Big Ten Breakdown: Iowa Hawkeyes, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)
In the first part of this series, I looked at Iowa's offense, as well as the overall team outlook. In this part, I'll look at the defense, as well as the measurable parts of the special teams.
2010 scoring defense: 17 PPG (second in the conference), total defense: 332.1 YPG (third), rushing defense: 3.24 YPC (second), passing efficiency allowed: 115.11 (second).
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 2.8.
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: First (2008).
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Fifth (2006).
Returning starters: DE Broderick Binns, DT Mike Daniels, LB James Morris, LB Tyler Nielsen, CB Shaun Prater, CB/S Marcus Hyde.
Open positions: DE, DT, LB, CB, SS.
The dynamic of Kirk Ferentz's teams has always started with a strong defense that squashes the run while refusing to bring extra defenders in the box. It then drops seven and keeps the passing game in front of it, while creating pressure with the front four.
This formula has led to a top 20 defense in six of the last 10 seasons and four of the last five. Moreover, the Hawks have been a top 30 defense eight of the last 10 seasons.
The only two seasons they've failed to rank inside the top 30 was 2006, in which they had a dysfunctional offense, and 2001.
Despite this formula for success, many Hawk fans have questioned Iowa's defense over the years, saying that it's too safe, too vanilla and too predictable. And while I do agree with some Hawkeye fans that occasionally Iowa needs a backup plan in order to avoid allowing this to happen over and over and over again, basically Iowa's base 4-3, bend-don't-break, Tampa-2 defense does work. The statistics bear it out.
The mastermind behind Iowa's defense is sexagenarian Norm Parker. At 68-years-old, he is the picture of old school. He has coached through the option, the wishbone, the West Coast and the spread.
He has seen it all and there is no trick any offensive coordinator will throw at him that will take him off his game.
The problem is last season he missed the majority of the year due to health issues brought about by diabetes. These health issues ultimately led to the loss of his right foot.
More specifically, in each of Iowa's five losses, they took a lead into the fourth quarter and the defense couldn't keep the opposing team out of the end zone.
It is safe to assume that Norm Parker's absence had an effect on the defense. It is also safe to say that due to Parker's absence, other defensive coaches were spread too thin, which led to multiple breakdowns on the special teams.
In the end, is Norm Parker's health an issue for this squad? Because it goes without saying, he's still not healthy, and he could be out of commission at any time.
The Hawkeye defense begins and ends with the front four. If the front four aren't functioning, then the linebackers cannot make plays and the quarterback will have all day to find an open receiver.
Iowa's front four has to play sound assignment football and bring an aggressive, consistent, effective pass rush without any help from blitzing.
The pre-camp starting defensive line was as follows: rush end, senior Lebron Daniels; strong-side end senior Broderick Binns; defensive tackles, senior Mike Daniels and sophomore Dominic Alvis.
The only surprise of that bunch is Alvis, all 255 lbs. of him, though in retrospect, his emergence shouldn't be that much of a surprise. Alvis spent his first two years on campus as a backup strong-side end. He has been repeatedly talked up by the coaches, and I felt he would regularly see the field in 2011 in the defensive line rotation.
However, if the position change sticks, he will likely take the same role as past undersized Iowa defensive tackles, Karl Klug, Mitch King and Jonathan Babineaux. He will play what is called the three-technique, which means his job will be to penetrate and disrupt, and his success will depend more on speed and quickness than size and brute strength.
Mitch King was 265 to 270 lbs. at his ideal playing weight. His size—or lack thereof—doesn't help him in the NFL, but it didn't inhibit him in college.
Meanwhile, the other defensive tackle will be Mike Daniels. Daniels came out of nowhere last season and wrested a starting spot away from Broderick Binns. He was on fire in the out-of-conference part of the schedule but disappeared through much of the Big Ten schedule.
Of course, that could be said about the entire defensive line at times.
Daniels will be the focus of offensive coordinators in 2011. If he plays as well as he can—as well as he did against Ball State—he will earn all-conference honors.
Speaking of disappearing, Broderick Binns was the guy that had his job taken by Daniels, though he still played substantially in 2010.
In a 2009 full-time role, Binns picked up 62 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks and nine passes defended. In a 2010 part-time role he had 35 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, zero sacks, two passes defended and an interception.
Yes, his role was diminished in 2010, but it wasn't that diminished.
