For fans of Iowa, the 2021 performance by the defense came as no surprise. The Hawkeye defense powered the team to a B1G West title while allowing just over 19 points per game, a mark that ranked 13th in the nation.

Going back to 2015, it was the 7th straight season in which Iowa finished in the top 20 for points allowed per game. The Hawkeyes have a pair of B1G West titles and 3 double-digit-win seasons in that span.

With history on its side — and some key contributors and depth returning up front — the Hawkeyes will look to turn in another gem defensively under head coach Kirk Ferentz and long-time DC Phil Parker.

Pressuring the QB: Better

AJ Epenesa has the most-recent double-digit sack season for the Hawkeyes in 2019, and the 2022 version of Iowa’s defensive front could produce a player to rival Epenesa’s 11.5 sacks. Even if a singular star doesn’t shine through on the front, the depth of the Hawkeyes has the pass-rushing unit in good shape.

Though Zach VanValkenburg — the team’s leader in tackles for loss at 15.5 — is off to the NFL, the leading pass-rushers for the Hawkeyes return in Lukas Van Ness and Joe Evans. Those two each produced 7 sacks in 2021.

Logan Lee (3 sacks), John Waggoner (2), Noah Shannon (2) and Deontae Craig (1.5) all return to the pass-rush, as does Yahya Black. Iowa has also supplemented its depth with a trio of freshmen DLs, including 4-star recruit and in-state prospect Aaron Graves out of Gowrie.

With all of their main contributors back – save for the departure of VanValkenburg – the Hawkeyes stand to terrorize many QBs in 2022.

Run defense: Even

Iowa returns its top linebackers from 2021 in Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs. Campbell and Benson were the team’s leading tacklers and each eclipsed 100 with Campbell posting 140 on the season.

However, improving on the run defense from last season will be tough to do. And it will not necessarily be negative if the Hawkeyes stay even in their ground defense.

Iowa allowed exactly 3 rushers to gain 100 yards in a game last season. That group consisted of Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen, Minnesota’s Ky Thomas and Kentucky’s Christopher Rodriguez Jr. in the bowl game.

The Hawkeyes allowed on average just over 114 rushing yards per game, a mark that ranked 3rd in the B1G. Iowa’s 3.2 yards allowed per carry ranked 2nd in the conference.

The pieces are there for Iowa to replicate what was already a dominant rushing defense in 2021.

Pass defense: Worse

Improving every facet of the defense — even for a group returning so much production — is tough for any team to do. That’s mainly a testament to how strong the Hawkeyes were in 2021.

Last season, Iowa led the B1G and all of FBS football with 25 interceptions, with 3 pick-6s. Dane Belton led the way with 5 picks, while 6 Hawkeyes recorded multiple interceptions.

The interceptions were not the only strong point of the passing defense. Iowa allowed just a 56% completion rate on the season, the best mark for its defense since 2017. But Iowa lost Matt Hankins, Belton and Jack Koerner from the defensive backfield, with all 3 moving on to the NFL.

Make no mistake: Iowa has the returning talent and top in-state prospect Xavier Nwankpa incoming to keep the defensive backfield in great shape. Taking a step back is likely in 2022, but the unit will not fall off a cliff and should be more than capable for Iowa in an attempt to repeat in the B1G West.

Special teams: Better

Special teams play is an area of the game that Iowa traditionally hangs its hat on, and the unit should be extraordinary once again in 2022. Kicker Caleb Shudak is off to the NFL, but the punting unit should be one of the best in the B1G and arguably in the nation.

During the 2021 season, punter Tory Taylor averaged 46.1 yards on 80 punts. That average ranked 4th in the B1G with just 13 touchbacks on the season.

In addition to Taylor’s strong leg, the coverage of the Hawkeyes was more than adequate. Iowa allowed just 94 total punt return yards on the season and kept return men consistently locked down.

With Taylor back for the 2022 season with the Hawkeyes, the defensive aspect of the special teams unit will be more than fine. It has a shot to be brilliant with teams consistently backed up against their own end zones.

Overall: Better

For many teams, trying to improve on 19.2 points allowed per game might seem daunting. Those teams are not Iowa, where the defense has reigned supreme over much of the past decade.

In fact, the 19.2 mark was the worst mark for the Hawkeyes since 2017. Iowa has allowed less than 19 points per game 4 times since 2015 and less than 18 points per game 3 times in that stretch.

Iowa equaling the mark of 2021 and improving on that effort is well within reach. Even if the passing defense does take a small step back in terms of yardage, it should not hurt the overall stature of the defense.

With elite depth and talent in the front seven, it should be another impressive season for Phil Parker’s unit in Iowa City.