Leistikow: How Iowa can make a 3-4 defensive look work, and why coaches are trying it

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — After Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace finished his portion of Tuesday’s spring-football news conference, he walked toward a door leading to his office. But before leaving the room, he turned and playfully shouted back to the dozen or so gathered reporters.

“You guys enjoy the 3-4! I know you’ll write about it.”

It was a humorous last word, because Wallace knows how these things have gone between the media and Hawkeye coaches in the Kirk Ferentz era. It’s an annual tradition that reporters ask about a possible switch from Iowa's long-standing 4-3 base defense (with four down linemen and three linebackers) to a 3-4 (three linemen with their hand on the ground). The 3-4 has been adopted in recent years by Big Ten West rivals Wisconsin and Nebraska.

It’s another annual tradition that Ferentz and his top defensive assistants have answered the question with a hard pass.

But in 2018, the needle of defensive change moved.

A mid-season transition to a 4-2-5 base defense (with two linebackers and five defensive backs) offered confidence that another tweak could work in 2019.

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In the 4-2-5, in which safety Geno Stone entered the starting lineup in place of outside linebacker Nick Niemann, takeaways shot up. Iowa intercepted two balls in four games before the switch; 18 in nine games after it. While scoring defense slipped (going from 13.0 points allowed per game with the 4-3 to 19.9 with the 4-2-5), coaches viewed the change as a success.

“It was good for us,” Wallace said, affirming that the 4-2-5 is part of Iowa’s defensive DNA. “We’re going to continue to use it.”

And up next: Perhaps a touch of 3-4.

Tuesday’s biggest personnel news, the transition of linebacker Amani Jones to defensive end (or "edge defender"), fostered excitement from both Wallace and defensive line coach Kelvin Bell that a 3-4 look could work at Iowa.

The important word in that sentence? Could.

Spring practices give coaches the best chunk of the calendar to experiment. The spring of 2018 was where the 4-2-5 concept got its first work. But coaches weren't comfortable implementing it until the 28-17 home loss to Wisconsin — in which Niemann was beaten for the go-ahead touchdown by wide receiver A.J. Taylor with 57 seconds remaining — exposed the 4-3.

The key to implementing immediate change was Hooker, who was talented and smart enough to man Iowa's new "cash" position. The 4-3, the staple of Norm Parker’s defenses starting in Year 1 of the Ferentz era in 1999, had officially given way to the 4-2-5 in Year 20.

The time and personnel was right for a change.

The time feels right again for more.

“For the longest time, we were stuck in that 4-3, and this is how it looks and this is who (the players) are,” said Wallace, who doubles as Iowa’s assistant defensive coordinator under Phil Parker. “And now we’re finding where a decision that we made last year made it a little bit easier to make a decision right now with Amani Jones.”

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Jones, at 5-foot-11 and 242-pounds, is a bowling ball of hard-tackling energy. But there's a reason teams don't deploy 242-pound linemen with their hand on the ground; they'll get mauled by 320-pound tackles. If Jones (or someone else, like Niemann or Kristian Welch) takes the place of a traditional defensive end, he'll still be in a typical two-point linebacker stance — except he'll be at the line of scrimmage. Hence, the 3-4 look — which could even become a 3-3-5.

(Is this Iowa?)

As Hooker was the right guy to trigger change in 2018, Jones could be that guy to add an extra layer of complexity in 2019. Good for the coaches to try something bold; to try to gain what they call an Iowa edge.

Here's an example what change might look like.

"We may just want to rush three and drop eight,” Bell explained. “(Jones) gives us that flexibility. Now we have a second-level defender that understands crossing routes and matching guys out of the backfield, instead of that fourth rusher.”

Bell added this tantalizing caveat.

“He’s shown the ability in the first four practices,” Bell said, “(that) he’s pretty good at rushing the passer, too.”

This experiment might flop. But Wallace and Bell seem confident it'll work, that the 3-4 looks can be folded into Iowa’s traditional 4-3 concepts.

“It’s still defense,” Bell said, “(filling) gaps, and things of that nature.”

Added Wallace: “There’s a way schematically that we’ve done things for 21 years that you don’t want to allow it to fray.”

The way Iowa coaches are thinking about this 3-4 look is to implement it against heavier packages, which seems counter-intuitive — to pull a defensive end for a linebacker. But if that linebacker can play better against the run while being able to defend the short passing game ... well, that's the idea.

Personnel-wise, it makes sense because linebacker is far deeper than defensive line, with all four 2018 starters having departed.

Another bonus if the 3-4 becomes viable: Hawkeye opponents will have to spend valuable practice time preparing for it — and maybe arrive on Saturdays not knowing which defensive approach Iowa has cooked up.

We know from watching Iowa’s offense largely struggle over the last five years against Wisconsin’s 3-4 that it can be an effective defense when done well.

Spring is the time to get it right.

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.