NFL draft pick, potentially as early as next year. That a player of Jacobs’ talent has had trouble staying on the field speaks to Iowa’s embarrassment of riches at the linebacker position.
Given Iowa’s strength at linebacker, it is worth asking whether the Hawkeyes should do more to maximize the number of snaps Jacobs plays in 2022. While Dane Belton had a habit of forcing Jacobs to the sidelines, his defection to the NFL could create opportunities for him to remain on the field in passing situations. Although Jacobs occasionally struggled in pass coverage late last season, he was arguably Iowa’s most effective linebacker in this area and allowed only one touchdown in coverage despite frequently being forced to cover opposing wide receivers. Jacobs has the strength to jam his man at the line of scrimmage, enough quickness in space to stick with shifty slot receivers, and the wingspan to defend passes like this one from Brock Purdy to 6’6 Charlie Kolar which few linebackers in America are capable of disrupting.
Jacobs’ versatility is arguably his greatest asset and may ultimately be the trait that allows him to earn more snaps in 2022. Last season Jacobs spent 233 snaps covering opponents in the slot, 168 lined up along the line of scrimmage, and 103 playing in the box, and through Iowa’s first five games he was the only linebacker in college football to earn grades of 75+ in coverage, pass defense, and run defense from Pro Football Focus. As strong as Jacobs is in coverage, he is even more advanced as a tackler, missing only four out of his 57 tackle attempts last year and showing a real knack for bringing he ballcarrier to the ground.
With Jacobs on the field, Iowa has a credible pass defender who brings a level of upside against the run that any Ca$h would struggle to match. Given what Jacobs managed to accomplish last season and his potential for continued growth in 2022, it is easy to make the case for him seeing expanded playing this year.
However, increased snaps for Jacobs necessarily translates to less playing time for one or more of his teammates. Dane Belton may be gone, but his likely replacement at Ca$h is Cooper DeJean, one of the most athletically gifted recruits Iowa has landed in recent memory. Phil Parker may prefer to ease the inexperienced DeJean into the starting job early in the season, but what will happen if he has the type of breakout season many fans expect? Similarly, what if five-star freshman Xavier Nwankpa lives up to the hype as a true freshman and earns his way onto the field, possibly supplanting DeJean at Ca$h and forcing him to move to free safety? Iowa’s defense has thrived on generating interceptions, and playing five defensive backs has played a major role in the Hawkeyes forcing a remarkable 89 picks over the past five seasons. Is Iowa really prepared to abandon this formula and revert back to the 4-3 as its base defense? Jacobs may be Iowa’s best coverage linebacker, but is he honestly a better pass defender than DeJean or Nwankpa, to say nothing of Terry Roberts’ potential to fill in a nickel back?
Part of Iowa’s formula to maximize Jacobs’ playing time may lie with a more even rotation among linebacker snaps. Iowa’s Kids Day scrimmage saw Jacobs take snaps next to Campbell in the 4-2-5, a role that was largely played by Benson last season. While Jacobs is unlikely to supplant Benson as Iowa’s starting weakside linebacker (Benson is far too good at run fitting to take off the field in early downs and was arguably Iowa’s most disruptive linebacker behind the line of scrimmage in 2021), he could replace Benson more frequently on passing downs as way to get both Jacobs and the Ca$h on the field at the same time. Furthermore, Jacobs’ ability to play all three linebacking positions could allow him to see more snaps at middle linebacker as well. Jack Campbell is a legitimate Butkus Award contender who could be the best middle linebacker in college football this season, but Iowa’s coaches may view Jacobs’ ability to man the middle as way to manage Campbell’s snap count this season in hopes of keeping him fresh. Even if Jacobs truly is Iowa’s third best linebacker (a debatable proposition now which may become even more questionable by years end), the Hawkeyes will benefit from manufacturing ways to get him on the field more in 2022.
While the birth of the Ca$h position seemed to signal to death of Iowa’s reliance on the 4-3 defense, the ascension of Jestin Jacobs may well give the Hawkeyes cause to lean into it more this season than they have since before Amani Hooker first forced Iowa’s outside linebacker off the field. Jacobs’ impressive athletic upside and ability to make plays against both the run and the pass justifies a higher snap count in 2022, even if that occasionally comes at the expense of a fifth defensive back or a few extra defensive plays for Campbell or Benson. Having a surplus of talented players is the kind of problem defensive coordinators dream of, and Phil Parker is savvy enough to determine the best way to maximize his unit’s potential. Don’t be surprised if that formula involves a much bigger dose of Jestin Jacobs than Hawkeye fans have seen in years past.