IOWA CITY, Iowa — Last spring, Iowa fans dreamed of a NASCAR package, with four pass rushers on the defensive line in an obvious throwing situation.
And it happened. Iowa found success with Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse, A.J. Epenesa and Matt Nelson or Brady Reiff playing together.
This spring, the dream is of Iowa using more nickel packages against spread offenses.
But that one might not happen. Based on the early talks from spring practice, it doesn’t sound as if the Hawkeyes are that interested in experimenting with putting an extra defensive back in the lineup.
“We haven’t transitioned to that,” linebackers coach Seth Wallace said, “but we have had conversations, given thoughts to it. I haven’t ruled it out. It’s just a matter of how you budget your time to make sure that the guys see enough pictures of what it is they are going to be facing on Saturday. At the end of the day that’s the most important thing.”
The good news is Iowa is discussing the nickel defense. The bad news is those talks haven’t left the coaching offices yet.
Wallace is hesitant to devote time to it because those reps come at the experience of a linebacker.
With no starters returning, Iowa’s young, inexperienced linebackers need all the work they can get.
“The tough thing is you only have so much time,” Wallace said. “With everything that you are seeing these days offensively, a picture is worth a thousand words. When you see that picture over and over again it really helps at the end of the week, and if you are splitting that picture with [a linebacker and a defensive back] it makes it difficult.”
It is a legitimate concern. So is coach Kirk Ferentz’s question about depth at the position.
The staff believes safeties Jake Gervase and Brandon Snyder are the best options at nickel, but Snyder is out following ACL surgery on his left knee in November.
“Fifty percent of that pool is already off the field, so I don’t know how much [sense it makes],” Ferentz said.
Still, the Big Ten is no longer full of teams lining up with tight ends and fullbacks looking to run the ball into the end zone. Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State stand out because they play old-school smashmouth football.
The coaching staffs joining the league are in the mold of Jeff Brohm and Scott Frost. Each brings an air raid offense to the Big Ten. Frost’s offense was central to his Central Florida team going undefeated last season.
And Brohm showed the quick-strike ability of his Purdue offense by attacking the right cornerback position, and three different players, in one series during the Boilermakers’ 24-15 win over the Hawkeyes last November.
The air raid isn’t going away. The Big Ten is the last frontier for the offense. It’s already spread to the rest of college football.
Iowa will need to find a way to counter it. The Hawkeyes’ typical response to a spread offense is to stay in its base formation with three linebackers. Most of the rest of the country counters by removing a linebacker and replacing him with a defensive back.
Iowa fans fear their defense playing base against spread attacks. It has hurt them before. Not as often as they remember, but the scars are there.
The Hawkeyes’ hesitation with embracing the nickel defense outside of passing situations stems from concerns with the running game.
“It’s good pass-wise,” Wallace said. “It’s good for the spread offenses and covering the bubbles. … It’s all good stuff until they want to start running the football, which as soon as you find you have one less linebacker on the field that’s what they are going to do.”
Teams will attack a defensive back playing in the box. Once the player shows the ability to hold his own against the run the offense tries something else. This is why the ability to defend the run is vital for a nickelback and why a safety is a better option than a cornerback.
But most air raid offenses base their run/pass options on the number of defenders in the box. If there are more blockers than defenders, a team will run the ball. Quarterbacks aren’t counting the number of safeties vs. linebackers.
Air raid offenses want to stress a defense by forcing defenders to make plays in open space without help from teammates. An extra defensive back can help in that regard.
“The thinking there is we played so many teams that don’t play with fullbacks or tight ends, that it’s kind of the world that college football has become,” Ferentz said. “So there might be that flexibility of integrating that package a little bit.”
For now, expect Iowa to roll out three linebackers. This may change come preseason camp. The coaches aren’t totally opposed to using an additional defensive back, but they aren’t sold on it either.
Until they are, more nickel is nothing more than a dream.