Better or worse? Previewing Iowa’s defense in 2021
After a sluggish start through its first 2 games, Iowa’s offense regrouped for a solid 2020 campaign. Iowa finished 6-2 overall, second in the B1G West, and ranked No. 16 in the AP Poll. It was Iowa’s 6th consecutive season with a .600 winning percentage or higher and 8th winning season in a row.
The stout Iowa defense never allowed more than 21 points in a game the entire season. Iowa held 3 opponents (Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin) to 7 points. Iowa ranked sixth nationally in points allowed per game (16.0).
Defensively in the B1G, Iowa ranked second in total yards per game (313.8), third in points per game (16.0), third in rushing yards per game (107.6) and fifth in passing yards per game (206.1).
The key defensive returners for Iowa are defensive end Zach VanValkenburg; linebackers Seth Benson and Jack Campbell; Dane Belton (CASH); and defensive backs Matt Hankins, Riley Moss, Jack Koerner and Kaevon Merriweather.
Iowa lost defensive linemen Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Golston and Jack Heflin. Nixon earned B1G Defensive Player of the Year and was a first-team AP All-America selection during his breakthrough junior campaign. Nixon amassed 5.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, a pick-6 and a forced fumble last season. Golston earned All-B1G first-team honors for amassing 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. During his lone season at Iowa, the senior transfer Heflin tallied 21 tackles and a sack.
So what should we expect from the Iowa defense in 2021? Let’s break it down:
Pressuring the QB: Worse
As noted, the main defensive area Iowa needs to replenish is the interior defensive line. The Iowa defensive line played an integral role in the unit’s stinginess last season. Iowa tallied 20.5 sacks last season. In order to have another dominant campaign, Iowa has to solidify the trenches.
Six-foot, 288-pound sophomore Noah Shannon makes the most sense of any returning option at left tackle.
John Waggoner will be tasked with replacing Nixon at left defensive end. The Iowa coaching staff is high on him.
“He’s extremely detailed and he’s consistent and he knows where he’s supposed to be,” Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said of Waggoner in 2019 via 247Sports. “And that means something, at least to me as a coach. He doesn’t have the length and speed of an Anthony Nelson. But he’s so detailed and he knows where he fits in the defense. He’s in the right spot.”
Yahya Black is slotted as the starting right defensive tackle. Black redshirted after the first 4 games of his freshman campaign last season.
Iowa has some solid pass rushers but none on the level as Nixon or Golston.
Run defense: Better
Iowa allowed 107.6 yards per game (2.8 per carry) on the ground last season but they could be even more stingy in 2021.
In a breakthrough campaign, Benson finished last season second on Iowa in tackles. Benson, who also added 2 sacks, figures to be a dynamic presence at linebacker.
“Seth was under-recruited,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said via 247Sports. “He’s not the biggest guy in the world but he’s a heck of a football player. … He’s got the right mentality to play. You get guys like that, it makes your whole team better.”
Campbell amassed 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, and 1 sack in 5 games, including a clutch interception in the end zone vs. Wisconsin.
“We have been excited about Jack Campbell going back to high school,” Ferentz said. “He has a great attitude, great tools, and great instincts. Jack made a lot of great football plays for us last season.”
Belton also has good instincts is one of the hardest hitters on the defense.
Iowa could be even better next season at linebacker with Belton, Campbell and Benson. The talented trio is also joined by intriguing outside linebacker Jestin Jacobs.
Pass defense: Better
The Iowa secondary held opponents to 206.1 yards through the air last season. A majority of the core will be back in 2021, which bodes well for the aerial defense.
Koerner overcame a watercraft accident in the summer to capture second-team All-B1G honors. At free safety, Koerner totaled a team-high 3 interceptions and was tied for 3rd on Iowa in tackles.
Moss collected 2 interceptions, including a 53-yard pick-six, last season. Moss has the speed, tackling ability and coverage skills to be one of the top cornerbacks in the conference next season.
Hankins was solid in coverage but only snagged 1 interception last season. Hankins will serve as a steadying presence as a senior leader.
Merriweather stepped up for Iowa in some big moments last season, including a pass breakup in the end zone vs. Illinois. Merriweather is starting to grow his football IQ and instincts to complement his athletic ability.
Belton will also be a force across the middle for receivers to deal with.
The secondary will be the best unit of the Iowa defense.
Special teams: Better
After earning the job as a freshman, Tory Taylor will once again serve as Iowa’s punter.
During his first season at Iowa, Taylor averaged 44.1 yards on his 40 punts. With a year of experience now, Taylor should be even more comfortable in his role and that average should increase. If Taylor can provide a boost with field position, Iowa’s defense will be even more effective.
With all its starters back, the secondary touts a ton of experience and should wreak damage on opposing offenses.
It’ll be challenging to replace Nixon and Golston, and there could be a decline in production on the left side of the line. However, the return of VanValkenburg on the right side is a major boost to the Iowa defense.
This season’s version will continue the legacy of dominant defensive units at Iowa.
If Iowa plays to its potential, this is a top 10 team in the nation that could be a dark horse for the College Football Playoff with the right breaks.