Leistikow: Could 2022 become Phil Parker's deepest and best Iowa football defense yet?
IOWA CITY — There are many ways to measure the strength of a football team’s defense.
Total defense is the category that gets the most attention on TV graphics or newspaper articles. Scoring defense is arguably the most important, considering points (not yards) ultimately decide who wins. A dominant defense can also be one that creates a lot of havoc in the form of sacks or turnovers.
In all three categories over the last four to five years, Phil Parker’s Iowa defense has been very good at minimum … and great at times.
From 2018 to 2021, Iowa’s total defense rankings nationally were (in order) seventh, 12th, eighth and 16th.
From 2018 to 2021, Iowa’s scoring defense ranked 11th, fifth, sixth and 13th among FBS teams.
From 2017 to 2021, Iowa has been in the top three nationally in interceptions three times (including a total of 25 thefts in 2021, the most in a season by any Power Five school since 2014).
And now the question becomes: Could 2022 become Parker’s best defense yet?
While the scoring defense slipped a touch during a 10-4 campaign, a 21-point Michigan flurry at the end of the Big Ten Championship Game — when Jim Harbaugh was essentially running up the score for College Football Playoff purposes — was the difference between Iowa finishing top-six nationally for the third straight year and 13th. Between that and the usual high turnover-creation rate, last year’s Hawkeye defense was elite. And that conclusion can be reached despite key injuries, including to the team’s top three cornerbacks Matt Hankins, Riley Moss and Terry Roberts. Recall that during Iowa’s 6-0 start before that trio got hurt and its climb to No. 2 in the national polls, the defense was out of this world.
And that’s why the 2022 defense, health permitting, could be better. Almost everyone is back. And the depth is insane across the board.
Let’s start with the defensive line, where only Zach VanValkenburg departed among the regulars. This D-line may not have a star like Anthony Nelson or A.J. Epenesa or Daviyon Nixon, but it could be the deepest and most versatile we’ve ever seen under assistant coaches Kelvin Bell and Jay Niemann.
Lukas Van Ness was a freshman all-American a year ago as a backup defensive tackle (seven sacks), and the “Greek God” (in the words of teammate Joe Evans) now moves to defensive end and, quite honestly, could be Iowa’s next great defensive lineman. Stalwarts Evans and John Waggoner are back at defensive end and not only add Van Ness to the fold but a rising sensation in Deontae Craig (remember that name) and Ethan Hurkett (who showed oodles of promise before a major knee injury in Week 1 last season). Hurkett is back and, according to Evans, is “looking phenomenal.”
Throw in redshirt freshman Max Llewellyn of Urbandale (whose name has surfaced in multiple interviews as a potential difference-maker), and Iowa is easily six-deep at defensive end.
Evans and Waggoner, who live together, were recently chatting and marveling at the amount of up-front defensive talent. They know this is a rare situation in which, ideally, fresh waves of bodies can be thrown into games with little drop-off.
“We were just listing off the guys,” Evans said. “I just think it’s going to be a fun year when we can go two-, three-deep.”
That includes at defensive tackle, where starters Logan Lee and Noah Shannon return. They each started all 14 games a year ago and were at their best at the end of the season, in the Citrus Bowl. Throw in gigantic sophomore Yahya Black (6-foot-5, 306 pounds) and incoming physical force Aaron Graves and the interior of the line should be imposing and effective. And remember, Van Ness (6-5, 269) could swing inside if needed, too.
“We have a ton of guys,” Lee said, “that are eventually capable of playing.”
At linebacker, Iowa can make a case for having the best trio in the country in Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs. Campbell and Jacobs are future NFL Draft picks, and Benson is the closest thing we’ve seen to Josey Jewell since the 2017 season. With Iowa largely playing a 4-2-5 base defense, that means three studs are sometimes rotating in two spots. Campbell (6-5, 243) is so good and powerful as the middle linebacker that it’s hard to imagine him coming off the field unless Iowa coaches really show a lot of discipline. That means the choice between Jacobs and Benson at weak-side linebacker becomes a good problem.
