IOWA CITY, Iowa — At the snap, Jaleel Johnson eyed the Wisconsin center. But a strange thing happened when he went to pick him.
The center was already occupied with Faith Ekakitie. One Iowa defensive tackle helped set up the other as Johnson wrapped around the opening Ekakitie created to get a sack last Saturday.
The way Johnson sees it, his improved performance in recent weeks is tied into the play of those around him, such as Ekakitie. Without the backup stepping up, Johnson couldn’t have upped his game.
As Iowa deals with injuries and some players being asked to do more than before, the same theory applies to the entire team. It’s why the focus during the bye week needs to be on complementary, or role, players.
“What it does is, it allows the guys that play a lot to refresh and get treatment,” Johnson said. “But the guys who aren’t playing, the guys who are next man in, it’s time for them to really work on their craft so that when that time presents itself again, they will be in a better position to make more plays.”
This is an Iowa team stressed in more ways than anyone anticipated. The offensive line is getting reshuffled on a weekly basis. The only potential answers at wide receiver after the Matt VandeBerg injury are those with little experience. It’s the same at tight end with George Kittle dealing with a leg injury.
The relief won’t come until more players emulate Ekakitie. Stars are expected to carry the Hawkeyes, but take Johnson. He’s made 9 tackles and 3 sacks in the last three games, yet concedes he couldn’t maximize his impact on his own.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz recognizes the situation as well.
“If we are going to be successful in November, all of our best players have to play their best,” Ferentz said. “And then we have to help those guys around them, too, because defensive tackle and quarterback aren’t going to win the game for you.”
Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard is hamstrung, in part, because his receivers aren’t getting open and making plays. Wide receiver Jay Scheel, in his first season of extensive playing time, dropped a pass 35 yards down the field against Wisconsin.
“In a game he hasn’t (made that play), but what we’ve seen from fall camp and spring ball early on, he’s made plays like that,” Johnson said. “The more things he does in practice, he applies that to a game.”
That’s why Johnson said he thinks this week is vital for players like Scheel. Yes, the ultimate step is making a big contribution on Saturday, but the opportunity won’t arise if players don’t show the ability to do it in front of the coaches on the practice field.
It’s no surprise that the offense, especially the passing game, is in need of the most help with role players. Most of the group didn’t see significant action before this season. The problems extend beyond playmakers. And the defense must get better playing in space and missed tackles were a problem last week.
When Iowa travels to No. 24 Penn State on Nov. 5, Johnson wants more Hawkeyes to pull a Brady Reiff. All the redshirt freshman defensive lineman did was the job asked of him in the goal-line package against the Badgers.
“He got a knock back on the center, which really put our defense in a great position to where they couldn’t score,” Johnson said.“The more we emphasize on the next man in — guys are really starting to grasp that idea and that concept — when that time presents itself, they are able to go in and make those plays.”