If the 2009 Binns shows up, he will win conference laurels and probably hear his name called on draft day. If the 2010 Binns shows up, then Kirk Ferentz has to reevaluate some elements of his program.
The rush end will be occupied by senior Lebron Daniel. Daniel has been waiting patiently for four years behind Adrian Clayborn. There is no getting around the fact that there will be a fall off from Clayborn to Daniel.
If Daniel had been the better player, he would have pushed somebody out of a starting spot. Daniels is proof that it can and does happen. Still, Iowa has a history of little-known seniors making an impact in their last year.
In my opinion, none of the backup defensive ends will see significant minutes unless there are injuries. On the other hand, redshirt freshman Carl Davis, junior Steve Bigach and possibly true freshman Darian Cooper could see minutes at defensive tackle. In effect, Alvis could move outside to spell the ends.
In closing, last year's defensive line underachieved. Part of that was due to a plague of injuries at linebacker. Part of it might have been due to Norm Parker's absence. Either way, this year's group will have to step up if Iowa's defense is going to succeed.
Given that Iowa graduated a collective 89 starts from last year's line, I admit that my position group ranking might be a bit generous. Nonetheless, the Hawks under Ferentz and Parker have a proven history of fielding very good lines and that has to be taken into account.
In 2010, Iowa's usually steady group of linebackers experienced a degree of attrition that is usually reserved for Iowa running backs.
At the beginning of camp, the three linebackers were supposed to be Jeremiah Hunter on the weak-side, Jeff Tarpinian in the middle and Tyler Nielsen on the strong side. They were backed up by Troy Johnson, Bruce Davis and Shane DiBona respectively.
By the ninth game of the year, Tarpinian, Nielsen and Davis were lost for the season while Hunter and Johnson were on and off, trying to play through injuries.
This led to the emergence of true freshman James Morris, who started six games and played significant minutes in nine.
Moving into 2011, Iowa's likely starters are sophomore Morris in the middle, senior Nielsen on the outside and the weakside will be manned by either sophomore Christian Kirksey or fellow sophomore Anthony Hitchens.
Junior Shane DiBona was also supposed to be in the mix at WLB, but he will miss the 2011 season with his third substantial injury in less than a year.
Also, senior Bruce Davis will fight for playing time behind Morris, while sophomore Dakota Getz will be the sixth linebacker.
There isn't much to say about Morris that hasn't already be said. The plan was always to burn his redshirt, but the way he stepped into a starting role was unprecedented. He handled the situation about as well as any 19-year-old could be expected to handle it, though I suppose that is why the coaches trusted him to begin with.
I previously predicted that James Morris would be an all-American by his junior year, and he will surpass Abdul Hodge and Pat Angerer as the best MLB Iowa has fielded under Ferentz. I will stand by that, though this year, he will vie for second team all-conference honors.
At outside backer, or LEO, Tyler Nielsen will graduate as the second-best LEO of the Ferentz era (behind A.J. Edds). It is no coincidence that the 2010 Iowa team, and more specifically the defense, really began to fall apart after Nielsen went down.
He is now 100 percent healthy and looking to build on last season.
Finally, the second most hotly contested position on this team—offense or defense—is the WLB. Hovering right at the 215-lb. mark, Hitchens is smaller than the typical Iowa linebacker, regardless of specific position, has been.
However, it is no secret that Iowa is trying to cultivate linebackers that are more able to cover wide receivers out of spread formations. On the other hand, Hitchens is a bit bigger at 225 lbs. but almost as fast.
My guess is that they will share playing time through the first three or four games. Whoever is starting at the beginning of the Big Ten season has won the job.
My bet is that it will be Hitchens, as I see it being almost impossible for Ferentz and Parker to give up a more able run-defending linebacker for extra speed.
Kirksey (or Hitchens if Kirksey wins the starting spot) will be the catch-all backup for both weak and strong-side. He will also be Iowa's hybrid safety/linebacker in the 4-2-5 or 3-4 alignment.
Looking a bit ahead (which is a mistake), I see Hitchens moving to LEO when Nielsen graduates and Kirksey starting at WILL. At that point, Morris, Hitchens and Kirksey will start together for two full years, which is an exciting thought.
About the only position on defense that can be written in ink is senior Shaun Prater at cornerback. He opted to stay for his senior year, and he will be one of the three best in the conference.
