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Iowa safety Amani Hooker breaks down the Mississippi State offense, and offers his thoughts on his hockey performance: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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TAMPA, Fla. — When Amani Hooker was in high school in suburban Minneapolis, he kept a close eye on Alabama star defender Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Hooker was intrigued by how the Crimson Tide coaches deployed Fitzpatrick, then a freshman.

“That’s a sweet position,” Hooker thought. “He’s an outside linebacker, but he’s really not. He’s like a corner, but like a safety as well. You can do a lot of things with that position on the field.”

Hooker is essentially playing that position for Iowa now, and his switch from safety to the “star” spot after four games this season has opened a world of possibilities, for the Hawkeyes and for himself.

“I’m good at getting off blocks and I’m decent in coverage,” Hooker said Friday as Iowa prepares to face Mississippi State in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. “I can come up and tackle as well.”

Hooker, a junior, was named the top defensive back in the Big Ten Conference this year. And yet he considers himself to be only “decent” at covering opposing slot receivers?

“I’m made to be humble,” Hooker replied.

There is no questioning the impact Hooker had on a Hawkeye defense that ranked first in the Big Ten. His safety/outside linebacker spot allowed sophomore Geno Stone to slide in alongside senior Jake Gervase as starting safeties. Hooker and Stone tied for the team lead with four interceptions.

Hooker led Iowa with seven passes broken up. His blitzing resulted in 3.5 tackles for loss. He made 34 tackles in the eight games after his switch to “star;” 26 of those were solo stops. When Hooker is matched up one-on-one with a ball-carrier in space, he usually wins that battle.

These are all traits that NFL general managers are looking for as football continues to evolve as a pass-first sport. It’s why Hooker, at 6-feet and 210 pounds, will have a decision to make after the Outback Bowl. He has gotten feedback from the NFL draft advisory group. He’s keeping all of that quiet now, however, while he concentrates on what may or may not be his final college game.

“You dream of stuff like that,” Hooker said of the NFL.

He said earlier this month that he believes he is ready to compete at that level.

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Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker agreed that Hooker will join recent Hawkeye defensive backs Desmond King and Josh Jackson in the NFL “in due time.”

“His footwork and his size and his ability to see things” will translate to football’s highest level, Parker said. “He’s got great hands. He could be a punt returner. … I think his skill to be able to go up and get a ball. Obviously, you saw some of the picks that he made. Very interesting. They were tough catches.”

Parker floated the idea last spring of employing a third safety instead of a third linebacker, as a way to matchup with the spread offenses that are proliferating, even in the once-staid Big Ten. Hooker said Friday he was quick to volunteer.

“I love new challenges, and that was a new challenge for me,” Hooker said.

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The Hawkeyes prepare for their matchup in the Outback Bowl against Mississippi State. The first 30 minutes of the Dec. 28 practice was open to media. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Iowa waited four games to commit to the change. Hooker had a season-high 11 tackles in a Week 4 28-17 loss to Wisconsin, a team that still uses a fullback and relies on its run game. Hooker knew the switch was coming. He was eager to try a new role, knowing that it would help his team.

“It changes what we can do on the back end. It gets more eyes, and a little better coverages on the outside,” Hooker said.

“You can switch up the coverages here and there. You can adjust a lot of stuff on the fly as well. It doesn’t have to be game-planned. It can be little adjustments.”

Still, Hooker was reluctant to point to his versatility as the key to Iowa’s defensive effort this year.

“Guys just got focused up,” he said of Iowa’s two shutouts in Big Ten play. “Coach Parker just puts us in good position to make plays and help the defense out.”

No one helped the Hawkeye defense more than Hooker this season. The word “star” doesn’t just apply to his new position.

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