Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Iowa Hawkeyes, Part 3, Defense
I began by taking a broad overview of the Iowa program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Hawkeyes will do this season.
Last week, I scanned at the 2012 Iowa offense and how it projects.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Iowa defense.
2011 scoring defense: 23.8 PPG (eighth in the conference)
Total defense: 378.9 YPG (eighth)
Rushing defense: 3.69 YPC (fourth)
Passing efficiency allowed: 132.87 (ninth)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 3.4
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: first (2008)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: eighth (2011)
Returning starters: DE Dominic Alford, DL Steve Bigach, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, CB Micah Hyde, FS Tanner Miller
Open positions: DE, DT, LB, CB, S
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: conservative
Last year's defense was Kirk Ferentz's worst conference scoring defense since 2001.
The Hawks also tied for the eighth-most sacks in the conference, and most damning, Iowa allowed its opponents to convert 45.89 percent of its third downs, which was a woeful 99th in the country. That cannot entirely be blamed on the line, but, make no mistake, the line and lack of a pass rush accounted for the majority of the problem, which brings me to the Iowa defensive philosophy.
Iowa, under Kirk Ferentz and former-defensive coordinator Norm Parker, has been conservative to a fault.
Ferentz and Parker's D rarely blitzed. It required the front four—typically a minimally-rotated front four—to control the line of scrimmage and generate a pass rush.
The linebackers flowed to the ball and were solid, fundamental tacklers that also excelled in coverage. They had to, as Iowa rarely substituted its linebackers for defensive backs.
As for the D-backs, they were expected to keep everything in front of them and be top-notch in run support.
This type of defense does not require lock-down defensive backs and does not allow big plays. On the other hand, the weaknesses of this D are exposed when the line can't generate a consistent pass rush and the linebackers are not stellar in coverage. This was the case last year, and projects to be the case this year, only worse, as three starters on the line have graduated.
The difference is that Norm Parker has retired, and the new DC is former secondary coach Phil Parker.
According to The WCF Courier, Parker "plans no seismic change...but will likely add a wrinkle or two to reflect the beliefs of their new coordinator and reflect recent changes in the game."
Nonetheless, it is those wrinkles that will be the difference between this year's defense maintaining respectability—which, all things considered, is a fair description of last year's D—and falling into the doldrums of the conference, if only temporarily.
Specifically, Parker has noted (via The Cedar Rapids Gazette) to look for more blitzing—though not much more—more press coverage and more dropping safeties into the box.
It remains to be seen if Parker will go back to his predecessor's full-blown conservatism in the years to come, but this year, making those changes will be a necessity.
The end result is Hawkeye fans can expect their defense to let up more big plays than it has over the previous 10 seasons. On the other hand, it should also be able to get off the field on third down more than 55 percent of the time.
The only full-time returning starter is junior Dominic Alvis. However, Alvis missed the end of 2011 with a torn ACL. He will be cleared to play by August, but, despite Alvis's claim (via The Cedar Rapids Gazette) that he will "'be full speed by June,'" he likely won't be 100 percent until October.
Senior Steve Bigach grabbed five starts last season—three inside and two at end after Alvis went down. He finished spring practices as a starting defensive tackle. Bigach could flourish with talent around him, but he hasn't shown any flashes of being a game-changer in his own right.
As for that talent, there is hope that sophomore Carl Davis and redshirt freshman Darian Cooper play beyond their years and experience. Both already weigh in at over 280 pounds, which is big for an Iowa defensive tackle. Nevertheless, all the weight in the world won't replace technique and experience.
Cooper ended the spring as a starter, while Davis missed spring with injuries.
Speaking of playing size, true freshman Jaleel Johnson was listed by Marc Morehouse of The Cedar Rapids Gazette as 315 pounds. Again, you can't replace technique and experience, especially on either side of the line, but Iowa has more size in its front four than I can ever remember it having under Ferentz.
The only other potential contributor with notable experience is senior defensive end Joe Gaglione, who finished spring as a starting defensive end. His fellow-starting defensive end was redshirt freshman Riley McMinn, who has a current listed height and weight of 6'7", 245 pounds. In other words, he's a string bean.
