New-look Iowa defense puts Nick Niemann back in big role, just in time for Cy-Hawk game
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s defense is a little cash-strapped these days.
And that has made Nick Niemann an important contributor at the outside linebacker spot where he started the first four games a year ago.
The No. 18 Hawkeyes (2-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) used a 4-3 defensive alignment exclusively in Saturday’s 30-0 beatdown of Rutgers. The 'cash' position that debuted with much success a year ago was abandoned.
That meant Niemann, a junior, made his fifth career start, coming up with a pair of tackles and a quarterback hurry.
“That’s kind of been our identity these first couple of weeks,” weakside linebacker Djimon Colbert said Tuesday of Iowa’s base defense. “I think having an extra linebacker in there helps stopping the run, and Nick’s been doing a good job in the pass game as well.”
Up next is Iowa’s biggest test to date. The Hawkeyes are going on the road for the first time this season, to play rival Iowa State in a soldout Jack Trice Stadium (3 p.m. Saturday on FS1).
The Cyclones (1-0) are coming off a bye week and feature dynamic sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy, who is 8-2 as a starter, with 23 touchdowns (18 passing, five rushing) in those games. Purdy didn’t run much in Iowa State’s 29-26 triple-overtime win over Northern Iowa two weeks ago (two carries, minus-11 yards). But he has a penchant for making defenses pay for any lack of discipline.
This is the challenge Saturday for Niemann and the Hawkeye defense.
“It’s going to come down to setting the edges,” Niemann said. “We can’t let the ball get outside of us and lose containment.”
It’s surprising how often Iowa has been using three linebackers this season. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker unveiled a 4-2-5 look after Iowa’s bye week a year ago, and Amani Hooker adapted so well to that “cash” position in the final nine games that he was named the top defensive back in the Big Ten.
Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson was set to take over that role this fall, but had a big mistake in Iowa’s season-opening win over Miami (Ohio) and hasn’t seen much time since. He was the nickel back on obvious passing downs vs. Rutgers.
Is it because Niemann has more experience? Or is it because injuries have beset the Hawkeye secondary?
Backup cornerbacks Julius Brents and Riley Moss are unavailable again this week. It’s unclear if starter Matt Hankins will be. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was noncommittal on that front Tuesday, saying “we’ll just ride it out and see where it goes” when asked about Hankins’ status. That might force Johnson into the starting lineup at cornerback against Iowa State.
Starting free safety Kaevon Merriweather is also sidelined by a foot injury. Sophomore walk-on Jack Koerner will get his second start there.
“We're just getting a little thin right now in the back end,” Ferentz said when asked why his team was playing so much 4-3 defense. “There's some names in our two-deep right now that you'd have to get out your program to figure out who's who.
“You want to get your best guys out there and guys that can handle the situation the best.”
That means Niemann, who lost his starting job a year ago after getting beaten on a Wisconsin touchdown pass. That’s when Parker decided Iowa needed a fifth defensive back to keep up with opposing teams who often were deploying three and four wide receivers at once.
Niemann, at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, has the frame to batter opposing running backs and bother opposing receivers.
“He can get a good jam on receivers,” Colbert said of Niemann. “He gets in the throwing lanes.”
Michael Ojemudia, a senior cornerback and team captain, said the 4-3 defense has “really been good for us just to hammer the run first. That way we can be able to neutralize the pass.”
The Hawkeyes have allowed only 137 rushing yards, and 2.9 yards per carry, in their opening two games. Niemann, who is able to fend off blockers with his long reach, is a big asset there.
In passing situations, Ojemudia said, the hope is to get Niemann matched up on a tight end or running back. It’s a lot to ask of him to run with a wideout.
The good news for Iowa’s back seven is that opposing teams seem intent on getting the ball out quickly this season, as a way to offset a disruptive pass rush led by junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa. That means less time spent in coverage. That means the potential for more interceptions if a quarterback gets in too big of a hurry. Iowa has three picks in its first two games.
That was the approach the Cyclones took a year ago in Iowa City, with plenty of quick passes to the outside designed to put pressure on Iowa’s edge defenders. It didn’t work. Iowa won 13-3.
That Cyclone team was quarterbacked by Kyle Kempt. The Hawkeyes have not faced Purdy, a master of the run-pass option.
“It’s certainly a Big 12 offense. You don’t see teams do that as much in the Big Ten,” Colbert said.
“It’s huge just having your eyes in the right spot. Because as soon as you put them in the wrong spot, they’re going to try to get something where you’re supposed to be but you’re not.”
Iowa State was unusually cautious on offense in its opener against Northern Iowa.
Ojemudia does not expect that to be the case Saturday, when ESPN’s “College GameDay” program will bring a national spotlight to the Cy-Hawk game.
“They bring out the whole playbook when they play us,” Ojemudia said.
He left open the possibility that the Hawkeyes will revert to the 4-2-5 defensive scheme this week, if they have the personnel to play it.
More likely, it will be Niemann in the starting lineup again. He’s been effective.
“I believe in myself,” Niemann said of his new role, which is really his old role. “And I think they (Iowa’s coaches) believe in me.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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