There's one crucial thing 2021 Iowa football has in common with 2015 Hawkeyes, Phil Parker says
IOWA CITY — Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been around countless great defenses during his 20-plus year tenure at Iowa, but this 2021 group is in rarified air.
For the third time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa is 5-0 and Parker thinks this defense has something in common with the defenses of those previous two 5-0 teams (most recently in 2015): elite chemistry.
"You can see the connection, the bond," Parker told reporters on Wednesday. "Not only the defensive unit but you can see the bond between the team and the coaches. I see that in the 2015 team. I thought we had it.
"I thought the kids really enjoyed themselves and I'd say they respect each other for what they do and the time they put in to be the best that they can be."
What Iowa enjoys most, and what they've done more than any other defense in the country this year, is force turnovers. Their 16 takeaways is tied for first in college football with Hawaii. The secondary, with 12 interceptions, has taken center stage this season.
There is no secret formula, just strong preparation, being in the right place at the right time and then capitalizing on opportunities. Veteran cornerback Riley Moss, who has three interceptions this year, said the secondary tries to stay level-headed amid all the success and spotlight. Not too high, not too low.
"You get an 'Atta kid!' and you go back out and try to get another one," Moss said after last Friday's 51-14 win over Maryland. "Pretty blue collar to be honest with you, but we love that. We're just going to come out and do our job and if we get a pick then yeah let's do it, but none of that flashy stuff. We just go out and play football."
One of the biggest factors in the secondary's high level of play the amount of experience among the players. Entering the year, the five returning starters combined for 68 starts. That amount of reps means that they're more detail-oriented and know better how to prepare each week. Parker noted that the secondary is always in or around the facility watching film and doing it together.
The defensive line outplaying expectations certainly helps the secondary, too.
Iowa's back seven was never in question entering 2021. The secondary's success is well-documented. At linebacker, Jack Campbell is well on his way to potential national honors and Jestin Jacobs is an emerging star (who's even appearing on some mock NFL Drafts watchlists). However, the defensive line had questions after losing NFL players Chauncey Golston, Jack Helftin and Daviyon Nixon.
But so far that defensive line, which cycles through an 8-10-man rotation, has exceeded expectations and is a big reason why the defense has created so many havoc plays.
"I think (defensive line coaches) Kelvin (Bell) and Jay (Niemann) do a great job," Parker said. "The more we have guys rolling in, it keeps them fresher. If they're playing 30 plays a game instead of 70 plays a game, then it helps their pass rush. They do a good job of getting their hands up, getting pressure and making the quarterback move. And I'm expecting even more."
Another metric of success for Iowa, and one that will be especially critical in Saturday's top-five matchup against Penn State, is limiting the big play — any play over 25 yards, Parker said. Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson is one of the biggest big-play threats in college football, with 30 career receptions of over 20 yards.
What else about Penn State's offense is keeping Parker up at night? When asked, he responded with ... basically everything.
"Obviously (quarterback Sean Clifford) makes it run," Parker said. "He's throwing to some really good receivers. Their tight ends are really good players. They're big, fast, strong, can catch and block you and the offensive line is improved since we last played them.
"To me, they do such a great job of delivering the ball to everybody. You've got to cover the whole field and sometimes that's a challenge. We've played them there and we've played them here, but it's a different team."
Praise (and high hopes) for Sebastian Castro
Ferentz had high praise for reserve sophomore safety Sebastian Castro during his weekly presser on Tuesday. Castro forced the second-quarter fumble against Maryland that jumpstarted the 31-point quarter.
He's playing behind several veterans in the secondary but has come on strong in recent weeks. That is currently showing itself through quality play on special teams.
"That kind of play hopefully can lead to better things for him in his career," Ferentz said. "Team-wise, that's what we need. We need big plays obviously from guys you haven't heard of, maybe some more good stories. Pleased about that, pleased for Sebastian. He's worked real hard."
The next step for Castro is breaking into the playing rotation, but that's not likely (unless an injury occurs) until 2022. Parker is excited for his future, though.
"I think he can play strong safety or the cash," he said. "I think he has a lot of upside to him. He works hard, gives great effort and really likes to get involved on special teams."
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org