Iowa football's championship checklist, Part 2: The defense
[Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series.]
If you’ve followed Iowa football for a long time, there are three words you’ve no doubt seen associated with the Hawkeyes’ style of defense.
Bend, don’t break.
And although minimizing big plays is a central element to Phil Parker’s defense, you don’t hear that description as much anymore. Over the past few seasons, the Hawkeyes have become known for sacks and turnovers while still maintaining the fundamental principles of a top-20 national defense.
There’s no doubt that with Iowa football in 2019, the defense still leads the way.
As Iowa’s first fall-camp practice launches Friday, Part 2 of 3 in a “championship checklist” series focuses on the star pupil of the program.
Part 1, in case you missed it, was about the coaches and special teams. Part 3, about the offense, will arrive later this week.
Let's break it down. (*—denotes preseason depth-chart starters in a 4-2-5 scheme)
Scholarship players (9): A.J. Epenesa* (6-6, 280, Jr.), Chauncey Golston* (6-5, 270, RS Jr.), Amani Jones (5-11, 244, Sr.), Jake Karchinski (6-4, 253, Fr.), Logan Lee (6-5, 251, Fr.), Taajhir McCall (6-3, 231, Fr.), Chris Reames (6-7, 230, Fr.), Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 270, RS Jr.), John Waggoner (6-5, 270, RS Fr.).
What’s to like: Iowa’s 35 sacks last season was the program’s highest total since 2002, and 56% of them were credited to players who return — with Epenesa’s 10½ sacks, of course, blazing the trail to the quarterback. The Hawkeyes may never have another defensive end with Epenesa's power and explosiveness, so it’s worth enjoying every snap of him in a Hawkeye uniform. The addition of Jones to the defensive-end group adds an element of situational explosiveness. VanValkenburg, a grad transfer with two years of eligibility, was a subtly key acquisition that should allow this group to endure the regular-season grind.
What needs work: The No. 1 goal of Iowa's defense is to stop the run, and departed Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse excelled in that role as ends. This is one of Iowa’s strongest position groups, but their pass-rushing prowess will be minimized if opponents are facing too many third-and-2s and not enough third-and-9s.
Looking ahead: Lee has the makings of a future star, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get at least a four-game freshman look this fall. Walk-on Joe Evans has gotten love, too, as a potential edge contributor. Iowa has secured five defensive-end commitments in its 2020 class, a signal of the urgency at back-filling this position. This is a big year for Kelvin Bell and Jay Niemann to develop depth, figuring Epenesa will be a first-round NFL Draft pick in about nine months.
Scholarship players (5): Cedrick Lattimore* (6-3, 295, Sr.), Brady Reiff* (6-3, 277, RS Sr.),Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 309, RS Soph.), Austin Schulte (6-4, 287, RS Jr.), Noah Shannon (6-0, 294, RS Fr.).
What’s to like: Although neither Lattimore nor Reiff started a game in 2018, they did comprise the center of a second unit that was sometimes more effective than the first. Schulte was a pleasant surprise of the spring. Finally healthy, he could become a valuable rotational piece like Sam Brincks was in 2018.
What needs work: This is one of Iowa’s thinnest position groups. And the grunt work asked of defensive tackles (who often take on two linemen in an effort to free up linebackers) makes this the team’s most thankless position … not to mention the most exhausting and susceptible to injury.
Looking ahead: Whether this position group becomes a 2019 strength might hinge on how good the much-hyped Nixon can be. Council Bluffs Lewis Central’s Logan Jones might be the top player in Iowa’s 2020 class, a much-needed win at Iowa’s toughest-to-recruit defensive position. Since Mike Daniels in 2012, Iowa has had only two defensive tackles (Carl Davis, Jaleel Johnson) taken in seven NFL Drafts, and it's hard to see who's next.
Scholarship players (11): Djimon Colbert* (6-1, 235, RS Soph.), Kristian Welch* (6-3, 239, Sr.), Seth Benson (6-0, 227, RS Fr.), Jack Campbell (6-4, 218, Fr.), Dillon Doyle (6-3, 235, RS Fr.), Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 220, Fr.), Yahweh Jeudy (6-0, 201, Fr.), Logan Klemp (6-2, 228, RS Fr.), Jayden McDonald (6-0, 235, RS Fr.), Nick Niemann (6-4, 235, RS Jr.), Barrington Wade (6-1, 236, RS Jr.).
