Watch one of Iowa’s practices this spring and what becomes noticeable are the things you don’t see.
You don’t see Desmond King or Jaleel Johnson, two All-B1G selections who stabilized Iowa’s defense.
You’re also not seeing several of last year’s major contributors involved in the action on the field. Matt Nelson, Anthony Nelson, Nathan Bazata and Ben Niemann are all proceeding with caution this fall as they recover from injury.
Right now, five months before the season gets underway, you don’t see how this defense can be any better than it was last year.
Luckily for the Hawkeyes, it’s only spring. The potential for Iowa’s defense goes far beyond what you can or can’t see in a few practices this time of year.
Eight starters are returning to a defense that allowed just 18.8 points per game last season. 10 players on the roster have combined to make over 180 career starts, making the Hawkeyes one of the most experienced teams in the B1G heading into 2017.
Here’s just a glimpse of how much of Iowa’s production from last season (over 70 percent in most areas) is coming back:
|Stats||2016 Totals||2017 Returning|
|Tackles for Loss||60||43.5|
The contributors are scattered throughout the lineup. So, despite losing a stud like Johnson in the trenches and a playmaker in King from the secondary, the Hawkeyes should be balanced again this fall.
Josey Jewell is probably the most recognizable guy returning to the mix, and will be the anchor to a solid linebacker corps that had three of the team’s top four tacklers. Jewell, who finished the year with 124 stops, has been one of the best in the B1G the past two seasons, finishing as the conference’s second-best tackler back-to-back seasons.
Fellow seniors Bo Bower and Niemann – who ranked second and fourth on the team in tackles, respectively – rejoin Jewell at the position. Combined, the trio has made over 80 starts and should be the strongpoint for the defense in 2017.
But Iowa has talent other places, as well.
Safety Brandon Snyder had an excellent year as a first-time starter. He finished his sophomore campaign with 85 tackles (third-best on the team) and had three interceptions and forced three fumbles. Alongside Snyder is Miles Taylor, who’s started 27 career games.
Right now, we can’t see it, but the Hawkeyes are in pretty good shape on the defensive line, too.
Parker Hesse is the only lineman with significant experience fully engaged in spring workouts at the moment. But when Matt Nelson, Anthony Nelson and Bazata return during the summer – as they’re expected to – that’ll be an experienced front line. And five-star recruit A.J. Epenesa will certainly work himself into that rotation and should be an immediate weapon for Iowa.
There are a few things Ferentz will need to address, though, if this defense does want to be better than it was a year ago.
Hesse, Espenesa, Matt Nelson and Anthony Nelson are all currently listed as defensive ends with Bazata as the lone defensive tackle. That probably means there’s going to be a roster shuffle is in the works to try and balance out the depth.
According to The Des Moines Register, Hesse and Matt Nelson are both willing to rotate at defensive tackle, if necessary, which would give the Hawkeyes a quicker front. Considering Iowa struggled to stop the run at times, ranked 13th in the B1G in tackles for loss (60) and seventh in sacks (28), that might be a beneficial adjustment.
The corner back situation stirs up some questions, too. With both King and Greg Mabin out of the picture, it’s the one spot that needs the most work.
Sophomore Manny Rugamba could be a rising star after a solid first season. His numbers weren’t eye-popping, but he became just the fourth freshman in the Kirk Ferentz era to start as a defensive back, stepping in for Mabin in the final four games.. He finished the year with 19 tackles, two interceptions and four pass break-ups.
That leaves the Hawkeyes still searching for some other playmakers who can step in. Joshua Jackson and Michael Ojemubia will be the top two remaining candidates, and each has experience as a role player. If there’s a concern at any position for Iowa heading into 2017, this is the one.
Even with the concerns and two All-B1G selections departed, the Hawkeyes are in a good position. Better than they were in a year ago.
You have to sideline the old “what you see is what you get,” phrase. Iowa does have the potential to field one of the top defenses in the B1G next fall. The pieces are all there.
We just don’t see it, yet.