I am curious to see if Ferentz and Parker allow him to press up against whoever he is covering, ala Amari Spievey in 2009. Of course, the key difference between 2009 Spievey and 2011 Prater is that Spievey had two veterans behind him at safety.
The other returning player in the secondary is junior Micah Hyde. Hyde played all 13 games last season at cornerback, but this year, a move to free safety appears finalized. Like many of the Hawk cornerbacks throughout the Ferentz era, Hyde is more ideally a safety than a cornerback.
It is just that Iowa's scheme allows for talented safeties to thrive on an island with a three-five yard cushion. In my opinion, once Hyde gets comfortable with the audible calling, he will settle right in as a safety.
The strong safety and second cornerback are tied for the most hotly contested position on the team.
He could still do something in camp, but his chances of starting slip with each passing day and each new depth chart.
In effect, the second cornerback spot will likely be manned by junior Greg Castillo or true sophomore B.J. Lowery.
Castillo has the experience advantage, as he has started two games in his career. He opened up 2009 as the starter against UNI, but that didn't go so well. He once again started the opener in 2010 and his improvement was palpable.
He is not, nor will he ever be a lockdown corner, but that is not required in Iowa's defensive scheme (though it is a nice bonus). He has proven that he is responsible and a sure tackler, and that is what Ferentz and Parker look for above all else.
Meanwhile, Lowery has a much higher upside than Castillo. The question is can he win Ferentz's and Parker's trust by Sept. 3?
Junior Collin Sleeper was the top strong safety at the opening of camp. Senior Tom Donatell was behind him. Also, Bernstine could be in the mix.
There isn't much to say about Sleeper, as he has never played, not even on special teams. He is a former walk-on and thus, fits the mold of a lot of successful past Iowa walk-on safeties. Also, Kirk Ferentz has spoken well of him.
As for Donatell, he, like Bernstine, will have one more chance to see the field.
The last player that might be in the mix at safety is true sophomore Tanner Miller. He was erstwhile free safety Brett Greenwood's backup last year. He might have been the starting free this year, but he missed spring practices with an injury, which precipitated Hyde's move.
As Hyde will not be moving back to corner, Miller's best bet to get on the field ASAP is to work at strong safety. At the beginning of camp, he was listed as Hyde's backup.
In short, with this group, the highs are very high and the unknowns are very unknown.
The Hawkeyes graduated their punter, their top kickoff return man and their top punt returner.
The one known quantity is sophomore kicker Mike Meyer. He was a big surprise last season, as he beat out two experienced upperclassmen, including the incumbent starter, to earn the starting job.
He finished the season making 14 of 17 field goals, which was not only fifth in the Big Ten, but was the best single season field goal percentage any Iowa kicker has had since Nate Kaeding in 2003 (yes, it's been that long).
The problems are: his leg strength seemed to diminish as the year went on, specifically on kickoffs. Over the first four games, 32 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks.
In the last nine games, he had only three touchbacks, aside from the Northwestern game, where 25 MPH winds helped him push all of his kicks into the end zone.
The second problem is that his place kicking misses were costly. He missed an extra point in a one-point loss against Wisconsin, and a field goal in a three-point loss against Ohio State.
The third problem is that his place kicking distance has never been tested.
Still, he is a sophomore.
At punter, the likely starter is senior Eric Guthrie, who will be one and done. He has one punt in his career, a 32-yarder at Iowa State. I don't remember the specifics of the punt, but it wasn't downed inside the 20.
Let's just hope it is not an example of what we can expect from him. He will be a step or three down from former punter Ryan Donahue, but hopefully he will be solid.
The opening camp depth chart listed receiver Marvin McNutt as the punt returner and receiver Keenan Davis as the kick returner.
The likelihood of McNutt starting at punt returner is about as likely as Ferentz painting the home locker room pink. My guess is that backup receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley will wind up returning punts.
He is built like a slot receiver. In effect, he's perfect for the job. That said, one week into practices, defensive back Micah Hyde is the top punt returner. We'll see if that sticks.
Keenan Davis does have experience returning kicks—he returned nine last season with mediocre results—but he is probably only slightly more expendable than McNutt. In effect, I think Ferentz will go with somebody else on kickoffs. My guess is Martin-Manley and/or true freshman speedster, Jordan Canzeri.
Overall, there are a lot of question marks on the Iowa special teams.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 10
Coming on Tuesday, a look at Iowa's schedule and the final breakdown.
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Michigan Wolverines.
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