Leistikow: New, young players set for key roles for Hawkeyes' 2018 defense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There are a lot of new names popping up as possible contributors — perhaps in a big way — for Phil Parker’s defense as Iowa’s football season opener rapidly approaches.
Julius Brents … the true freshman has already risen to become the team’s No. 3 cornerback.
Djimon Colbert … the redshirt freshman is a serious contender to unseat listed starter Kristian Welch at weakside linebacker.
Barrington Wade … the redshirt sophomore’s ascent at outside linebacker has Iowa dabbling with Nick Niemann moving from outside to weakside in practice, too, alongside middle linebacker Amani Jones.
Riley Moss … the true freshman from Ankeny has impressed coaches as a corner, safety and special-teamer.
Notice a theme here?
Not one of those four has played a snap of college football.
And all four reside in the back seven of the Hawkeye defense.
It’s that back seven that is a primary concern as Iowa's Sept. 1 matchup against Northern Illinois draws near. Parker, in his seventh year as defensive coordinator, has little choice but to count on inexperienced players to provide an immediate impact.
Even in Year 20 as a part of Kirk Ferentz’s staff, Parker’s laid-back and almost quiet approach makes him difficult to read.
But his comments Tuesday, as Iowa’s three coordinators were made available for interviews following practice, seemed to be calming, and perhaps even confident.
His challenge: to maintain Iowa’s place as a top-20 defense nationally.
“I think the culture’s been good with guys. I think they’re together," Parker said. "I’m just looking for guys to be all on the same page. And don’t give up big plays by mental errors. If we can eliminate the big play, eliminate the mental errors, I think we have a chance.”
So you're telling me there's a chance ...
Perhaps the most important statistic the Iowa staff looks at? Scoring defense.
And in the past three years, the Hawkeyes have done well in that department — ranking 19th in the FBS in 2015 (20.4 points allowed per game), 13th in 2016 (18.8) and 17th in 2017 (19.9).
But Parker touched on the stat he feels is the biggest barometer for Iowa having a good defense or a bad one.
Limiting big plays.
Parker said his research shows that when Iowa allows two or fewer explosive plays (25-plus yards) in a game, the Hawkeyes' defensive average is 13 points a game.
“If you go over that,” Parker added, “we’re giving up 28, 30 points a game.”
That’s more like 2014 ("HawkSlayer" Bowl included) all over again.
The good news: Iowa’s defensive line should be deep enough and talented enough to put pressure on the opposing offense without blitzing.
“I think that’s the strong part of our defense right now,” Parker noted Tuesday.
But about the back seven ...
How do you teach new guys to prevent big plays without making them too scared to make a mistake?
That’s the needle Parker needs to thread.
He will count on three new starting linebackers and can only lean on five combined career starts from listed No. 1 cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia.
Young guys are going to get fooled in 2018. They’re going to be out of position at times.
Returning safeties Amani Hooker and Jake Gervase will have to cover a lot of ground to keep those big-chunk plays to a minimum. (Remember, Iowa needs two or fewer out of about 70 snaps in a game.)
“It’s hard, but you’ve got enough older guys around that know the (defense). They can get them in the right call,” Parker said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit of time, but eventually they have to get it.”
Brents — who would have been in line for No. 1 reps Tuesday with Ojemudia out (just “resting,” per Parker) — sure sounds like a guy who's getting it.
A rangy, 6-foot-2, 180-pound product of Indianapolis, Brents has been one of the fastest risers in fall camp. (Josh Turner, a redshirt freshman from Florida, rounds out Parker's top four at corner.)
“He’s been able to pick up what we’re doing, scheme-wise,” Parker said of Brents.
Stuff like playing the correct coverage, reading receiver routes, knowing where your help is. True freshman corners have risen quickly under Parker's watch (Desmond King the most prominent example).
“He’s done a good job of understanding where he has to be and what he has to do,” Parker said. “And that’s the biggest thing about when we take these freshmen … it’s like a cram (session) for the first two weeks of camp. And how much can they learn? If they can learn at a rapid rate, then they have a chance to help us out.”
Overlooked on Iowa’s defense last year was that the Hawkeyes led FBS with 21 interceptions (all-American Josh Jackson had eight) and ranked sixth in red-zone defense (allowing a touchdown on only 45 percent, 18 of 40, of opponent possessions inside Iowa’s 20).
Duplicating those numbers will be a tough ask. And that Iowa team was still "only" 8-5 — a record Iowa players this offseason have termed "average."
Based on the revolving and emerging personnel during fall camp, Parker is continuing to search for a top-20 national combination. He doesn't want a rotation at weak-side linebacker, for example, but he didn't rule one out in Week 1, either.
And that's OK. The Hawkeyes have to sift through a lot of new names. They need to get their best pieces in the best places for the opener while also positioning themselves for the best chance to win a Big Ten West championship in the next two years.
Iowa's offense should be improved in 2018, but trying to win shootouts rarely has been a reliable approach under Ferentz (again, see 2014).
That means there's a lot riding on this defense — rookies included — to come through.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.