IOWA CITY, Iowa — It’s understandable if the Iowa defense wants to let memories from the spring game linger.
The defense was dominant, forcing turnovers and failing to allow a touchdown until the backups were on the field.
But looking back is a cardinal sin for the Hawkeyes. It keeps the program from moving forward.
With spring practice in the books, here is a look at what’s next for the defense.
Figuring out weakside linebacker
The linebacker question was the biggest one for the Hawkeyes this spring. It still is, but for an unexpected reason.
Aaron Mends, the frontrunner at weakside linebacker, is out for an extended period of time.
Coach Kirk Ferentz said it would be “tough” for Mends to play this season.
It was a tough end to a promising spring. Not just for Mends, but the position group. Amani Jones emerged at middle linebacker and Nick Niemann solidified himself at strongside linebacker.
Now the Hawkeyes must find a new weakside linebacker. Kristian Welsh started the spring game. Jack Hockaday and Barrington Wade also could factor into the discussion.
“You’ve got Jack Hockaday, you’ve got Welch, those guys are competing,” “Ferentz said. “And Barrington … is one of those guys that just kind of really had a silent year. Nothing bad, but really nothing to make you say, ‘Maybe we can use this guy here or there,’ special teams, et cetera. I think this spring he’s certainly in the two-deep and deserves to be in the two-deep, and hopefully he’s got a chance a) to start for a competing job, and b) to help us on special teams.”
Bringing back Matt Nelson
Senior Matt Nelson missed spring practice following shoulder surgery. He’s expected back for the season and his return will provide much-needed depth. He started the final seven games of the 2017 season.
Without Nelson, Iowa is thin on the interior line. Cedrick Lattimore, who started six games, and Brady Reiff, a rotation player, also are back.
Iowa moved defensive ends Sam Brincks and Chauncey Golston to defensive tackle this spring. Brinks started the spring game at tackle and could play his way into the rotation there. Garret Jansen and Dalles Jacobus also are names to watch at the position.
Nelson’s absence this spring showed that Iowa is one injury from depth being a concern. The Hawkeyes must develop depth before the season opener against Northern Illinois on Sept. 1.
Taking the final step
Amani Hooker looked like a star in the making during the spring game. He recorded an interception and forced a fumble. He also tipped a pass that resulted in an interception.
Hooker came on strong late last season, making big plays against Ohio State and in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Hooker is a physical ball hawk who can quickly read a play. He looks like the next big thing in the Iowa secondary. Iowa needs a playmaker in the back seven on defense. One of Iowa’s biggest goals for the rest of the offseason is to ensure it happens.
It changes the look of the defense if Hooker can do something like this on a consistent basis.
Youth is served
The defensive backfield is the strength of the 2018 recruiting class. Those players will impact the defense this season. The question is how.
“The guys that are going to come in as freshmen, when we get an opportunity to see them, I won’t be afraid to put a guy in,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “Maybe they can give us another nickel role or can they be another guy. And I’m thinking that we’ll have one or two guys that might have to play in the back end.”
Julius Brents, Dallas Craddieth and D.J. Johnson earned 4-star ratings from either 247Sports or Rivals. Each is capable of working their way onto the field as freshmen. Having a freshman make an instant impact could turn the secondary from good to great.
The biggest hurdle to their emergence is the depth. Matt Hankins, Michael Ojemudia and Manny Rugamba are experienced at cornerback. Hooker, Brandon Snyder, Jake Gervase and Geno Stone return at safety.
Iowa didn’t seem interested in experimenting with nickel coverage this spring, but don’t read that as Iowa won’t ever try it.
Gervase and Snyder are the most obvious candidates to slide into the nickel back position. With Snyder out following knee surgery, a lack of depth was the reason Ferentz was hesitant to try it.
Parker came off as intrigued during a news conference on April 17 about the idea of playing nickel and what it could do to combat Air Raid and other spread offenses.
Newcomers Craddieth and Brents could play the position. The Hawkeyes will have enough bodies to experiment in preseason camp.
It would behoove them to do it. Iowa could strengthen its defense against a team such as Purdue, which exposed Iowa’s cornerbacks last season.
The worst-case scenario is that Iowa finds out it’s not in position to switch and sticks with its base defense.