What’s to like: With Iowa down to two starting linebacker spots in a 4-2-5 base, a fierce competition should produce upgrades over last year’s so-so play. I’m bullish on the top four (Welch/Doyle at middle, Colbert/Niemann at weak-side). Seth Wallace’s linebackers will comprise the core of Iowa’s all-important special-teams units, too.
What needs work: The depth is encouraging, but Iowa could use a menacing, disruptive star like Josey Jewell was for several years.
Looking ahead: There are a lot of promising freshmen — Benson, Campbell, Doyle, Jacobs and McDonald, among them — that suggest that linebacker could be a Hawkeye strength for years to come. The fact that Iowa is taking just one linebacker in its 2020 class is an indicator that the position is well-stocked.
Scholarship players (9): Matt Hankins* (6-0, 185, Jr.), D.J. Johnson* (5-10, 183, RS Fr.), Michael Ojemudia* (6-1, 200, RS Sr.), Dane Belton (6-1, 190, Fr.), Julius Brents (6-3, 203, Soph.), Jermari Harris (6-1, 177, Fr.), Daraun McKinney (5-10, 185, Fr.), Riley Moss (6-1, 191, Soph.), Terry Roberts (5-10, 176, RS Fr.).
What’s to like: Iowa’s move to a 4-2-5 coincides with the program having acquired a slew of terrific talent in the defensive backfield, and it looks to build on the FBS-best 41 interceptions it's collected over the past two seasons. Johnson is the leader to start at Iowa’s cash (aka Amani Hooker) position, and four more cornerbacks with starting experience return. Hankins seems to be best positioned to be Iowa’s next lock-down corner. Depth creates competition, and Phil Parker isn’t afraid to throw true freshmen into the fire — which should make fall camp highly competitive.
What needs work: Replacing Hooker, the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year, is a big challenge. Johnson won’t be as physical as Hooker was, so textbook tackling on the edges is going to be something to watch.
Looking ahead: Iowa has racked up three cornerback commitments in its 2020 class, signaling the 4-2-5 is here to stay. Belton is one to watch at the cash position, and McKinney could be a return-game asset. With Hankins and Ojemudia the only upperclassmen, this is an ascending and young group with potential ... and proven coaching from Parker.
Scholarship players (5): Kaevon Merriweather* (6-0, 210, Soph.), Geno Stone* (5-10, 210, Jr.), Sebastian Castro (5-11, 195, Fr.), Dallas Craddieth (5-11, 205, RS Fr.), Devonte Young (6-0, 203, Sr.).
What’s to like: After Epenesa, Stone might be the player who can make the most significant impact on Iowa’s defense. He’s a hard-hitting strong safety with elite ball skills that should offset the learning curve for Merriweather at free.
What needs work: Iowa gave up the fewest big plays in the Big Ten last year, and that was largely a credit to the departed Hooker (who began 2018 as a safety) and Jake Gervase. This is certainly a question-mark position, with a raw starter (in Merriweather) and a converted receiver (in Young) and walk-on (in Jack Koerner) as the listed backups.
Looking ahead: Castro was one of my favorite prospects in the 2019 class; he could be a candidate for quick grooming as Iowa likes to give future safeties at least limited freshman experience (Hooker, Stone and Merriweather took the same path). I wonder if the robust competition at corner (or even linebacker) would spill into safety depth. Iowa would be fortunate if Stone sticks around for his senior year.
Here are the national total-offense rankings (out of 130) of the past four Big Ten West champions: 2015 Iowa (72nd), 2016 Wisconsin (89th), 2017 Wisconsin (51st), 2018 Northwestern (108th).
In other words: Defense is how the West is won. Wisconsin, in particular, steamrolled the division in 2016 and 2017 with top-seven national units.
It'll take stars (Epenesa, Golston, Stone) playing like stars, some good health and a few pleasant surprises (perhaps at defensive tackle and linebacker). But this Iowa defense, with many key pieces back from a top-10 unit last year, is more than capable of doing its championship part.
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.