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Leistikow: Phil Parker has options when it comes to slowing USC's explosive receivers

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Phil Parker doesn’t hide the fact that he’s tough to please. If you’ve ever sat within earshot of the Iowa defensive coordinator during a practice or game, you probably already know this.

“Everybody knows the way I am,” Parker, 56, said Tuesday, following Iowa’s last full-contact practice before Friday’s 7 p.m. CT Holiday Bowl. “I try to make that (clear) when I recruit them.”

Pleasing Parker and earning his trust is your ticket to the field on game days.

Yet the bar is high to please Parker.

And once you reach the bar, it gets raised a little higher.

“Expectations change all the time,” Parker said. “Because once you start getting at a certain level, then we expect you to go to the next level. And I dictate what I think your expectations are.”

Iowa safety Geno Stone warms up during Tuesday's practice at Mesa College. He is the only Hawkeye in the secondary to have started all 12 games this season.

Parker has backed up his words with action this season. He’s not afraid to bench starters, in the heat of the moment. The current No. 1 cornerbacks have each been pulled in the third quarters of games this season — junior Matt Hankins against Purdue, senior Michael Ojemudia against Wisconsin.

His criteria?

“Am I putting the right guy on the field that’s going to help the other 10 guys?”

Parker is primarily talking about his defensive backfield, which has been a work in progress this season. This is just the second year of his eight as Iowa’s defensive coordinator that he hasn’t had a first-team all-Big Ten Conference defensive back. He’s used eight different starters in the back end, because of both injuries and performance. Strong safety Geno Stone is the only DB to have started all 12 regular-season games.

And it’s that secondary that’ll be put to the test against USC. The 8-4 Trojans feature what Parker has called the best collection of receivers the 9-3 Hawkeyes have faced this season.

Bowl prep has given Parker more to think about.

Hankins, Ojemudia and true freshman Dane Belton (at the cash position in Iowa’s 4-2-5) are likely to start Friday.

Freshman D.J. Johnson, who started three games at cornerback when Hankins was hurt (including road tests at Iowa State and Michigan) but lost Parker’s trust for a stretch, has had a nice December.

“Kids go into a lull,” Parker said. “I’ve really enjoyed the way I’ve seen (Johnson) working the last three or four weeks.”

Parker has also used Riley Moss and Terry Roberts as corners this season. Julius Brents was a five-game starter a year ago as a true freshman.

There are options aplenty for Parker against the Trojans — and next season. All but Ojemudia return in 2020.

“Some guys do some things better than others,” Parker said. “If we can fit them in and they can do something better, we’ll substitute them in that situation. But it’s hard to do that.”

One thing’s for sure: Parker won’t be afraid to shake things up Friday, if things aren't going well, to find his best combination.

Stone says he hasn't made NFL decision

While defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs are Iowa’s higher-profile juniors with a stay-or-go decision looming, Stone’s is also incredibly important to the 2020 Hawkeyes. He’s been a play-maker, run-stuffer and leader in the secondary.

At 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, Stone doesn’t have first-round NFL size. Knowing that, he probably doesn’t have as much upside in returning to Iowa. If he’s going to get knocked for his size and speed now (like Desmond King did), he’s going to get knocked for it later.

“You don’t want to let your teammates down, you want to come back and finish with your class,” Stone said. “At the same time, you want to do what’s best for you.”

He’s been consulting with 2018 Big Ten defensive back of the year Amani Hooker, who was in a similar predicament with measurables and did leave school early and was a fourth-round pick of the Tennessee Titans.

“Amani just told me, ‘Do whatever your heart says,’” Stone said.

Future stars often emerge in bowl prep

Parker mentioned that freshman defensive lineman Logan Lee, who has been a scout-team star, continues to impress. “He’s going to be pretty good,” Parker said. “Whether he plays end or tackle, that’s probably good that we redshirted him. It’s going to help us out.”

Jack Campbell, a freshman from Cedar Falls, got a cup of coffee at middle linebacker this year. Parker mentioned him as a possible future defensive end, perhaps in the mold of Joe Evans. And LeVar Woods likes Campbell as a future core special-teamer, when seniors Devonte Young and Amani Jones depart.

Woods, the special-teams coordinator, also dropped a new name in the return game: Charlie Jones. The transfer from Buffalo (who was redshirting) has flashed on "both kick and punt return," Woods said. "I think when we get in the spring, we’ll have a better idea."

Here's a cool thing that happened during Iowa’s trip to the U.S.S. Roosevelt

The 100,000-ton aircraft carrier, a massive and impressive reminder of the Navy presence in San Diego and the sacrifices our military members make, hosted players from Iowa and USC for a few hours Tuesday morning. 

Devonte Young, who comes from a military family, was honored during a ceremony as Iowa’s recipient of a trophy that embodies a selfless, team-first approach.

“I’ve been doing this since Day 1, trying to give everything to the team, everything to Coach Ferentz,” Young said. “(The award) just means everything.”

And remember how Young’s parents couldn’t make it to Iowa’s senior day and Kirk and Mary Ferentz stepped in? Mom and Dad will be here on Christmas Day, in time for his final game as a Hawkeye.

And here’s another cool thing.

Belle Plaine native Vincent O’Brien, an officer among the crew of 5,000 that man the ship, was announced during a ceremony as the Hawkeyes honorary captain for Friday’s game.

O’Brien, 28, had no idea this was coming. Someone just told him to be there. And, a lifelong Hawkeye fan, he wasn’t going to miss it anyway.

Soon, he was on stage with Kirk Ferentz to the applause of hundreds of players, coaches, fans and media. He and wife Paige, who is back in Iowa, but will meet him for the game, will get to be on the sideline Friday night.

“I’m thinking a Hawkeye win, for sure,” O’Brien said. “No doubt about it.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz poses for a photo with honorary captain and Navy second class petty officer Vincent O'Brien of Belle Plaine on Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Coronado, Calif. O'Brien is the only member of the 5,000 crew that is from Iowa.