CLOSE

The Iowa sophomore also explains the defensive philosophy against Penn State

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Amani Hooker wasn’t expecting to get called in to Saturday’s Iowa football game at free safety.

But after North Texas marched effortlessly downfield for a touchdown on its opening possession, it was sophomore Hooker replacing junior Jake Gervase at a position of extreme importance on the Hawkeye defense.

Hooker entered the fray without a hint of nervousness, he said Tuesday.

“I didn’t think much. I just thought, ‘I’m up.’ Just do my responsibility. Don’t do anything crazy. Just play ball,” Hooker said.

“It really wasn’t much of a change. It just felt like kind of a practice scrimmage.”

Hooker responded with three tackles as the Hawkeyes dominated the second half and secured a 31-14 victory. He’s in line to make his first career start Saturday when No. 4 Penn State (3-0) brings its high-octane offense into Kinnick Stadium for a nationally televised 6:42 p.m. kickoff.

“He’s just got to be composed, prepare the same way he’s been preparing since the season started,” said cornerback Josh Jackson, the leader of Iowa’s secondary. “I think he’ll be fine.”

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

Hooker is excited about the opportunity. He was a key special-teams player a year ago as a true freshman, forming what he and Kevin Ward called the “savage backs” as the only two Hawkeyes to play on all four units (kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return).

Hooker held up well, getting in on four tackles, good enough to secure the second-team spot at free safety in the offseason. In Week 2 against Iowa State, Hooker was elevated to be part of Iowa’s dime coverage, showing off a versatility that he’s had since his high school days at Park Center in suburban Minneapolis.

There, Hooker played defensive back, quarterback, running back and wide receiver and was a finalist for “Mr. Football” in Minnesota. He played basketball, too, just like older brother Quinton, who is now playing professionally in Poland. But football was always his primary passion.

“It was the best opportunity for me,” said Hooker, who stands 6-feet and weighs 210 pounds. “I’m not a 6-2, 6-3 guy and I love football, so I felt this was the best opportunity for me to get to the highest level, the highest potential I could be.”

He impressed Iowa coaches enough to be one of 10 true freshmen to play last year. Hooker has made a believer out of veterans like Jackson as well.

“He’s a playmaker. He’s really athletic,” Jackson said of Hooker.

“He’s a really good cover guy one-on-one. He can play in the slot. He can play on the outside. It makes him a more complete player.”

Hooker’s special-teams workload has been cut in half now that he’s a defensive starter. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said that he expects Gervase to still work into a three-safety rotation that also includes senior Miles Taylor.

The free safety typically makes the calls in Iowa’s defensive backfield, ensuring that everyone knows their assignments. That constant communication has been the biggest adjustment from high school, Hooker said. His teammates are prepared to come to Hooker’s assistance.

“It’s just another game for him. That’s kind of how you have to go about it, even though it’s against a really good team,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said of Hooker’s starting debut. “It’s just all about the basics and focusing on what he has to do. And we’ll try to give him the rest of the calls and we’ll try to help him out here and there.”

CLOSE

The junior cornerback likes Amani Hooker's versatility on the back end of the Iowa defense. Mark Emmert

The Nittany Lions are averaging 47 points per game this season. Junior quarterback Trace McSorley has thrown a touchdown pass in 18 consecutive games. Hooker’s first start happens to come against the best offense Iowa will face this season, a team that punished the Hawkeyes 41-14 a year ago.

Hooker is undaunted. He called his performance against North Texas “decent,” particularly happy with his run fits. But he also knows there’s much room for improvement.

“We knew where we were lacking last year,” Hooker said of the Penn State loss, which he participated in only on special teams. “We just lacked competing last year, during that game. We just want to come out here, play fast, play physical, don’t make it complicated.

“I’m excited. I always watched it growing up, night games. And now I get to be part of it. … You know that it’s going to be a packed house. You know the other team is going to come in hyped too because they’re in a new environment. It’s just going to be fun.”

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

 

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE