Better or worse? Previewing Iowa’s defense in 2020
Defense has been the calling card for Iowa over the past 2 decades under Kirk Ferentz. The 2019 season was a dominant continuation of that trend.
Iowa finished 10-3, 3rd in the B1G West and ranked No. 15 in the AP and Coaches polls behind a defense that ranked 5th nationally in points per game allowed (14.0). That average was its fewest since 2008.
Additionally, Iowa was 1 of just 5 programs in the nation to field a top 20 passing and rushing defense.
This was all the more impressive when considering the anemic nature of Iowa’s offense. The defense consistently responded to being hampered by poor field position.
Longtime defensive coordinator Phil Parker is tasked with replacing 6 starters, including 3 NFL Draft picks. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was a 2nd-round pick. Defensive backs Michael Ojemudia and Geno Stone went in the 3rd and 7th round, respectively.
Parker should be up for the challenge, as he’s demonstrated the aptitude to develop a scheme to fit the strengths of his personnel.
Can the new-look Iowa defense follow in the lineage of its predecessor? Let’s dive into it with another edition of Better or Worse?
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Losing Epenesa is huge for Iowa’s ability to pressure the quarterback. The 2nd-team AP All-American amassed 11.5 of the team’s 33.0 sacks. He also forced 4 fumbles in 2019.
Senior defensive end Chauncey Golston (3 sacks) flashed dynamic potential last season and will be called upon to elevate his game now that Epenesa is gone. Golston’s 3 fumble recoveries led the B1G and ranked 6th nationally.
Keep an eye on redshirt sophomore Joe Evans. Evans was hampered by injuries last season but finished the final 6 games with 4 sacks. The 6-2, 240-pound end makes up for a lack of bulk with bursts of speed and agility. If Evans is able to command double teams, it’ll free up more space for Golston and junior Daviyon Nixon to operate.
Nixon had some nice moments last season as a backup and should get more reps. Nixon tallied 2 sacks in Iowa’s shutout vs. Northwestern.
Grad transfer Jack Heflin provides some depth and experience along the interior.
Iowa has some intriguing options, but without Epenesa it’ll be tough to replicate last season’s pass rush.
Run defense: Better
Iowa ranked 12th in rushing yards per game allowed (112.8) last season. If the linebackers maximize their abilities, that amount could decrease.
Iowa is replacing 3 starters along the line, but junior Djimon Colbert and senior Nick Niemann return at linebacker.
Colbert started every game at weakside linebacker last season and totaled 61 tackles. Colbert, a former defensive back, adds an element of speed and athleticism. Colbert made strides last season with his IQ and awareness.
Niemann is coming off a strong finish, as he tallied a sack and interception in the Holiday Bowl vs. USC. The lanky Niemann has the capability to play inside and outside and is a sure tackler.
Sophomore middle linebacker Jack Campbell replaces leading tackler Kristian Welch. Campbell played in 11 games last season but made minimal contributions. Campbell is going to be one of the keys to success for Iowa’s defense. Coaches like his upside and athleticism but needs to put it all together.
Redshirt freshman Jestin Jacobs has plenty of promise. The extremely athletic Jacobs, who bypassed an offer from Ohio State, could vie for reps.
Count on Iowa once again to be stout at stopping the run.
Pass defense: Worse
Iowa has to fill the void of 3 starters from a secondary that ranked 18th nationally in passing yards per game (195.7) tied for 3rd in the B1G with 12 interceptions.
With Stone and All-B1G cornerback Ojemudia gone, Iowa will turn to senior cornerback Matt Hankins and junior safety Jack Koerner to keep the positive momentum. Hankins is a solid tackler and dependable cover corner. Koerner filled in admirably for the injured Kaevon Merriweather, finishing 2nd on the team with 81 tackles.
Koerner was recently injured in a boating accident but tweeted that he expects a full recovery.
I want to thank everyone who has reached out, shown support and relayed prayers. I’m going to be okay and look forward to making as fast a recovery as possible. Please everyone continue to say prayers and show support to my good friend Cole🙏❤️@cole_coffin
— Jack Koerner (@KoernerJack) June 14, 2020
If Merriweather can stay healthy, he’ll be a reliable backup option to Koerner. Freshman Reggie Bracy is an option at Iowa’s “cash” defense if Belton takes over at strong safety.
Sophomore Dane Belton spent a lot of time in “cash” last season but figures to slot into Stone’s role at strong safety. Belton had 33 tackles.
Overall, the cornerback position has solid depth.
Sophomore Julius Brents and junior Riley Moss will compete for the right cornerback spot. Brents redshirted last season due to injuries but will be a big boost if he can return to the form of his freshman year. The lengthy Moss has nice ball skills, demonstrated by 2 interceptions last season.
The pass defense will be worse without Stone and Ojemudia but still very good because of the infusion of experienced depth.
Special teams: Worse
Australian graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton was solid at punter last season. Sleep-Dalton (41.7 yards per punt) was an All-B1G honorable mention selection and helped Iowa control field position.
Ryan Gersonde and Australian Tory Taylor will compete for the vacancy. Gersonde was an All-America punter in high school. The 22-year-old Taylor signed with Iowa this offseason after a recommendation by fellow Australian Sleep-Dalton. Taylor is raw but has an excellent frame at 6-4 and 225 pounds.
Whoever wins the job will be adequate but not to the level of consistency as Sleep-Dalton.
Iowa’s defense will be strong, but this revamped edition won’t measure up to the standard of last season. That’s the lofty bar Iowa’s set. Losing plenty of standout players is a blow, but Parker will adjust.
Iowa’s rebuilt defense is in good hands anchored by Golston, Colbert, Hankins, and Koerner.
If Iowa can improve on 3rd-down conversions, it’ll go a long way toward once again being a stingy unit. Plus, an improved offense will enable the defense to be more refreshed.
Allowing 14 points per game again is an unreasonable ask, but around 17 to 20 seems fair. If the other units hold up their end, that’ll be more than enough wiggle room to contend for another double-digit win total.