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Iowa free safety Jake Gervase explains how the defense changed once Amani Hooker transitioned to outside linebacker before Week 5 against Minnesota. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa has long been known for playing fundamentally sound, consistent defense. That’s a compliment, sure, but it short-changes — maybe to its advantage — that this has also become a big-play defense under seventh-year coordinator Phil Parker.

Consider this: It’s possible that the Hawkeyes could lead the country in interceptions for a second straight season.

They had an FBS-best 21 last fall, with all-American Josh Jackson’s eight leading the way. This year, they’ve steadily racked up 17 interceptions — which is tied for second in FBS, one behind Maryland's 18. 

Free safety Jake Gervase grinned at the prospect of being back-to-back interception national champs.

“Someone said something about that this week," said Gervase, who has three of those Hawkeye interceptions. "We’re not going to change anything we’re doing, but it’d be nice to be able to get that."

Iowa's combined 38 interceptions over the past two seasons is the highest total in the country (Boston College’s 35 are next, followed by 32 each from Alabama and Miami of Florida) and far exceed the next-best total in the Big Ten Conference (Wisconsin, 30),

Go ahead and call these guys the Ball Hawks.

It’s been a team effort this season. Seven Hawkeyes have thefts, led by Geno Stone and Amani Hooker, with four apiece.

Why is that significant? Iowa has 15 of its 17 interceptions since Week 5, when Parker changed his defense to move Hooker — a talented strong safety — into the starting role at outside linebacker, while inserting Stone at strong safety.

That alignment has essentially given the Hawkeyes five defensive backs in their traditional base 4-3 defense. And that’ll again be the plan in Friday’s 11 a.m. contest against Nebraska (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten), which runs spread formations under first-year coach Scott Frost.

“It gives us a chance to keep our two-high shell (defense)," Gervase explained. "We don’t have to put a safety in the box near as much, because we can put Hooker man-to-man a little more than we could an outside backer, which gives us a better chance to eliminate big plays in the run game.”

There is, as you might imagine, a friendly competition among the defensive backs for the interception title. And it's impressive that Hooker tied for the lead, considering he's a linebacker now.

“I think it’d be a scary stat how many picks he’d have if he was playing safety," Gervase said. "... He’s helping our defense, but statistically he’s not getting as many picks or tackles as he would at that safety position. He’s done a great job of accepting that role, putting the team first.”

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is prepping his 7-4 Hawkeyes for 4-7 Nebraska. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

This arrangement doesn't sound like a one-year thing, either. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said the use of five defensive backs in the base defense going forward will be an out-of-season discussion, but it's something the staff has embraced, given the growing number of spread offenses Iowa faces annually. (Wisconsin would be the only exception in the Big Ten West.)

"It's already been kind of kicked around (in meetings). We look at recruiting needs and that type of deal," Ferentz said. "But I think it's just probably a sign of the times, with the kinds of offenses that we're facing week in and week out."

Look for a heated December derby at cornerback. The Hawkeyes have interchanged four cornerbacks this season — Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia have six starts each; Julius Brents and Riley Moss have five — and recently have given true freshman D.J. Johnson a stronger look.

Hankins and Ojemudia are the listed starters for Friday, but Ferentz sees a chance for some good pre-bowl competition in the secondary.

"Hopefully it'll be (a) better competition, because they have been on the game field," Ferentz said. "Once you've been on the field, you have a little better feel for what it takes, what the tempo is and just how hard it is."

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Nate Stanley: 'It'd be huge to send these seniors out on a good note' Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

The absence of Brady Ross has probably been an under-told story. But now the Hawkeyes may finally be welcoming back their starting fullback.

Ferentz said Tuesday that Ross would practice for the first time Wednesday since he suffered a high-ankle sprain Oct. 13 against Indiana. There’s a chance Ross could play "some snaps" against Nebraska, Ferentz added.

“It’s not going to make national news to get a fullback back in the lineup,” Ferentz quipped. “But as you know, he means so much more to our football team.”

Iowa’s run game had one of its best days against Indiana, but struggled to find footing since — especially in a hard-nosed home loss to Northwestern. Ross, a junior, had been a gameday captain as a core special-teamer, too, before his injury.

“He’s one of our strongest team leaders. That position generates, I think, toughness and energy,” Ferentz said. “And Brady personifies what you would hope a fullback would be. Having him back in uniform would be helpful to our team and a real boost.”

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Iowa tight end Noah Fant discusses the complementary relationship with Mackey Award finalist T.J. Hockenson, discusses NFL Draft future. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Despite a 7-4 record, the Hawkeyes are still held in high regard nationally. Phil Steele compiles a weekly top 25 "Vegas power ratings" poll that factors in how sportsbooks see college teams. This takes wins and losses out of the equation, and just evaluates the strength of a team.

Iowa is No. 17 in that poll, up four spots after a 63-0 pasting of Illinois.

No wonder the Hawkeyes are 10-point favorites against the Cornhuskers.

High praise has been a consistent theme from opposing coaches, too. Remember when Purdue’s Jeff Brohm said Iowa was a better team than Michigan State? On Tuesday, Nebraska’s Scott Frost raved about what he’s seen from the Hawkeyes on film.

“Really, watching their games, their record should probably be better than it is,” Frost said. “… They’ve got a defense that — statistically and watching them — is about as good as there is out there.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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