There are fewer actual questions on Iowa's spring defense, but there are still at least five.
1) What are they going to run?
There is little doubt that Iowa is going to stick with its 4-3 over defense: New coaching hire Jim Reid is a devout 4-3 proponent, Phil Parker has coached in it for over 20 years, and Iowa's basic premise -- using four guys to clog running lanes and attack the passer while linebackers feast on running backs and wideouts -- could have some issues if they were to go to a 3-4 or 5-2.
The question, then, is not the formation. It is what is called from the formation. Could Jim Reid and Phil Parker dial up more blitzes, both traditional and zone, this season? Could Iowa move Alvis inside as a Karl Klug-like pass rushing defensive tackle and leave someone like Jaleel Johnson on the outside? Will Iowa stick with its dogmatic cover 2 or attempts more one-high safety coverages? Will they actually play man to man on the outside? These are not questions that will be answered in spring; remember, Iowa both told us they would be playing bump coverage last year and implemented it through mid-August. By Week 1, it was gone, as was any serious attempt at man pass coverage and the newfangled blitzing.
So I'm not saying it's inconceivable that something schematic has changed after a 4-8 season. I am just not that optimistic that it did.
2) Can anyone get a sack?
The entire premise of Iowa's defensive system -- a seven-player zone the vast majority of the time -- is wholly predicated on a pass rush exclusively from the front four. The more consistent the Hawkeyes are in pressuring the opposing quarterback, the more effective the defense is in all other aspects of the game. Last year, there was no pass rush: Iowa finished the season with just 13 sacks (113th nationally and last in the Big Ten) and 53 tackles for loss (105th nationally and, again, last in the conference). Iowa's attempts at adding a blitz largely fell flat, mostly because Iowa linebackers are extremely poor at shedding blocks and getting into the backfield. Without a pass rush, quarterbacks carved Iowa's secondary up, and the success of the pass softened Iowa's resistance to the run. The whole thing fell apart.
The Hawkeyes have lost defensive end Joe Gaglione and defensive tackle/end Steve Bigach, both of whom were, frankly, outmanned last year in conference play. In their stead comes a veritable cornucopia of defensive line talent -- Darian Cooper, Jaleel Johnson, Faith Ekakitie, Drew Ott, Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara -- who could add some much-needed quickness and strength to the line, but the most-hyped of those players (the first three listed) are all defensive tackles. The same goes for Louis Trinca-Passat, who will miss spring practice while recovering from offseason surgery, and returning defensive end Dominic Alvis, who looked far more effective in the interior last season.
Frankly, Iowa has the personnel for a fantastic 3-4 defensive front but apparently no stomach for actually implementing it. That means they will need an immediate contribution from Ott, who had a redshirt pulled in late October so that he could play against Northwestern, and that one of the tackles will likely move outside. Iowa's done it before; both Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard had defensive tackle physiques but played well as ends. We shall soon see if they can do it again.
3) Which cornerback inherits a 2015 third-round NFL Draft selection?
Micah Hyde graduates. B.J. Lowery moves to CB1. Like the sands of the hourglass, so goes the progression of cornerbacks. Lowery struggled mightily last season, especially when forced into one-on-one coverage either by scheme or Tanner Miller getting preoccupied by shiny objects, but additional safety help and direct hands-on coaching by defensive coordinator Phil Parker should help.
The bigger question is who will inherit Lowery's former position. Headed into this week, the safe bet was Sean Draper, who played limited minutes as a true freshman, recording six tackles and a pass deflection in 10 games. The spring depth chart threw a bit of a curveball: Redshirt freshman Jordan Lomax, who did not play last season while nursing a shoulder injury but has earned rave reviews from coaches for nearly a year. Sophomore Kevin Buford (5 tackles in 8 games last season) and newly-converted wide receiver Maurice Fleming also figure to be in the mix. Much like defensive line, Iowa has a lot of talented parts that need to be sorted and used more effectively.
4) What exactly is Jim Reid doing here?
Iowa added former Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid as a "defensive assistant" in February. Reid will coach linebackers (with the help of Levar Woods) but speculation has run rampant as to his playcalling role. With defensive coordinator Phil Parker adding responsibilities with the secondary, a portion of his coordinator responsibilities could be shuffled to Reid, and after a somewhat rocky first season as DC, Parker may be in need of some experienced assistance regardless. Reid is known for playing a 4-3 "under" (where the outside linebacker opposite the weak side of the line plays near the line), which runs in slight contrast to Iowa's usual 4-3 "over" scheme (where the outside linebacker typically lines up over the tight end or slot receiver), but that should not preclude him from handling at least some aspects of the coordinator position.
Reid's other possible role could be getting linebackers home on the blitz. Reid was far from a wallflower at Virginia or in previous stops with the Miami Dolphins or Richmond. He was not afraid to blitz and blitz often, though he still did not blitz enough for the bloodthirsty Mike London last season. If Iowa is truly going to rely on an extremely large defensive line to hold the point of attack and leave linebackers to get pressure on the quarterback and handle the outside running game, Reid could be the guy to do just that.
5) Safety: Discuss
At least late in the season, Iowa's biggest defensive problem (besides the ineptitude of the defensive front) was the absurd incompetence of its safeties. A discussion of why Iowa did not actively recruit a safety prospect for four years is certainly worth a discussion once spring practice has come to an end, but for now the issue is how the Hawks intend to fix the problem. Tanner Miller has had two seasons at free safety to establish himself, and the only thing keeping him on the field is the complete lack of talent behind him on the depth chart. Nico Law gets a pass on some boneheaded mistakes as a freshman, but no further passes will be granted.
Iowa's coaching staff -- particularly on defense -- was learning new roles last season. Secondary coach Darrel Wilson had never actually coached the secondary before, a glaring problem when we failed to see the same sort of progress we expected from Parker-coached teams. With Phil back in the driver's seat, many of those problems should be resolved. From there, it becomes a question of talent, a question nobody asks of Law but everyone screams at Miller. Iowa needs to find an answer at both positions -- but especially free safety -- if this season is to be even a modest success.