Leistikow: Can 2016 Iowa develop an elite defense?

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Much of Iowa’s pre-2016 football excitement has revolved around the offense, and that’s OK considering the program has a potentially elite, once-in-a-Hawkeye-generation quarterback in C.J. Beathard.

But to fulfill really big dreams, like hoisting the Amos Alonzo Stagg Trophy on the night of Dec. 3 at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, will require an affirmative answer to this question:

Can Iowa deliver a championship-level defense?

“We always want to be ranked the No. 1 defense in the country,” star cornerback Desmond King says, “and that’s what we’re going to try (to do) this year.”

A pie-in-the-sky goal, probably. But something close to it -- say, top-10 nationally -- combined with an expected above-average offense could give the Hawkeyes a real shot at their first Big Ten Conference title in 12 years.

Historically under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have had championship-level defenses before, but some of their best units weren’t coupled with consistently good offenses.

A few years ago, Parker Hesse (40) and Josey Jewell (43) were high school rivals in Northeast Iowa, but now the college teammates are trying to get the Hawkeye defense to take a step toward the program's 2008-10 levels.

The underrated 2003 defense (with senior Bob Sanders) allowed 16.2 points a game but ran into a gauntlet of a schedule and was adjusting to offensive life after Brad Banks.

The 2008 defense may rival 2009’s as the Hawkeyes’ best in the Ferentz era – allowing 13.0 points and 291.3 yards a game – but early-season quarterback uncertainty slowed that team’s ascent.

Current sophomore defensive end Parker Hesse grew up in Waukon a Hawkeyes fan. He remembers the Norm Parker-era elite defenses, especially those from 2008 to 2010 that each fell short in their own way of a Big Ten championship (2009: Ricky Stanzi injury; 2010: Wisconsin fake punt).

Hesse was watching 2010 film recently and noticed Mike Daniels in a Hawkeye uniform. He also noticed something else about the high-motor Daniels, who recently signed a four-year, $42 million contract with the Green Bay Packers to become one of the NFL’s highest-paid 3-4 defensive ends.

“And he was our fifth guy,” Hesse marvels, a nod to the front four from that defense (that allowed 17.0 points per game) of Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug, Christian Ballard and Broderick Binns. “Obviously as far as sheer talent … that’s premium, about as good as it gets in college football.

“But the guys we have in the room right now, we’ve got guys with a lot of pride, a lot of character, and we take it serious. We show up every day, and that’s something we always try to focus on.”

Translation: This 2016 group doesn’t have the 2008-10 talent, but there’s potential.

Remember, fifth-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker had things humming beyond the halfway point of the 2015 season.

During an 8-0 start, Iowa’s defense recorded 24 sacks while allowing just one rushing touchdown, 4.4 yards a play a 15.2 points a game.

During the 4-2 finish, Iowa recorded six sacks and allowed 10 rushing TDs, 5.7 yards a play and 27.2 points a game.

A staggering decline.

What happened?

Fatigue happened. Maybe the Hawkeyes were cursed by the blessing of 10 of 11 starters staying mostly healthy. And because so many games were undecided until the final minutes, the first-stringers wound up playing too many snaps.

A major case in point: The interior defensive line. Nathan Bazata and Jaleel Johnson’s effectiveness diminished amid a combination of tired legs and the injury loss of top pass-rusher Drew Ott.

“I just felt like I wasn’t moving very fast -- probably the last four or five games, I would say,” now-junior Bazata says. “Which is not good.”

It wasn’t just the defensive tackles. Already without Ott entering the Rose Bowl, three more starters -- defensive end Nate Meier, outside linebacker Ben Niemann and free safety Jordan Lomax -- were banged-up but tried to play through it.

The elite defense that was there to start 2015, but unraveled into average at the end.

The easier-said-than-done fatigue solution: Finding depth, and using it.

Let’s go back to the tackles. Word is that Faith Ekakitie has taken a big step forward as the third defensive tackle, and the fifth-year senior will be a regular in a rotation that true freshman Cedrick Lattimore also might join.

“The fresher the guys, the longer they’re going to play,” Bazata said. “That’s kind of what we’re trying to emphasize right now. Last year, both of us inside kind of wore down. Now we have at least three guys that we can rotate, if not four.

“Getting three guys rotating in there, it’s a big relief, when you’re actually getting fresh.”

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz (left) praised defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie for the way he responded to a potentially charged situation with Iowa City police officers, and the way he explained himself on social media.

If Ekakitie is the key to the D-line, Bo Bower might be the key at linebacker. He can play all three spots, which would enable breathers for Niemann and Josey Jewell and the first extended action for Aaron Mends.

In the secondary, coaches are justifiably high on third cornerback Josh Jackson. Rotate him in with King and Greg Mabin, and give top safety backup Anthony Gair some chances to spell Miles Taylor and Brandon Snyder.

It’s not all on the defense and depth, though.

The offense can help.

“Any time you can develop more depth, that’s a good thing,” Ferentz says in addressing the fatigue solution. “Certainly offensively, if we can up our time of possession a little more (it was 31:38 a year ago), that’s a good thing as well.”

Parker thinks a defense that can allow 17 to 18 points per game can rank in the top 15-20 nationally (Iowa’s 20.4 a year ago ranked 19th in FBS).

“We’ve got to be better in giving up points, (and) I think big plays,” Phil Parker says. “We gave up 63 big plays last year, and by my standards I don’t think that’s a really good number.”

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker speaks to reporters during media day at the Kenyon Football Practice Facility on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016.

With faster-paced offenses these days, points-per-game historically is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

But there’s one number that stands the test of time and is almost always correlated with wins: Turnover margin.

Ferentz’s top two teams in that category (2002, plus-15; 2004, plus-13) are his two Big Ten champions.

So yes, the offense gets more buzz -- and needs to protect the ball, too.

But as the early part of this season unfolds, I’ll be keeping a close eye on who’s rotating into the lineup. If I see a defense successfully building reliable depth, Iowa might be able to extend pseudo-fresh legs into a 13th and 14th game.

Maybe, just maybe, at a championship level.

“It’s probably going to take more focus from the guys on the field, just doing the little things, maintaining their recovery as the season goes on,” Hesse says, “so we can be just as sharp toward the end of the year as when it starts.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.