Iowa Hawkeyes Football: Cornerbacks Key to Defensive Success in 2012

David Fidler Correspondent IJune 10, 2012

IOWA CITY, IA - NOVEMBER 5: B.J. Lowery #19 of the Iowa Hawkeyes defends the final pass of the game against Roy Roundtree #12 of the Michigan Wolverines at Kinnick Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa held on to win 24-16. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Iowa fans have begrudgingly gotten used to the soft cushions that Hawkeye cornerbacks have given up over the past 13 years.

That needs to change this season.

It will have to, at least for this season, as the usual foundation and strength of Iowa's defense—the line—will not be up to the standard that Hawkeye fans have come to know.

Under Kirk Ferentz and erstwhile defensive coordinator Norm Parker, the defensive line has controlled the line of scrimmage and pressured the quarterback without the help of blitzes or extra players in the box.

For the most part, this strategy has been successful.

However, last year's defensive line fronted the worst Iowa rush defense since 2000, when the Hawks, in their second year under Kirk Ferentz, allowed 4.47 yards per carry. Last year's Hawkeyes gave up a more respectable 3.69 YPC, but the 2012 group projects to be worse.

Also, last year's defense had its worst third-down showing since 2000, allowing opponents to convert 45.80 percent of its third-down opportunities. Much of the blame was put on the lack of a pass rush, especially from the defensive line.

The specifics for this upcoming season, in this case, are unimportant. All that matters is that, barring a miracle, the best Hawkeye fans can hope for from the front four is a repeat of 2011's performance, while the worst they can hope for is something approaching 2000.

In effect, the coaches will have to make adjustments.

This will begin with bringing safeties into the box and lining the cornerbacks up in press coverage.

New defensive coordinator Phil Parker has repeatedly mentioned that the Hawks will do just that, and he showed a good deal of press coverage in Iowa's spring game.

The downside of this aggressive defensive strategy is that the Hawks will be apt to give up more big plays than they did at any time during the Ferentz era.

However, Iowa couldn't have picked a better season to employ this strategy. This season, the Big Ten has few quarterbacks—and even fewer high-quality receivers—who are able to consistently take advantage of this aggressive D.

In fact, only two of the returning quarterbacks had a completion percentage over 60 percent—Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase and Purdue's Caleb TerBush—and Iowa only plays one of them in 2012. Moreover, TerBush's completion percentage was less a matter of his accuracy and more a result of the Boilermakers high-percentage passing schemes.

Of the quarterbacks Iowa will play, only two seem capable of burning the Hawkeyes with their arms—Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell and Northwestern's Cain Kolter. Both of these QBs will be first-time starters in 2012.

Big Ten receivers are in even worse shape this season, as the conference will have a weak receiver class.

Last season's top five pass catchers, and eight of the top ten, have exhausted their eligibility. The two exceptions are Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (whom Iowa won't face) and the Hawks' own Keenan Davis.

The top returning receiver that the Hawkeyes play is Purdue's Antavian Edison, who had 44 receptions in 2011 and is hardly a deep threat.

The second and third most productive receivers that Iowa will face are Indiana's Kofi Hughes and Penn State's Justin Brown, both of whom could be trouble, though neither is the second coming of Anthony Carter.

It is true that new and dangerous Big Ten receivers will step up, but they will be green.

In effect, the advantage belongs to the Hawkeye cornerbacks this year.

Speaking of the cornerbacks, the two likely starters are senior Micah Hyde and first-year starter B.J. Lowery. They will be backed up by experienced senior Greg Castillo and true sophomore Jordan Lomax.

Hyde is a two-year starter that flirted with free safety at the beginning of 2011. In all probability, he will move back to safety when he gets to the NFL, but in the meantime, he makes a solid college cornerback.

Of the two, Hyde will struggle more with the press coverage, as he lacks elite recovery speed and looks more at home in zone coverage than in man. Nonetheless, as Hawkeye fans know, he has a nose for the big play, and any quarterback that misfires towards his side of the field will pay. Also, he is smart and experienced, which will make up for his physical deficiencies.

Lowery, as a first-year starter, is less polished but has looked more athletically gifted than Hyde the few times we've seen him. It may be a stretch, but given his stellar spring-scrimmage performance, Lowery may be the best Iowa cornerback since Amari Spievey left the Hawks to ply his wares in the NFL.

Meanwhile, if Iowa chooses to employ nickel and dime looks, Castillo is an able nickelback, and Lomax is being groomed to take over Hyde's spot in 2013.

In short, there won't be any miracle out of the defensive line. The only cure for its likely ills are time and experience.

The good news is that Iowa has a nice group of cornerbacks that could make the difference in a Big Ten that will lack big-play receivers and accurate passing quarterbacks. 


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