Iowa football mailbag: Are the Hawkeyes becoming a 4-3 defense again?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

One of the most notable developments in Iowa’s 38-14 win against Miami (Ohio) was that defensive coordinator Phil Parker was quick to abandon the 4-2-5 scheme and embrace the more traditional 4-3 base alignment.

So, naturally, that’s been a hot topic this week as the No. 19 Hawkeyes prepare for Saturday’s 11 a.m. Big Ten Conference opener against Rutgers. We got a lot of those questions as part of our weekly Facebook Live show Wednesday (which you can watch in full below and join in on later in the season).

The gist was this: Are the Hawkeyes becoming a 4-3 team again?

It’s a valid question, considering Nick Niemann played 42 snaps at outside linebacker compared with D.J. Johnson’s seven at the cash position against the RedHawks.

Iowa outside linebacker Nick Niemann, left, and strong safety Geno Stone make a tackle during Iowa's opening win against Miami. The Hawkeyes held Miami to 11 first downs.

But for now, the short answer is still no.

Iowa still wants to (and needs to) be able to play a 4-2-5 defense against opponents with more wide-open styles — think Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska, to name a few.

The more developed answer is this: As of the first week of September, Iowa does not have an Amani Hooker to master all the requirements of that cash role. And Niemann is a very good player. He is trusted, which goes a long way in the minds of Iowa coaches over a younger, unproven player.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz indicated Tuesday that we would see both the 4-3 and 4-2-5 against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights use a lot of three-wide receiver sets, but they also have a pair of dynamic running backs — and Iowa’s first priority Saturday will be stopping the run. That probably means more Niemann (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and less Johnson (5-10, 183).

“You always want to get your best guys out there to have a chance to defend what they're doing,” Ferentz said. “But I think you'll probably see them mix it up as we go along.”

TOPIC: Could a different player slide into the cash role?

I think that's a valid question, but let's not bury Johnson just yet. With injuries to Riley Moss (leg; out up to six weeks) and Julius Brents (knee; likely out two more weeks), Johnson is also the third cornerback, should something happen to Matt Hankins or Michael Ojemudia. He's highly valued by the coaches.

But one thing Parker does preach is flexibility. On that note, Hankins, Ojemudia, Brents and Dane Belton have practiced at that cash position, too. It seems to me that Ojemudia (6-1, 200 and a fifth-year senior) would have the size and mental makeup to make such a transition, although he was fantastic in Week 1 at corner. I'm not sure you want to move him at this point.

If there is any tinkering, I wouldn't expect it until after the Iowa State game. That also gives Brents more time to get healthy. Iowa gets a bye after the Sept. 14 game in Ames. A year ago, the Hawkeyes came out of their bye unveiling the 4-2-5 at Minnesota and almost exclusively stuck with it the rest of the season.


TOPIC: Why is Ferentz noncommittal about giving Oliver Martin more snaps?

Martin logged 10 in his Hawkeye debut, yet still caught as many passes (two) as Nico Ragaini, Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Nate Wieting combined.

The Michigan transfer certainly looks the part in every way — route-running, hands, speed. Although Ferentz did say Tuesday that they'll "play it week by week" on Martin's usage, he's clearly on the ascent. Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Ragaini and Tracy each topped 30 snaps. With Iowa going three-wide much more frequently this fall, there will be plenty of action to go around. And if Martin keeps progressing, he'll earn more and more reps.

If I had to guess? I'd predict 20 to 25 snaps for Martin on Saturday.

TOPIC: Will coaches move around A.J. Epenesa to create advantageous matchups?

Epenesa facing relentless double teams, for now, is an advantageous position for Iowa. A 1-for-2 trade. The trick is getting Chauncey Golston or others to make opponents pay for that obsessive focus on No. 94.

I do think as time goes on that Parker will get more creative with where Epenesa lines up, particularly in passing situations. If the opponent has an ineffective guard, why not let Epenesa (6-foot-6, 280 pounds) use his speed and power to rush up the middle? Makes sense, and Epenesa has enough experience to handle it.

TOPIC: A week early, but is it good or bad (for Iowa) that Iowa State gets this week off?

I think it's a non-issue. Matt Campbell, a very good coach, getting two weeks to prepare for Iowa? That's advantage Cyclones. But Iowa State having faced zero FBS teams against Iowa's two entering Sept. 14? That's advantage Hawkeyes.

The Cyclones' struggle to beat Northern Iowa affected their top-25 ranking, but the odds have not drastically changed. Iowa State is currently early 3½-point favorite vs. Iowa, down only a half-point from 3 weeks ago.

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.