Brown: Iowa starting to like what it sees on defense
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Successful football players can look in the mirror and deal with the reflection.
"You can't lie to yourself," said Drew Ott, Iowa's free-spirit defensive end.
The truth is this: the 2015 Hawkeyes have reason for optimism. And pessimism. Ott will be one of the Big Ten's best defenders next season. And Saturday's spring game at Kinnick Stadium makes me think the defense could be pretty salty. Not that many have noticed.
All the buzz this spring has been about C.J. Beathard, the big man on campus turned starting quarterback. But can he carry that to game action? How will the rebuilt offensive line perform? Will there ever be quality depth at wide receiver? And will the running game, once a staple of Hawkeye football under coach Kirk Ferentz, start inflicting its will on opponents again?
Mix that in with shaky special teams play last season and the search for a consistent punter, and you've got a recipe for pessimism.
Iowa's defense is clearly ahead of the offense at this stage. It was evident two weeks ago during an open practice at West Des Moines Valley. Saturday was more of the same.
"After 15 days, our defense might know our offense better than the offense does, quite frankly," Ferentz said. "It happens in camp, too, when you work against each other extensively. That's nothing to be alarmed about."
Still, it sounds downright depressing to say the defense is head and shoulders ahead of the offense after watching Tennessee shred the Hawkeyes' defense at the TaxSlayer Bowl few months ago.
"Obviously, we didn't show up," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said last week.
But judging by Saturday's effort, Parker's 11 look to be a pretty cohesive unit. Defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, linebacker Quinton Alston and safety John Lowdermilk are gone from a defense that allowed 25.6 points a game, the most in 14 seasons.
A year ago, Jordan Lomax made the move from cornerback to free safety. Now, it's old school. He's emerging as the kind of leader any successful team needs, too.
"All the talk this spring is that everybody has got to get to the ball," Lomax said. "That's the intensity we bring. The demeanor. That sets the tone of our defense."
How good can this defense be?
"We've got to prove to ourselves that we can be a good defense," Lomax said. "In order to do that, we have to play tough and get to the ball."
That starts with stopping the run. Granted, the Big Ten was loaded with big-time running backs last season. In conference play only, the Hawkeyes ranked eighth in rushing defense at 190.4 yards a game.
In addition to starting linebackers Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower, Ferentz is comfortable with Travis Perry and Cole Fisher, too.
"They're only going to get better," Ott said.
The secondary returns cornerbacks Desmond King and Greg Mabin. Miles Taylor and Brandon Snyder are in the mix to replace Lowdermilk. Anthony Gair is a factor.
Nathan Bazata and Jaleel Johnson man the defensive tackle spots, with Faith Ekakitie and unheralded Kyle Terlouw in the hunt. Ott and Nate Meier are experienced starters at defensive end, with Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson developing depth there.
"We need those guys to keep pushing it there," Ferentz said.
Ott likes what he sees across the board.
Everyone on the same page. No agendas.
"All working toward a common goal," Ott said.
And that's looking in the mirror, and liking what you see.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.