Leistikow's 8 Outback Bowl thoughts: What's up Phil Parker's sleeve for Mississippi State?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — In his 20 years as an assistant football coach at Iowa, Phil Parker has gained a reputation of being — shall we say — feisty during practices.

So we can only imagine the defensive coordinator’s reaction to learning from the head coach that one of his up-and-coming defensive tackles was being switched to offense.

It was a few weeks ago that Kirk Ferentz decided that freshman Tyler Linderbaum would become a future center for the Hawkeyes. The Solon native has been practicing there for three weeks and already turning heads.

In this photo supplied by the University of Iowa, defensive end Anthony Nelson (98) pursues a scout-team running back.  For more photos from Friday's practice, visit

“That’s one thing about the head coach being an offensive guy,” Parker said to chuckles from assembled media following Friday’s pre-Outback Bowl practice at the University of Tampa. “I’ll just stay in my lane.”

From feisty to funny, Parker was on a roll Friday — especially when another one of his buttons was pushed: RPOs.

The run-pass option craze in football has become an annoyance to defensive coaches. In college, offensive linemen can legally be up to three yards downfield on passing plays — and it’s a real gray area, as teams continually push the limits to five or six yards because they know officials won't throw a flag.

“That’s where we are with today’s football, you know?” Parker said. “Run linemen downfield, throw the ball.”

The RPO game is something No. 18 Mississippi State, Iowa’s opponent Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium, heavily deploys. Running quarterback Nick Fitzgerald leads the Bulldogs’ attack. He's rushed for 1,018 yards and thrown for 1,615.

“The RPO stuff they do is good stuff. It’s entertaining for the fans,” Parker said dryly, not at all digging at Mississippi State — just the direction of football. “It’s good for advertisements. It’s good for people watching TV (to) keep them interested.”

(Now there's some feisty Phil.)

Rest assured, though, Parker has a specific defensive game plan for the Bulldogs. 

If Iowa’s going to pull the upset Tuesday — the Hawkeyes are 7-point underdogs — it’ll probably require a Phil Parker Special.

Parker’s been known to turn the screws on run-heavy teams, especially this season, with shutouts of Maryland and Illinois.

This, of course, is a different animal. But junior defensive end Anthony Nelson believes in his coordinator’s savvy ways.

“He enjoys crafting up a plan for every team,” Nelson said. “He gets real excited about that. It’s fun to be in meetings when he’s talking about it.”

Nelson called his upcoming NFL Draft decision an “afterthought.”

That’s no surprise. Nelson is “just thinking about this team, and what we can do to come out on top” despite getting his feedback about a week ago from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee.

No news here. But of the three remaining Hawkeyes with stay-or-go decisions (T.J. Hockenson and Amani Hooker being the others), I think Nelson is the most likely to stay.

If he does, that’ll make Parker feel better about his 2019 defensive line. A tandem of Nelson and A.J. Epenesa as starting defensive ends would be quite the starting point.

Whenever Hooker goes pro, Parker is already grooming his replacement.

Hooker has helped change how Iowa plays defense in his “star” position — essentially a slot cornerback who can also handle run support like a linebacker. Nobody on this roster is near Hooker's level yet, but Parker said junior cornerback Michael Ojemudia and true freshman D.J. Johnson have been working in that role.

Johnson is the eye-opener there. One of Iowa’s top recruits from the 2018 class, Johnson — an Indianapolis native — is obviously making a strong impression. He was with the second-team defense during the media’s 30-minute look at practice Friday.

“He’s been doing a really good job in there,” Parker said. “OJ’s been doing a good job. We’re really trying to … have a lot of guys in there, working at that position.”

Speaking of young defensive backs, here’s another name to know.

Free safety Jake Gervase is the only senior in Iowa’s defensive backfield. Based on Parker’s comments Friday, it seems freshman Kaevon Merriweather is trending nicely toward becoming one of Iowa’s two starting safeties in 2019.

There’s a long way to go, of course, but it would not be a stretch to think that Geno Stone could slide to free safety — the quarterback of the back end — and the new person (maybe Merriweather) going to strong safety when Iowa uses its 4-2-5 defense.

“He’s a really young football player; in high school, he was more of a basketball player,” Parker said. “His skill set is really getting better every day. He’s still got to learn how to practice and all that, but I’m really encouraged to see what he’s done.”

We finally have more information about Julius Brents' curious disappearance.

The true freshman was playing well in his five starts, from the Minnesota game through Purdue. But then, he vanished from Iowa’s defense down the stretch.

Parker revealed Friday that Brents suffered a few minor injuries and that, combined with improved health from Ojemudia and Matt Hankins, put Brents on the bench.

"He didn’t really get benched," Parker said, "he just got phased out with a little (injury) here or there."

It’ll be a good competition with those three, Riley Moss and D.J. Johnson in spring practice. Even with the departures of Trey Creamer and Josh Turners, Iowa’s DB room is healthy.

While no offensive coaches spoke Friday, there was a notable (concerning?) development on that side of the ball.

Iowa’s starting offensive line in the open portion of practice did not include regular right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Instead, Levi Paulsen was lined up on the right side with the usual four — Alaric Jackson, Ross Reynolds, Keegan Render and Cole Banwart — to his left.

What made it more curious was the Wirfs didn't appear injured. He lined up as the second-team right tackle instead. It’s hard to imagine Iowa demoting perhaps its best pass protector, a nimble 320-pounder, going into a game against one of the nation’s best defensive lines.

Kirk Ferentz will meet the media one more time Saturday, and he’ll likely be asked about Wirfs’ status.

Everyone expects this Outback Bowl to be a low-scoring game.

That includes Iowa’s specialists.

“It might be one of those 10-6 games,” senior placekicker Miguel Recinos said. “Or 12-10.”

Recinos would be just fine if he ended his career with back-to-back game-winning field goals. But a concerning point of special-teams emphasis for Iowa is the punting game.

In Iowa’s final five games, Colten Rastetter averaged 36.2 yards on 25 punts. None of them traveled more than 44 yards. In Iowa’s first seven games, Rastetter averaged 43.6 per punt.

“In a way, I got in a slump,” Rastetter said. “But people were starting to game plan for me and took me out of my rhythm.”

The junior mentioned that the ball is traveling better here in hotter temperatures. It should be around 80 degrees for Tuesday’s game. They’re going to need him to be good in a game that could be decided by field position.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Rastetter said. “I don’t like punting in the cold.”

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.