Brown: Iowa's linebackers will take a step forward this season

Rick Brown
Josey Jewell is part Iowa's new-look linebacking group.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa’s defense played swagger-free football last season, when replacing linebackers Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris became mission impossible.

Iowa allowed more than 30 points in just one game in 2013, a 34-24 loss at Ohio State. Last season, four of the last seven opponents did the honor. Nebraska scored 37. Maryland had 38. Tennessee went for 45. Minnesota ran up 51.

But a year later, the Hawkeyes’ defense should be a deeper, better unit.

“We don’t have the most valuable player at any position,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But the sum of our parts has a chance to be pretty good.”

Coaches, by nature, are cautious creatures. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is cautiously optimistic.

“They’re playing with a lot more intensity, being physical,” Parker said. “That’s what we need to do. Football is a violent game. And we want them to be violent on the field.”

Kirksey, Hitchens and Morris were not ordinary players. Check out rosters before the opening week of the 2015 NFL season and you’ll likely see them there.

Freshmen linebackers Bo Bower, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann got thrown into the fire last season. They got exposed, but picked up some valuable experience. Now, after some tinkering, Parker is confident all three are in the right spots. Jewell has moved inside to middle linebacker. Niemann has moved outside. And Bower has slid inside to weakside linebacker, where senior Cole Fisher has passed him for the time being.

“There’s no question the game has slowed down for them,” Parker said. “The more you do something, the better you become at it. They’re playing faster, which makes them more physical.”

In last season’s opener against Northern Iowa, running back David Johnson made a killing out of the backfield as a pass receiver. Johnson turned five catches into 203 yards. Blame it on communication issues between the linebackers and secondary, we were told. Parker doesn’t see that as a problem in this season’s Sept. 5 opener against Illinois State.

Parker feels like defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata are ready for starting time and is comfortable with backups Faith Ekakitie and Kyle Terlouw. Drew Ott is the defensive kingpin at one end; Nate Meier brings experience at the other end. And Parker likes the progress of their backups, Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse, a converted linebacker.

The secondary is experienced at three of four spots with corners Desmond King and Greg Mabin back, along with free safety Jordan Lomax. Sophomore Miles Taylor, a 6-foot, 195-pounder who has some pop in his pads, looks to be John Lowdermilk’s successor at strong safety.

“Miles is an extremely high intensity, full-go type of guy,” Parker said. “He’ll come up and hit you. The whole key is you’ve got to be tough and physical to play this game. He’s not very big, but he does like to hit you.”

Iowa also got exposed on the edge last season. Fundamentally, Parker said the team is much better there.

“It’s how you take on the block and leverage the ball,” Parker said. “We didn’t do a very good job of that last year.”

So is this a defense that will play with a swagger?

“It’s going to be hard to tell until we play someone,” Parker said.

He feels a positive chemistry building. Saturdays will be the ultimate test.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.