Here's what Iowa's Phil Parker said about Minnesota's offense, plus other Hawkeye takeaways

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker felt good walking off the practice field on Wednesday morning. His defense has been one of the nation's best this season, and with the Hawkeyes' recent resurgence there's a chance that they can repeat as Big Ten West champions.

But the challenge ahead is stiff in Minnesota, which boasts a three-game winning streak of its own. Parker feels confident about the defense's preparation.

"I think the kids are really playing hard practice-wise," Parker said via Zoom on Wednesday. "I think we had a good day today, matter of fact. I think they put three good days together here for the Minnesota game here this weekend. I'm really pleased the way they work and the way they think ... and we're talking about achieving and being perfect. It's hard to be perfect but we're going to ask them to be and the better the chance they have to be perfect, they have a good chance to be very good."

Two of Iowa's early-season struggles on defense line up with Minnesota's greatest strengths on offense: rushing yards and third-down conversions. Iowa's defense put forth its best rushing defense effort of the season last week against Wisconsin, holding the Badgers to 51 rushing yards. And during the three-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes have allowed less than 30% third-down conversions.

Parker attributes the third-down improvements to a better attention to detail to avoid mental mistakes and better execution in getting off the field.

When sizing up Minnesota's offense, running back Mo Ibrahim, who has rushed for 100-plus yards in 18 straight games, is an obvious challenge. Parker pinpointed a few more areas that make the Gophers hard to defend in those two metrics.

"They have a system in which they don't get into many long third downs," Parker said. "They want to run the ball and control it with a lot of (run-pass option) stuff. So you really got to do well on first and second down. It's definitely going to be a challenge because of how big they are up front with the offensive line (average height/weight is 6-foot-5, 318 pounds). They're big. They've always been big, that's how they like it. And then they also have two big tight ends that also get in there."

Parker, recently named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award (given to the nation's top assistant coach), addressed several other topics during his scheduled Wednesday Zoom meeting with reporters. Here are a few more takeaways:

Parker details what's made the 2022 defense a special group

Iowa's 2022 defense  ranks first nationally in yards per play allowed (3.81), third in total defense (260.7 yards per game) and fifth in scoring defense (13.9 points per game).

Statistically, the 2022 defense might be the best in head coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. The unit ranks first nationally in yards per play allowed (3.81), third in total defense (260.7 yards per game) and fifth in scoring defense (13.9 points per game), holding seven opponents to 10 points or less this season. Those metrics are even more impressive considering several key injuries (such as cornerbacks Jermari Harris and Terry Roberts and linebacker Jestin Jacobs) and the Iowa offense frequently putting the defense in difficult field-position situations.

When asked what separates this year's defense, Parker said it's two-fold.

"I think the commitment of the players have to our standards has been really good with the coaches," Parker said. "Then obviously up front, the ability to play nine guys (on the defensive line). Look at the average and I think Logan Lee is the probably ... about 45 plays a game but a lot of guys are getting 30 plays a game, 25 plays a game, and I think it's keeping us a lot fresher.

"So you try to keep them fresh and I think you always win up front. I think just the front seven knows so much about what's going on up front. And the small little adjustments that nobody really knows what's going on besides those guys, and they do it."

Iowa's defense is also veteran-laden, and that influence was prevalent in Wednesday's practice. Parker wanted the defense to continue the intensity it had shown the previous two days. He credited linebacker Jack Campbell for setting the tone and the rest of the defense for following suit. As a result, the defense "took it up a notch today," according to Parker.

"They love the challenge," Parker said. "And (Wednesday) was a prime example, I wanted to go out there and have a crisp practice and make sure that we kept everybody injury-free, obviously. But boy it was a violent game today, it was violent; at least practice was and that's a good thing. That's the only way they want to be and that's when you know you have something pretty good and special."

Updates on freshmen Aaron Graves, TJ Hall, Xavier Nwankpa + more

Former four-star prospect and true freshman Aaron Graves (95) has become a rotational player on Iowa's defensive line.

Parker also provided updates on several true freshmen of interest: defensive lineman Aaron Graves and defensive backs Koen Entringer, TJ Hall and Xavier Nwankpa.

Graves has seen the most playing time this season as a rotational player on the line, totaling 13 tackles and two sacks through six games. Parker credited Graves with his ability to make consistent impacts when he's on the field. Entringer saw his first snaps of the season on special teams against Wisconsin. Parker said he's been a consistent performer on the scout team and received an opportunity last week as the coaches have been looking for a spark in certain special teams packages. Additionally, Entringer is getting more snaps with the second- and third-team defense, and Parker feels good about his potential at safety.

Hall and Nwankpa are both on Iowa's two-deep at cornerback and free safety; Hall logged early snaps against Purdue in certain packages.

"I think (TJ) has grown," Parker said. "There was a point in time when he was really having a good fall and then obviously when school starts things start to get piled up a little bit and things fall off, and now that I've seen the last couple of weeks he's really come back on and really been a factor to help us out on the outside when we need it or go to our (three, four cornerback) package."

Iowa defensive back Xavier Nwankpa (1) is continuing to impress coaches in practice, defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.

As far as Nwankpa, earning game snaps will be difficult due to the high level of play by starter Quinn Schulte, but Parker said that the former five-star recruit is continuing to impress him by the day.

"I think the growth of him and what he sees himself as being and what he's doing every day is getting better," Parker said. "He's learning how to bend his knees a little bit more and seeing the big picture and he's really had a couple of really good practices that nobody gets a chance to see. I think it was Monday or Tuesday, he really had a couple great interceptions and he's starting to see the field a little bit better.

"There's a lot of stuff that you have to learn and when you come in here, you're just not playing one or two different coverages. There's a lot of different things that offenses try to do to you. I think he's picked up on it pretty good. He's got a lot of upside and I'm happy to see his progress so far."

What is Cooper DeJean's optimal position? Parker weighed in.

Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean (3) is an emerging star on the Hawkeyes defense.

Sophomore Cooper DeJean has been Iowa's most versatile player this season. That was on display against Wisconsin as he impacted the game defensively with 10 tackles and a pick-six and had a few game-changing special teams plays. After the game, teammate Kaevon Merriweather said that the outside world still isn't aware of his full capabilities.

"What doesn't Cooper do well?" Merriweather said. "You saw him on the punt returner, athlete. Cornerback and Cash, athlete. You haven't gotten the chance to see him play safety yet, but he did that in fall camp, athlete. I think the sky is the limit for him wherever he wants to take it."

DeJean is playing cornerback (and excelling) due to injuries at that position, but in a perfect world what is his best position? Parker gave his opinion on the matter:

"I think he has the ability to play all five positions (in the secondary)," Parker said. "Right now our need is basically to make sure that he stays outside but I think his position would be a Cash (safety/linebacker hybrid) player. Is he a (Tennessee Titans safety) Amani Hooker type? Probably a little bit better, coverage-wise. Or could he play strong safety or free safety to be a little bit more of the middle-of-the-field player? We just don't have that luxury right now."