Leistikow: As rivals change defenses, Iowa stays the 4-3 course

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The question was still in the wind-up. But Reese Morgan’s answer came as if a fastball over the middle of the plate had already been delivered.

“No, not here. If that's where you're going,” the 18th-year Iowa football assistant interrupted with a smile. “No way.”

My question was meant to process the advantages of a 4-3 base defense, which Iowa operates, vs. the 3-4, which has become a football fad in the past decade.

And, as usually is the case with Morgan, his answer was supported with a story.

If you know Reese Morgan, you know he’s always got a story.

At middle linebacker, Josey Jewell (43) is the focal point of Iowa's 4-3 defense.

“I remember back in 1979, OK? Benton Community,” Morgan, now 66, said of his early high-school coaching days, well before he rebuilt Iowa City West into a Class 4-A power and before Kirk Ferentz hired him at Iowa prior to the 2000 season. “We had a good second year. (We decided) we've got to change our defense, so we went and studied the split four. The 4-4; we're going to change with that. Went out, went all over, talked to people.

"Guess what? We went 4 and 5 that year. We did a poor job of coaching because we didn't understand the adjustments. I think you have to know the adjustments, how to make them, how guys fit in.”

So, no, Iowa isn’t switching to a 3-4 (three down linemen, four linebackers) in the near future, even though some rival programs have chosen that path.

Wisconsin, which unquestionably plays the best defense in the Big Ten Conference's West Division, made the switch prior to the 2013 season. And the 3-4 is coming to Nebraska, too, with former Hawkeye Bob Diaco now in charge of the Blackshirts.

Other programs have gone that direction, too. Six SEC programs, including Alabama, use the 3-4 as a base defense — with LSU and Arkansas among the recent converts.

Oh, and remember that Stanford defense in the Rose Bowl that sliced through the Iowa offensive line for seven sacks? That was a 3-4, too.

Proponents of the 3-4 say it’s easier to combat spread offenses that have taken over the college game; instead of three linebackers trying to match outside speed, it gives you four.

The 3-4 can also provide the illusion of extra up-front pressure — it can mimic the look of the old-school 5-2 defenses (which were basically 3-4s). If you’re going to rush four linemen, it adds more mystery into where the fourth man is coming from.

Another thing about the 3-4: One of the toughest positions to acquire in recruiting is dominant defensive linemen. Finding three is easier than finding four. That's a predicament the 2017 Hawkeyes find themselves in.

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As spring practice continues this week, one of the team's biggest question marks is at defensive tackle. Space-eaters Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakatie are out of eligibility, and the lone returning starter (Nathan Bazata) is sidelined with an injury.

Conversely, one of Iowa’s deepest positions is at linebacker, where even position coach Seth Wallace had to acknowledge he’s got overflowing depth. The Hawkeyes have 12 scholarship linebackers in spring ball, and they list nine on the depth chart.

So, I did get this question out: Why does the 4-3 work for Iowa?

“We feel good about knowing that particular defense and how to teach it,” said Morgan, the defensive line coach. “So, I think we're probably going to be stubborn and stick with what works.”

It’s certainly a fair question — and a reasonable answer.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has always taught the 4-3; Wallace and (mostly) Morgan, too. Iowa plays assignment-driven football, trusting its 11 guys and counting on the opponent to make a mistake.

It makes sense to stick with what you know best. And it’s not like Iowa’s defense is chopped liver. It ranked 13th in scoring defense in 2016, the 18.8 points per game allowed the best in Parker’s five years in charge.

Parker’s previous best, 18.9 points per game allowed, is also notable: 2013, when he had three senior starting linebackers in James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey.

Ditto 2017, with Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann.

That’s one of the Iowa tenets of the 4-3 — get three smart, skilled linebackers who understand gaps and communicate, and turn them loose. Substitutions are rare.

“The linebacker position, it's a different position, especially the way that we play defense around here and the amount of adjustments, the amount that's on their plate,” Wallace said. “If you can get into a rhythm and you've got the right three that are going, that's usually good for the defense.”

Perhaps you’re wondering: Has Iowa ever drifted from the 4-3?

Why yes, Hayden Fry did in 1995. After three straight non-winning seasons, the Sly Fox switched to a 5-2 alignment — with those ends essentially serving as linebackers in a 3-4 set. Iowa’s best defense of the 1990s in terms of yards allowed came out of the base 5-2 in 1997, at 275.3 yards per game.

In 1998, though, Iowa allowed nearly 400 yards a game, and Fry was gone.

Enter Ferentz, who brought in Norm Parker and, with him, a 4-3 scheme.

After an early adjustment period, the 4-3 defense has proven consistent and sometimes elite.

From 2008 to 2010, Norm Parker’s unit finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense.

In 2013, Phil Parker’s group — the one with three senior linebackers — finished No. 6 nationally in total defense.

So, yeah. No major changes for the Hawkeyes. Thanks for asking.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.