Hawkeyes to blend experience, newcomers on revamped defense
The University of Iowa football team always seems to have a knack for defense, regardless of the personnel and experience on the field.
That theory could possibly receive its biggest challenge this season, as multiple departures to the NFL and graduations have left the Hawkeyes with one of their youngest teams in head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 14 years on the job.
Just like on the offensive side of the ball, Iowa will have a new defensive coordinator in Phil Parker. However, Parker is also entering his 14th year on the staff and is running a similar defense to Norm Parker’s, so the transition hasn’t been as big through the first week of practice.
“Defensively, it’s not quite the same challenge,” Ferentz said. “There aren’t as many, first of all, the nomenclature and all the wording is the same and it hasn’t changed dramatically. It’s not quite as big a transition, but I think everybody knows we have a young team right now and the attentiveness has been very good.”
This year’s defense will undoubtedly be led in the middle by junior linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey, who combined for more than 200 tackles last season. Morris, playing the middle linebacker position, was named to four preseason watch lists, including the Butkus and Bednarik awards.
“James Morris is obviously our leader on defense as the middle linebacker, because that’s who you want to lead the defense,” Parker said. “You want to be strong up the middle and I think we have guys that are capable of doing that.”
Who will play the third linebacker position is still up in the air, as well as who will be the primary backups. More inexperienced players like junior Anthony Hitchens, redshirt freshman Cole Fisher and true freshman Travis Perry are a few that have caught the coaching staff’s eye in the spring. However, it’s up to Morris and Kirksey to lead by example and teach those younger players as the season gets closer.
“Turnover is a part of college and people leave every year,” Morris said. “It’s pretty natural that guys will step up into new leadership roles, and I feel like I’ve always considered myself to be sort of a leader. I think it’s been a pretty seamless transition and I like where we are so far.”
After losing multiple players to the NFL, the Hawkeyes’ defensive line is far and away the least experienced on the defense. With only two returning letter winners, positions on the line are largely up in the air in terms of who will replace the likes of Mike Daniels, who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Names such as Karl Davis, Louis Trinca-Pasat and Dean Tsopanides have been thrown around for potential playing time, but junior Dominic Alvis appears to be the only sure thing after seeing significant playing time as a sophomore while battling injuries.
“On the defensive line people like to pick out specific parts, but I think it’s the defense as a unit,” Alvis said. “We always have a strong defense, and I think this season will be no exception.”
On the flip side to the line, Iowa will see plenty of depth in the backfield with seven returning letter winners. The right side will be locked down by three-time senior letter winners Micah Hyde and Greg Castillo. Hyde has made the biggest waves in terms of award watch lists, including the Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski awards, as well as a first team All-Big Ten selection in Phil Steele’s College Football Review.
“It’s a great experience, and you live for the chance to be a leader,” Hyde said. “The young guys are catching on very good. They’re out there learning and I can’t really ask anything more of them.”
Elsewhere in the secondary, it’s a who’s who of names that will try to pick up where they left off last season. Safety Nico Law was almost unanimously considered the hardest hitter on the team, while fellow safeties Tanner Miller and Tom Donatell each have to letters to their name, and in Miller’s case, two additional preseason shout outs from college football publications. On the left side, junior B.J. Lowery will return for his junior season with two letters already under his belt.
Iowa’s defense will first be tested by Northern Illinois when the teams square off at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept. 1.
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