Sports reporter Chris Cuellar takes a look at what's ahead for Hawkeyes sports, including the return of basketball and wrestling in Iowa City.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The architect of Iowa’s defense uses an architectural analogy when discussing his philosophy on proper tackling.
“I tell these guys, you'd rather tackle a guy in the doorway than in this big room. It's a lot easier,” Hawkeyes defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Wednesday during his bye-week news conference.
“You put two guys in the room, and say let's tackle, it will be hard on a field. But put them in the doorway, get the leverage down, and you can tackle somebody in the doorway. You've got a better chance of doing that. Even if he runs you over, he might fall down.
“But obviously that's a concern of mine, when they do miss tackles, it's sometimes the angles and maybe duck their head, keeping your eyes up. And we talk about all those things you have to do. But eventually it comes to putting their full body on top of a guy.”
It’s been a bumpy year for Parker’s defense, which ranks 20th in FBS by allowing only 18.9 points per game. The rush defense was victimized in three consecutive games before shoring up three weeks ago and the Hawkeyes have a dissatisfying 5-3 record.
Recent improvements on defense obviously have lightened the mood of Parker, in his fifth season as the leader of Iowa’s defense. He gave expansive, sometimes humorous, answers on a range of topics, from individual players such as Josey Jewell and Aaron Mends, to his thoughts on the softening of modern-day football. Some highlights:
Stopping the run
The Hawkeyes were gouged for 630 rushing yards in a three-week stretch against North Dakota State, Rutgers and Northwestern, losing two of those games at home. That total was cut in half — to 315 yards — in games against Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin, two of them Iowa victories. Parker’s defense ranks 58th in FBS, with an average of 153.8 yards allowed per game on the ground.
Parker said Iowa didn’t change anything but fundamentals.
“It really comes back to the basics and we stayed with it. And guys become better and their preparation became better,” he said. “They had better energy. I thought during practice during the week of Minnesota the tempo was probably more physical than it was during the game. … That's where I think we kind of gained our edge back.”
His starting players
Parker had high praise, as expected, for star middle linebacker Jewell, comparing him to former Hawkeye star Pat Angerer.
“He tries to go out there and when he's hitting you he's trying to hit you and hurt you,” Parker said. “He can see things faster and understand the game.”
Cornerback Desmond King’s interception numbers may be down (from eight last year to one this year), but that’s because opponents aren’t targeting him, Parker said. The senior is doing everything asked of him, and more, including in practice.
“I'm really excited about how durable he is. And also doing the kickoff and punt return things, and how many reps he actually takes during practice and runs a hundred yards down the field. And I'm saying, ‘Slow it down, shut it down, there's nobody there, why are you still running?’” Parker said.
Parker said defensive tackle Nathan Bazata, who was injured in Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin, is resting this week and on track to play Nov. 5 at Penn State.
His reserve players
Sophomore linebacker Aaron Mends, listed as a starter during spring practice, has fallen off the radar as the season has progressed. Parker implied it was mainly a mental issue.
“I think he's great athletically. I think his progress has not been where we think it needs to be to go out there and be out there on a full-time basis,” Parker said of Mends. “We've got to make sure that he's on the same page all the time with what we want to do defensively.”
Parker seemed to have higher hopes for a trio of true freshmen who have seen some action this fall, one at each level of the defense — defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore, linebacker Amani Jones and cornerback Manny Rugamba. He said each could see increased playing time in the season’s final four games.
“I looked at two or three plays the other day and it looks like he's starting to get it,” Parker said of Lattimore. “He's done a better job with his pad level and moving his feet at the same time.”
As for Rugamba: “He's been in our sub packages. He would be one of our first guys to go in the corner. I think he's definitely a dynamic guy. I think he could help us maybe even in the special teams return game. Hopefully we can get him in that aspect of it.”
New targeting rules
Jewell was ejected from Iowa’s season-opening win over Miami of Ohio after being flagged for targeting on a punt return. He was nearly tossed again against Wisconsin before officials overturned the call, ruling he did not hit the ball carrier in the helmet.
Parker, who said he had “many concussions” while playing at Michigan State in the 1980s, seemed exasperated by recent attempts to limit contact in football.
“It's going to come pretty soon to flag football, I think,” he said. “The game is a violent game. We all know it before we get here. As soon as we walk on and get into the field, everybody knows that we're playing tackle football.
“And as soon as you tell me there's a defenseless player on the field, how come he doesn't know that we're playing the game of football? We're allowing receivers down field to catch balls, uncontested, getting hit. If you blow on them, touch them, you're going to get a flag.”
Parker, who was an all-Big Ten Conference defensive back for three seasons with the Spartans, wasn’t sure he’d be able to thrive as a player in the modern era.
“That was the risk that I took, too, because I loved the game of football,” he said of his physical style of play.
“The big thing now is the rugby tackle, right? That's what a lot of people are going to now. It's really cutting you down. What do you want? Do you want a ruined knee or a concussion? Sometimes I think that's where it's going down. And now you can't hit down too low, because they're going to say that's a penalty too, because you can't hit the quarterbacks low, right? Is that right? I don't even know anymore.”