And as we know, the secondary under Parker is always outstanding. More on this group later, but despite losing three starters in Dane Belton (a fourth-round New York Giants draft pick) and seven years of starting experience in Hankins and Jack Koerner, the Hawkeyes are loaded in the back end. Not only does Moss (10 career interceptions and the reigning Big Ten defensive back of the year) return along with proven veterans Roberts, Jermari Harris and Kaevon Merriweather, there is a slew of young talent coming up with the likes of sophomore Cooper DeJean and true freshmen TJ Hall and Xavier Nwankpa. And it sounds like junior Quinn Schulte – the former walk-on from Cedar Rapids Xavier and expected starting free safety – has made some major physical gains.
“We lost Koerner and Hankins and Dane, but that’s the thing about coach Parker and Iowa. We’re always reloading,” Moss said. “We always have guys ready.”
Scoff if you will, but there’s an unmistakable intangible with this year’s Iowa defense. It’s one that is often present, even when there were stars like A.J. Epenesa getting into a three-point stance on the edge. The Hawkeyes must exhibit a selflessness — something Parker's simple-but-refined scheme requires — to be successful. Based on interviews and known character of the key players, this defense has that quality.
For a top talent like Jacobs (6-4, 238), who chose Iowa over home-state school Ohio State in a heated recruiting push, that was a difficult but important lesson to absorb in Iowa City.
“Sacrificing for the betterment of the team is going to make us all better in the end. It’s not about yourself,” Jacobs said. “At the end of the day, you’re playing alongside 10 other brothers. Each day, somebody’s relying on you to do your job. That took me a little time to learn, and I definitely appreciate that about our defense.”
The defensive line, in particular, is led by a selfless group of veterans that includes Waggoner, Evans, Shannon and Lee. They learned from guys like Epenesa (really), Chauncey Golston and VanValkenburg.
“Honestly, I think every guy in our defensive-line group just wants the best for everybody,” Evans said. “It’s easy to see that. We’re busting our butts in training right now and competing with each other, having fun.”
Moss pointed out that when that type of selfless attitude exists, bench players are more engaged and more understanding of who gets to start.
“If someone starts, they deserve it. And that’s about it,” Moss said. “There’s no whining in the room. Everyone’s good (with) it.”
The concerns and final thoughts
Under Parker, Iowa has been very, very good. But it has not been top-of-the-nation elite. By comparison, Big Ten West rival Wisconsin has been in the top five nationally in total defense six of the last eight years. In 2021, the Badgers were No. 1.
An overpowering defense can help overcome a lot of challenges elsewhere, including Iowa’s underachieving offense and difficult 2022 schedule (which includes Michigan and Ohio State).
The biggest concern that you’ll probably hear about and maybe notice in September is the effectiveness of Iowa’s back-end communication. The program has enjoyed three years of Koerner making defensive calls at free safety, and he/Belton/Hankins/Moss could make on-the-fly adjustments with just a nod or a point of a finger. With new regulars like Schulte and DeJean (or Sebastian Castro) in the mix, plus perhaps someone less-experienced as a starter (like Roberts), that on-field chemistry could take time.
It’s crazy to think that the secondary might be the biggest question mark of the defense, considering Iowa has had the Big Ten defensive back of the year five times since 2012, but that’s how strong this unit can be.
Getting back to the earlier discussion, what type of statistics should we expect to see defensively from the Hawkeyes in 2022?
“I’m very optimistic, just because I’m seeing every day what we’re doing, how we’re putting in our work,” Jacobs said, “(and) how we’re focusing on the little things every day.”
But even a quotable and confident player like Moss won’t bite in July on what’s possible in September, October and November.
“It’s going to be a traditional Iowa Hawkeye defense,” Moss said. “You know what I mean?
“It’s not like we’re setting a goal for, ‘I’m going to get this many picks this game.’ It’s just (a mentality to) go out, do your job, hit them in the teeth and good things are going to come. If we just keep that mentality, we’re going to be good. I guess that’s my answer.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.