Here's the second part of Tuesday's dueling press conferences: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker with the assembled press. As always, transcript courtesy of Hawkeye Nation.
Iowa hasn't shuffled pieces too much on the defensive side of the ball so far this season; the defensive line has been mostly steady with some minor shuffling at defensive end, and the secondary has been essentially the same four guys (when available) throughout.
The exception, of course, has been the two outside linebacker positions. Quinton Alston has been more or less locked in at middle linebacker since the season began, but a rotation of Travis Perry, Reggie Spearman, Bo Bower and Josey Jewell have moved through the other two spots from week to week. It looks like that carousel might be coming to a stop, if Parker's first sentence is any indication:
Well, this is a great time to have a bye week. I think we've got the pieces of our defense, and the guys in the right spot right now.
Here's where it came down:
I think we finally got settled on the linebackers and moving guys around with Bo Bower moving out there with the outside linebacker, and we'd move Josey back inside. I think he's done a good job, and we moved Perry back inside to the Mike.
"Josey back inside" means Jewell is playing weakside linebacker, where he has made frequent appearances in recent weeks after sitting out with a hand injury early in the season. Interestingly, there's no mention of Reggie Spearman. We'll get to that a little later.
Here's how the thought process went down:
Are they inside guys? Are they more of a plugger? Are they outside and running with wide receivers? We were spoiled a little bit [with Christian Kirksey]. He was probably faster than any defensive back that we had. He ran pretty good in the combine. He had length, and he had knowledge and power and strength. So he's a very rare player that we had.
So finally just to get settled in, it took us a while during two a days because guys weren't comfortable yet. We were still trying to figure out where Bo was. He's made a big jump, and he was growing every week. We were banged up a little bit at Mike, so we moved Travis back in there. He's a competitive guy that's still not there yet either. He's still learning the calls and stuff like that because everything's new.
Perry was supposed to be the stopgap at strongside until someone else was ready. And then someone else got ready, and so we might be looking at Travis Perry as the starting middle linebacker next season.
Note that this does not mean there won't be a rotation (Parker essentially said there would be, and that the 19 players Iowa used on defense against Pitt was a good thing). But Iowa could at least have a solidified first unit now, which should help with some of the communication issues that have hurt the team in September.
About halfway through last season, Iowa started running the 'Raider' package in obvious passing situations, with two down linemen and five potential stand-up pass rushers at various positions. It came back early this year, and was especially effective in the second half against Pitt and last week at Purdue. It's not a new concept at Iowa.
We ran that Raider package probably back in 2004, 2005 when Norm was here. All you do is take out a three technique and stand up a linebacker. We used it against Northwestern a lot. They had a run around guy. We went back and looked at it. Ed Miles was out there, so there were some things that we did out of that, so basically you can run your whole defense out of the same package.
So it was a thought after the Ohio State game. A year ago we had opportunities to stop them on third down and we couldn't stop the quarterback, so to our benefit we got more speed on the field and that benefited us a little bit. We'd been expanding on it. You play a little zone, you play a little man, you blitz out of it and have a lot of different options out of it, but you have more speed on the field.
We've always thought of the Raider as a way of aiding Iowa's usually-languid pass rush. Without an elite athlete like Adrian Clayborn or Matt Roth on the edge, Iowa has struggled with getting to the passer and maintaining zone coverage in the back. The Raider replaces the additional rusher with more speed and formation fluidity; confuse the line and slip someone fast by the blockers before they know what happened, the theory goes. But the Raider could be effective against a mobile quarterback in lieu of a dedicated 'spy,' as well. Iowa hasn't really seen a run-oriented quarterback since 2013 Ohio State -- Devin Gardner had been effectively turned into a pocket passer by last November, and Taylor Martinez was injured -- but it could be utilized outside the typical third-and-long scenario should Iowa run into one in the future.
Which leads to...
Reggie Spearman, defensive end
Yes, it might be happening:
Q. Spearman appears to be an incredible athlete. How is he taking the weak sided linebacker? Is that his ultimate position? Do you see him essentially in transitioning a year or two outside maybe down line?
COACH PARKER: I think the possibility that it could happen. He does get in the Raider package, and becomes a rusher on the edge. It all depends on how much he grows and how much weight he puts on, and can he do it in a consistent basis to go on and take offensive linemen on. Right now we feel like this is the best position for him. When we need to, we'll put him in rushing situations in our subpackages, but eventually it could. If he keeps on growing and getting to 245, 250 we might put him down. But I'm sure if he hears that, he's going to stay down to where he's at.
That last sentence is interesting: Spearman apparently wants to stay at linebacker, even though he's likely falling behind Jewell at weakside and the Alston/Perry logjam at strongside. He's been a solid run-stopper this year, going so far as to help move the senior Alston into position occasionally when necessary, but Reggie's been exposed by both UNI and Iowa State in the passing game. If he can get to the proper size, he's an intriguing defensive end prospect. But it's better to have him at linebacker and happy than defensive end and playing elsewhere, and Reggie remains a bit of a concern on that front.
The Bullies of the Big Ten
An answer that Parker gave on Nate Meier detoured slightly into Parker's overall defensive philosophy:
Q. What does Nate Meier bring you that you didn't have last year?
COACH PARKER: One thing about Nate, he's a tough character. He's one of those guys that you want on your side. I think he's a guy that goes hard every time with little disregard for his body. He's a really, really, really tough guy. I think this whole game is about being tough and being violent. He's a violent football player. He's relentless about it. Now he'll make his mistakes like everybody else, but our job is to make him right.
That got expanded in a follow-up:
Q. Can you teach somebody to be a violent football player? Do they have that or they don't when they get to college?
COACH PARKER: Sometimes. A lot of time in recruiting, that is the hardest thing to find out. You can watch film and see guys. I always like guys that leave their feet. You see a lot of guys running tackle, and you just want to see how fast they're getting there. When they get there to make contact, how explosive are they being at the guy? I think when you see guys layout and give their body disregard, no responsibility. They don't care about their body, and they just give it their all. Sometimes that's hard to find.
I think it's hard to coach. You try to teach toughness, and you go through tackling drills and you grind it into them in our strength and conditioning program, our off season program mentally getting tough. Some guys have a natural ability to be a violent football player because it's a violent game.
You've got to hand it to Phil: He cares nothing for political correctness. Saying you prefer 'violent' football players in the Ray Rice era could raise some eyebrows (as could advocating an offseason program about getting 'mentally tough' just a few years after rhabdogate). But the second answer is more interesting, because Phil has always had an eye for defensive guys that nobody else wants. That he's looking for guys who don't give a damn says a lot about Iowa's defensive philosophy in general, and proves that Norm's mentality has never left the program. And that's a good thing.