The depth is comprised of sophomores Mike Hardy at end and Louis Trinca-Pasat in the middle; and freshmen Melvin Spears at end and 245-pound Dean Tsopanides inside.
The best one could hope for out of next year's line is about the same as last year's line. The worst is near the bottom of the conference.
Iowa's young linebackers experienced growing pains and severe injury issues over the last two years.
That will begin to pay off this year, as the Hawks have a wealth of experienced players at linebacker.
Junior James Morris is a two-year starter and the most versatile linebacker, as he can play inside or outside. He had an up-and-down 2011, but his "ups" lead one to believe that he is close to putting it all together. This will be the year when he shows, as Blackheartgoldpants put it, whether "his career (is) , or... ." In other words, solid-but-unspectacular or all-conference.
Fellow-junior Christian Kirksey is a speedy weak-side player who flashed skills in blitz packages, though he had some trouble finishing tackles. He is another player who is one piece away from putting it all together.
Finally, junior Anthony Hitchens and sophomores Quinton Alston and Marcus Collins gained valuable experience last season. Hitchens will most likely win the final starting spot, but don't count Alston out.
After the top five, it is seemingly perennially-banged up Dakota Getz and inexperienced sophomores and freshmen.
This group is still a year away from being among the most dominant in the conference, but it will be a solid bunch in 2012.
Senior Micah Hyde is a two-year starter and an all-conference corner that will look to have a big senior year.
Junior B.J. Lowery has yet to start a game, but ESPN's Adam Rittenberg appropriately named him the star of Iowa's spring practice, and he is the more athletic of the two corners. He is ready for prime time, and will not be much of a step back from departed NFL-draftee Shaun Prater.
Free safety Tanner Miller improved as last season wore on, and one can expect the same this season. He is not all-conference quality, but has become increasingly dependable and could be at an all-conference level in 2013.
True sophomore strong safety Nico Law will make some mistakes early in the year, but will step into his role by November. He had the hit of the spring game, and defensive back coach Darrell Wilson (via Hawkeyeinsider.com) described Law as "'the most physical member of the secondary.'"
The backup strong safety is senior Tom Donatell, who flirted with linebacker last season and gained one start. Nonetheless, he is more at home at safety.
Senior Greg Castillo has starting experience, and while he doesn't have the talent to be a starting Big Ten corner, he is smart and disciplined and able as a nickelback.
Finally, sophomore Jordan Lomax is the heir-apparent when Hyde graduates.
The issue is the pass rush, and particularly the front four. Iowa is not a blitz-heavy team. It expects its front four to generate a lot of heat. When it can't do this, the secondary feels a great deal of pressure.
As previously mentioned, next season's Hawkeye front four does not look impressive. Though the Hawkeye corners will play more press coverage, which will help the pass rush out, the overall pass defense will suffer from the issues with the line and the rush.
This year's defense will blitz more, the line will rotate more, the corners will press more and the safeties will drop into the box more than any defense in Kirk Ferentz's tenure. However, make no mistake—the defense will still be conservative, as is true to Kirk Ferentz's nature and overall philosophy.
Last year's Hawkeye defense let up 23.8 PPG.
I expect this year's D to be three-five PPG worse.
The good news is that the Hawks will only play two teams that might be top-20 scoring offenses, neither of which they face until November.
The only respectable offenses Iowa will play in September and October project to be Iowa State and Michigan State, though Northern Illinois—only three returning offensive starters—and, as usual, Northwestern—five returning starters—could give the Hawks trouble.
The Hawkeye defense will get pushed around more than Hawkeye fans have been used to. The big question is will Phil Parker make the necessary adjustments to clean up on third down and get the D off the field more quickly than it did last year?
Coming next Monday, an overview and breakdown of Iowa's specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Hawks will finish the 2012 season.
Full disclosure: Unlike the rest of this series, which takes an in-depth look at each Big Ten team, I am an Iowa fan. I hope that has not colored the way I looked at the Hawks or any of their opponents. I pride myself on being unbiased, but one who is biased is generally unaware of his active prejudices.
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