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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz speaks after the final spring practice of 2018, noting (as he always does) the Hawkeyes are hardly "game ready."

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Welcome to the Age of Amani, Iowa football fans.

That was the primary takeaway from watching the Hawkeyes’ first-string defense perform during Friday’s open practice at Kinnick Stadium that concluded spring workouts.

Strong safety Amani Hooker was an inferno of energy, intercepting one Nate Stanley pass, deflecting another into the arms of Jake Gervase for a second pick, knocking the football loose from tight end  T.J. Hockenson for what was initially ruled a fumble (later determined to be an incomplete pass). Hooker also was strong in run support, roaming sideline to sideline to make tackles.

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Amani Hooker snags an interception during Iowa’s open practice on Friday. Matthew Bain/Hawk Central

Amani Jones, starting at middle linebacker, was nearly as impressive, stuffing rushing plays with jarring tackles (he calls it “bringing the boom”) and barking out signals as the new quarterback of the defense.

Both Amanis are juniors. Both seem primed to fill vital roles for the Hawkeyes this fall.

“He’s everywhere on the field,” Stanley said of Hooker. “He’s in there making tackles, breaking passes up. I think that just shows the mindset he brings to practice every single day. He’s always going to push himself to study the offense. That’s part of his game and part of who he is.”

Jones is in line to replace all-American Josey Jewell at middle linebacker. His task may have become more difficult with word that senior Aaron Mends, who was set to start at weak-side linebacker, is out for a lengthy stretch of time after suffering a serious knee injury Wednesday morning. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after Friday’s practice that it’s doubtful Mends will return to action this fall.

Here’s what else we learned about Iowa’s defense in the last of 15 spring practices:

No surprise: Safeties are strong

Hooker and Gervase proved to be playmakers a year ago, and haven’t slowed down. Gervase, a senior starter at free safety, intercepted three passes during the spring finale last year, and three more during the regular season. He was very active again Friday as the Hawkeyes’ starting offense struggled to sustain drives.

“We just had really good communication,” Gervase said. “With the first group, I don’t think we had any mental errors. We saw some new formations that we hadn’t seen during spring, so we executed well.”

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Jake Gervase intercepts Nate Stanley during Iowa football’s open practice on Friday. Matthew Bain/Hawk Central

Hooker’s interception came on a route Hockenson ran toward the left sideline with Stanley rolling well to his right. His across-the-field throw hung in the air too long against an athlete like Hooker.

“They haven’t covered that route all spring. Not that we’ve thrown it a lot,” Ferentz said of the play. “But he spotted it right off the bat and was just kind of laying in the weeds on that one. I think it shows he’s moving forward a little bit, too.”

At cornerback, sophomore Matt Hankins played extensively on the right side of the defense while juniors Michael Ojemudia and Manny Rugamba split reps on the left side. Ojemudia recorded a sack on one blitz, coming in clean on Stanley.

“The biggest part of that play was trying to disguise it because Nate Stanley is really good at diagnosing that,” Ojemudia said. “So I just had to wait, wait, wait and then go. They actually did the same thing earlier, that play, but Nate diagnosed it. So this time I said, ‘He’s not going to get me.’”

The number of snaps that Rugamba got indicates he may not have completely lost the starting spot he had for much of last season.

Sophomore Geno Stone was the third safety used against the first-string offense, although not nearly as much as Hooker and Gervase.

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Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia describes his big play in Friday's spring practice and says the secondary could be even better than last year

Jones runs the show

The emergence of Jones as a leader in the middle of the defense would answer the biggest question of the offseason for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are replacing three starting linebackers, and someone needs to get that group settled.

“He’s athletically insane. He’s really strong,” sophomore Nick Niemann said after starting at outside linebacker alongside Jones. “He’s a vocal leader, too. He’s just a fun guy to play with. He’s got great energy.”

Junior Kristian Welch started in place of Mends at the weak-side. Redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert was elevated to second-string behind Welch.

Jones seems to be the most entrenched among the starters. Senior Jack Hockaday is backing him up, but also could move into the competition for the weak-side role. Barrington Wade was the second option at outside linebacker and the sophomore showed he can pack a wallop.

“Competition’s going to go through the fall, so no job is secure,” said Niemann, who is trying to win the job left vacant by older brother Ben. “Just keep showing that I’m … hungry, that I want to improve, show leadership, that’s a big thing for us right now.”

It is indeed. Jones needs to keep making strides, but he made a significant move this spring from second-string on the weak-side to top dog in the middle.

Patchwork line holds its own

There was nothing superlative about Iowa’s defensive front, but it also was missing two expected senior starters. Defensive tackle Matt Nelson missed all spring with an undisclosed injury not thought to be serious. Defensive end Parker Hesse sat out Friday as a precaution.

The most interesting development was that senior Sam Brincks lined up as a starting tackle alongside Cedrick Lattimore. Brincks only recently started working inside after previously being an end. Brady Reiff and Garret Jansen were the second unit at tackle.

Chauncey Golston, a sophomore end who also was working inside earlier this spring, returned to his normal position as one of the backups. All played well in a situation where the quarterbacks were off-limits to contact. Golston appeared to have one sack that the officials didn’t call.

“I thought we came out a little flat in the beginning,” junior defensive end Anthony Nelson. “We got it going after a couple of plays.”

Specialists still a work in progress

Miguel Recinos is the clear No. 1 place-kicker again this year, and he was true on his two attempts during the practice. Colten Rastetter is the holder.

Rastetter and Ryan Gersonde split punting duties, with Rastetter appearing to get the better of his kicks Friday. But that competition is far from decided.

At long-snapper, junior Jackson Subbert was the starter with Nate Vejvoda, also a tight end, the primary backup. Austin Spiewak is the third man in that battle. Marshall Coluzzi, younger brother of former Iowa punter Ron, left the program this week.

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Fans and players at Kinnick Stadium do the Hawkeye Wave during Iowa football’s open practice on Friday. Matthew Bain/Hawk Central

 

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