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Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker describes the ability of Amani Jones at middle linebacker, and how his group is communicating.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Josh Jackson isn’t walking through that door.

And, strange as it sounds, Iowa might barely miss its star cornerback.

That’s not to say that replacing Jackson’s eight interceptions and 18 passes broken up will be easy. Those kind of playmakers come along once in a generation (or once every year if you factor in Desmond King). It’s why the Texas native will be a near-certain first-round NFL Draft pick next week.

But the Hawkeyes’ secondary is setting up to be a strength again next season, and it was obvious listening to defensive coordinator Phil Parker on Tuesday that he loves the athletes he has at his disposal on the back end.

Strong safety Amani Hooker looks like the star of the bunch, an impact player so versatile he may even be tossed into the mix at linebacker in certain formations.

Iowa has three cornerbacks with starting experience, including one in Manny Rugamba who figures to be hungry to redeem himself after a disappointing sophomore season that included him losing his way and his first-string role.

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Senior Brandon Snyder will return from his second knee surgery sometime this summer and work his way back into the plans at safety.

And five freshmen are on the way, each hoping to make an immediate contribution the way Rugamba did two years ago or Matt Hankins did last fall. Parker said one or two of them will probably get that chance.

No position group is without question marks during spring practices. But Iowa’s secondary sure looks to be full of capable performers heading into the summer.

A closer look:

Cornerbacks have something to prove

Iowa has junior Michael Ojemudia and sophomore Matt Hankins as starting cornerbacks for now. Ojemudia had some bumpy moments in 2017, but Parker praised his growth and maturity this spring. Hankins was so impressive as a true freshman last year that he started the final two games of the season and more than held his own opposite Jackson.

The intrigue surrounds Rugamba, who is the first option in the nickel package but obviously eager for much more. He, not Jackson, was Iowa’s top corner at this time a year ago, only to commit an unspecified violation of team rules that led to him getting suspended for the season opener. Parker opened up a little about the reasons why Tuesday.

“It's a challenge as a true freshman to come in and play against Michigan and having a great year, and a lot of people patting you on the back,” Parker recalled of Rugamba’s rookie-season splash. “And I think maybe he might have lost his focus a little bit, not as detailed, maybe not as much of a time commitment.”

If Rugamba started feeding into his own hype a tad too much, you would assume he learned his lesson after becoming an afterthought on the team in 2017. That doesn’t meant the talent isn’t still there, however.

“For this spring, at times I think he's been really good, and he's working his tail off,” Parker added of Rugamba.

“His job is to go ahead and prove that he's a starter.”

This is the best-case scenario for Iowa’s cornerbacks, for Rugamba to take aim at stardom. Even if he doesn’t quite get there, it will at least help make Ojemudia and Hankins sharper.

Redshirt freshman Trey Creameris the other backup cornerback. True freshmen who could push for a role are D.J. Johnsonof Indianapolis and Terry Roberts of Erie, Pennsylvania.

A blanket of safeties

Iowa has a surplus of talented defensive ends this season, but it’s worth asking whether safety might be the real strength of the unit.

Consider:

  • Senior Jake Gervase earned the starting job at free safety last season, lost it briefly to Hooker, then proved himself as a reliable performer and emerging leader while starting the final seven games. He finished fourth on the team in tackles (behind three superb senior linebackers) with 58, trailed only Jackson with his three interceptions and even broke up six passes.

“He's been a vocal leader and I like his energy,” Parker said of Gervase.

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Iowa safety Amani Hooker learned by watching NFL-bound Hawkeyes Mark Emmert / The Register

 

  • Hooker started twice at free safety and another four times at strong safety, his breakout sophomore season interrupted only by an injury that kept him out of three games. When healthy, he looked like a potential all-American, an athlete as dynamic in pass coverage as in run support. His 41 unassisted tackles were third on the team in only 10 games.

Parker kept mentioning Hooker’s name when asked about nickel packages, about linebackers, about the need for speedy defenders to combat modern Big Ten Conference offenses — any chance he got basically.

“I'm not saying he's moving there,” Parker said of Hooker as an outside linebacker. “But that would be a type of guy that you'd want to put out there in certain personnel groupings.”

Hooker is clearly on the move this season for Iowa. The direction is upward.

  • Geno Stone saw action in 11 games, valuable learning experience for the true freshman. He was terrific on special teams and while playing safety against Nebraska in the season finale, in particular.
  • Then there’s Snyder, who started at free safety two years ago and showed a knack for always being around the football. He’s also one of the most respected leaders on the team.

“Brandon Snyder is definitely going to be coming back, and he's on schedule with his rehab, and we're really excited to see where he's going to be in the summer, and definitely next fall he's going to be a factor,” Parker said.

Snyder was able to play one game last season after his first knee surgery. He returned an interception for a touchdown against Illinois, then went down again. Parker said he’s not sure yet where Snyder will slot into the safety rotation, but he’ll certainly be on the field when healthy.

“When he gets back, I think we have at least two deep at safety at each position,” Parker said. “It might give us a little bit more flexibility on some of our other packages that we want to use.”

In addition, two of Iowa’s top incoming recruits are safeties Dallas Craddieth of St. Louis and Julius Brents of Indianapolis.

HAWKEYE FILM ROOM: Hard-hitting Craddieth looks every bit like a future star

HAWKEYE FILM ROOM: 4-star DB Brents has tools for success at safety or CB

A team doesn’t really need six outstanding safeties. But here we are.

It’s Parker’s job to figure out how to deploy them all. Not a bad dilemma for a defensive coordinator.

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