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Can Iowa’s Defense Remain Elite in 2023?

The Hawkeyes may not be able to replicate the historical dominance of the 2022 defense, but don’t expect to see a significant drop-off from this group in 2023. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALLL: DEC 31 TransPerfect Music City Bowl Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The early offseason discussion surrounding Iowa football has largely focused on the program’s efforts to rebuild its offense, and for good reason. The Hawkeyes finished the 2022 season ranked 123rd in scoring offense, 123rd in passing offense, 124th in rushing offense, 129th in yards per play, and ahead of only the 2-10 New Mexico Lobos in total offense. Improving the offense must be Iowa’s top priority this offseason, and the Hawkeyes’ ability to compete for divisional and conference titles next year will be determined by whether the program succeeds at this goal.

Lost in the excitement surrounding Iowa’s new quarterback and its wide receiver and offensive linemen recruiting targets is the fate of the Hawkeye defense. The 2022 Iowa defense was as magnificent as its offense was putrid, finishing second in the nation in both scoring and total defense and allowing fewer yards per play (3.99) than any team in the country despite frequently being forced to defend short fields and play extended minutes due to the team’s offensive incompetence. If Iowa had assembled anything less than an elite defense last season, the team would not have sniffed bowl eligibility. Phil Parker’s crew was arguably the greatest Hawkeye defense in recent memory and, except for Alden Knight’s undefeated turn of the century teams that shut out nearly every opponent, may be the best defense in program history.

Iowa’s defense faces several question marks heading into the 2023 season, however. The Hawkeyes will lose senior All-Americans Jack Campbell and Kaevon Meriweather to the NFL, along with sophomore defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness who unexpectedly declared for the draft. The Hawkeyes will lose one of their top cover men to graduation in cornerback Riley Moss and likely face the departures of both linebacker Seth Benson and defensive end John Waggoner, which will deprive the Hawkeyes of two of their best run defenders as well. Factor in the loss of hyper-athletic linebacker Jestin Jacobs and high-energy cornerback Terry Roberts, and it is fair to wonder whether the Hawkeye defense is due for a painful regression next season. Should the defense take a step back and the offense fail to make significant improvement, this could spell disaster for the Hawkeyes in 2023.

Fortunately, Iowa’s defense appears capable of reloading next year even without its departing impact players returning to the fold. One need look no further than Iowa’s season-ending shutout of Kentucky in the Music City Bowl for evidence that the Hawkeye defense is in good hands going forward. The bulk of Iowa’s scoring in that game came from pick sixes from underclassmen Cooper DeJean and Xavier Nwankpa, sophomore defensive end Deontae Craig accounted for a whopping 3.5 tackles for loss along with a forced fumble, and starting Ca$h Sebastian Castro (Ca$htro?) had arguably his best game in coverage against a talented group of Wildcat receivers. The Hawkeyes will return a substantial amount of proven defensive production next year and boasts a talented group of players waiting in the wings who should be poised to have breakout seasons in 2023.

Iowa’s secondary was a point of strength for most of 2022 and should be elite again in 2023. Cooper DeJean emerged as one of the country’s most dynamic defensive backs last season and should thrive playing across from fellow cornerback Jermarri Harris, who had four interceptions in six starts in 2021 but missed last season due to injury. This duo should provide Iowa with two NFL-caliber cornerbacks capable of intercepting passes, sticking with opposing receivers in coverage, and playing physically in the run game. Meanwhile, Iowa has a wealth of talent at safety thanks to the return of Nwankpa, Castro, and rising senior Quinn Schulte, all of whom should challenge for All-Big Ten consideration. The Hawkeyes lack proven depth behind their top five guys, but coaches have spoken highly of young players like Brenden Deasfernandes, AJ Lawson, Koen Enringer, Deshaun Lee, and TJ Hall, and even walk-on Jamison Heinz proved capable of making a few key tackles when forced into action against Nebraska. Given Phil Parker’s reputation for developing talent in the secondary, Iowa appears poised to give opponents fits with its 4-2-5 defensive sets next season.

Speaking of terrifying opponents, Iowa’s defensive line seems destined to strike fear in quarterbacks across the Big Ten in 2023. While the loss of Van Ness was an unpleasant surprise, if was offset somewhat by the decisions of seniors Joe Evans and Noah Shannon to return to Iowa using their extra year of eligibility from 2020. Shannon excels at clogging up lanes in the interior of Iowa’s defense, and Evans is a proven pass rusher who developed into more an all-around defensive end after earning the starting job last year. Deontae Craig has all the tools to be Iowa’s next All-Big Ten defensive end after leading the team in tackles for loss (10.5), sacks (seven), and forced fumbles (three) last year, and could take a huge leap if he continues to improve at the rate he did during the back half of 2022. Logan Lee, one of the most underrated players on Iowa’s defense, could be in a for a big season as he returns for his senior year. True freshman Aaron Graves played like an upper classman when he saw the field last year and should continue his ascent, while players like Yahya Black and Ethan Hurkett could also see their stock rise given the chance to compete for more reps. If Iowa hits on JuCo transfers Anterio Thompson and Jackson Filer or sees one of its other young defensive ends emerge as an impact rotation player, the 2023 defensive line could go from great to elite.

If the Hawkeye defense has one potential weakness next year, it is at linebacker. Jay Higgins played well after the loss of Jestin Jacobs to injury, but Campbell’s impact at middle linebacker will be virtually impossible to replace, and Benson’s contributions to Iowa’s run defense were significant. Iowa has intriguing young talent at the position in players like Jaden Harrell, Justice Sullivan, Karson Sharar, and Zach Twedt, but they are largely unproven at this stage. Meanwhile, rising senior Kyler Fisher has made some memorable plays in a Hawkeye uniform, but almost all have come on special teams. Iowa may look to the transfer portal to strengthen this position (the Hawks were in on Michigan commit Ernest Hausmann in December), but don’t be surprised to see incoming freshman Ben Kueter compete for reps if the position group stays the same.

However, arguably the biggest reason to bet on Iowa’s defense remaining elite next year is the man running it. Phil Parker has proven himself to be one of the sharpest defensive minds in the country and has shown himself capable of building dominant defenses around almost every imaginable roster composition. Whether Iowa relies on a fearsome pass rush from its front four, versatile linebackers, or ball-hawking defensive backs, Parker has shown he can construct a defense that highlights his players’ strengths and covers up areas of weakness. Last season, Iowa finished as a Top 20 scoring defense for a program record 8th consecutive year in a row, while also finishing as a top five defense for the third time in the past four years. The Hawkeyes may not be able to replicate the historical dominance of the 2022 defense, but don’t expect to see a significant drop-off from this group in 2023.