Iowa takeaways: A safety playing linebacker, Josh Jackson's NFL decision, Ferentz chasing the Badgers

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s no secret that the Iowa football team is going to have to break in three new starting linebackers next season.

But could the answer to one spot actually be a third safety instead?

Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker raised that possibility Monday at a news conference before the team’s Dec. 27 Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Boston College.

“I think there’s opportunities that we might be able to put in a skill guy there at times,” Parker said of the team’s traditional outside linebacker spot, especially against teams that use three wide receivers. “It’d be a safety type of guy. It could be Amani Hooker if we wanted to — a down safety that, basically, you’re playing man-to-man at times and run with the flat. It’s not really a hard position.”

Amani Hooker (27) celebrated after this interception return for a touchdown against Ohio State. But the Hawkeye safety also could be valuable as an outside linebacker next season, defensive coordinator Phil Parker hinted Monday.

Hooker is a 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore who made 44 tackles in nine games this season. Using him at linebacker would allow Parker to also play Brandon Snyder and Jake Gervase or Geno Stone at the safeties.

That would be a more experienced group than what Iowa would otherwise have at linebacker. The Hawkeyes are going to lose three veteran seniors in Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann.

Parker said starting to identify next season’s linebackers has been a focal point of the 10 practices the team has had this month, preparing for its bowl game. Junior Aaron Mends and sophomore Kristian Welch are two options for the inside spots. Parker said sophomore Amani Jones has also been making a strong case for playing time in recent practices.

At the outside spot, it could be redshirt freshmen Nick Niemann or Barrington Wade stepping up, Parker said. Nick Niemann is actually faster than Ben, his older brother, Parker said.

Or it could be a safety like Hooker.

Parker anticipates the linebacker competition to last through August camp. His first order of business is to find a new man in the middle, where Jewell leaves an all-American legacy. That spot is responsible for calling out formations and assignments.

“You need to make sure they can make those decisions, and the louder they are, the more confident they are,” Parker said. “(If) they’re undecided a little bit, sometimes that makes them a little bit slower football players.”

Should Jackson stay or go?

Junior cornerback Josh Jackson is Iowa’s other all-American, and Parker said he has no idea whether he’ll get his star back for one final season. Jackson has been listed as a first-round NFL Draft pick by many prognosticators.

“We joked around a little bit about it. It’s definitely a decision he’s going to have to make with his family,” Parker said.

“If he chooses to go, I’m happy for him. I wish him the best of luck. If he stays, he’ll probably be our best recruit on the back end.”

Two years ago, all-American cornerback Desmond King decided to come back for a senior season at Iowa. He is starring for the Los Angeles Chargers this year, but slipped to the fifth round of last year’s draft. King was in town to watch as Jackson intercepted three passes in the Hawkeyes’ home upset of Ohio State last month.

“Desmond was a different story. He doesn’t have the same dimensions and the skill set that maybe Josh has,” Parker said. “But Desmond has a lot more football instincts than maybe Josh does.”

Parker said he hasn’t been trying to sway Jackson.

“One thing about college football, it’s more family life,” Parker said. “When you start going into the NFL, it’s all about a business. So he has to look at that.”

Ferentz is bullish on Badgers

Wisconsin football was mentioned a few times in a 23-minute press conference with Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who thinks the Badgers (ranked No. 6 in the final College Football Playoff rankings) didn’t get enough credit for their 12-1 season.

“If you’re in the western half of our conference, you’re chasing Wisconsin,” Ferentz said. “I know this: If you want to win a Big Ten championship, the road goes through Madison. I think we all saw that this year.”

Ferentz, of course, was partly referring to the Hawkeyes’ 38-14 loss at Wisconsin on Nov. 11, in which Iowa gained just 66 total yards (the fewest ever allowed by Wisconsin to a Big Ten foe) and didn’t score an offensive point.

Ferentz said he was clued into the national disrespect many in Big Ten country felt Wisconsin received while watching the broadcast of the Badgers’ 31-0 rout of rival Minnesota to end the regular season Nov. 25.

“Somehow, the announcers are so bored with how good Wisconsin is, they spent 10 minutes talking about the other team’s head coach (P.J. Fleck). And those guys are ahead by five touchdowns or whatever it was,” Ferentz said. “Wisconsin’s a really good football team that’s not real exciting because they’re just really good at what they do.”

Eight isn't enough?

Iowa was able to rotate eight defensive linemen into games this year to keep those players fresh. That was two more than Parker felt comfortable using for most of 2016. And two fewer than he wants, he said.

“I’d like to get to 10 to 12. Alabama probably has at least 12 guys that they rotate in, so that’s lucky for them,” Parker said.

“Our goal is always to have at least eight going in and, hopefully, 10. We’d like to travel 10 — I think that’s a really good number.”

Of Iowa’s top eight defensive linemen this season, only Nathan Bazata will exhaust his eligibility. That makes for a crowded position group next season, and Parker embraced that concept. He said high-motor freshman A.J. Epenesa will likely stay at end after junior Matt Nelson moved inside this season.

“You never have enough ends,” Parker said. “And when you have good defensive linemen, then obviously the linebackers can play a lot faster.”

Hooker back in action

Hooker has been practicing and looks as if he’ll be able to play in the Pinstripe Bowl, Parker said. He missed Iowa’s final three regular-season games with a leg injury.

“I thought he probably could have played toward the end there,” Parker said.

Parker didn’t address the status of senior strong safety Miles Taylor, who is listed ahead of Hooker on the depth chart but also has been dealing with a leg injury.

As for true freshman Matt Hankins, it appears he’s still the guy at right cornerback. Hankins was inserted at that spot in the second half of the Hawkeyes’ Nov. 18 loss to Purdue after Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia were repeatedly picked on by the Boilermakers.

“I thought there was an opportunity to get him some playing time, and I thought he stepped in and did a good job,” Parker said. “Obviously, I’d love to … get us out of some of those situations that we were in, but I thought it was time to make a move.”

That immediately begs the question — could Hankins be the next King or Jackson?

Parker wasn’t ready to take the bait.

“I think he has the ability to do that,” he said. “One thing about football players nowadays with social media and everything — to keep them grounded, keep them hungry — we’ve got to do a good job with that, and that’s my job.

“If I see you do something once, then I expect that. And once you’ve done it, you’ve got to keep on going and see how much better you can get.”

Register columnist Chad Leistikow contributed to this story.