2013 Sneak Peak: The Defense

The off season starts early for Iowa this year, so these items will come a little earlier as well.  During most of the Ferentz era, I’ve sat down to write the ‘Sneak Peak’ items in mid-January, or after Iowa’s bowl game.  No bowl for the Hawkeyes this year.

While we were planning Sunday evening family activities, my wife texted me, ‘Isn’t it Selection Sunday tonight?  Does that matter to you now re: do you have to watch it?’

No.  No, I don’t.

THE DEFENSIVE LINE

WHO IS GONE
DE Joe Gaglione: The 5th year senior showed flashes of goodness at times but dealt with injuries and sickness that slowed down his performance for the end of the year. He tied for the team lead in Tackles for Loss with 9.0 and led the team with 5.0 sacks. This qualifies for the statement ‘In the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king’ as Iowa was 103rd in tackles for loss nationally and 112th in sacks. Iowa had just 13 sacks as a team, the third lowest total for any team in a BCS conference. Regardless, he was Iowa’s best sack producer.

DT Steve Bigach: 38 total tackles, 1.5 for loss and 0.5 sacks. He did his best and played in all 12 games but Iowa has to get better production out of one of its starting defensive tackles next year.

WHO IS BACK: Pretty much everyone else. The bill came due for too much attrition at this position during the Rick Kaczenski years. Iowa paid a dear price this season, especially over the last six games. 12th in the league in sacks, 12th in tackles for loss, 11th in passing efficiency defense, 8th in total defense, 7th in rushing defense…it just wasn’t a good year and it all starts up front. I know some hate that cliche but it might be the greatest truism in the sport of football; if you don’t have it going on in the trenches, you have no shot. Just like you have no shot if you don’t attack vertically on offense if you’re Iowa.

Iowa rotated several younger players into the lineup this year and they paid a price. They had the proverbial sand kicked in their faces, the way the Hawkeye defensive lines did in 1999 and 2000. You can’t fake it on the defensive line and Iowa just had to pay a price.

Here were this year’s silver linings; they were able to redshirt Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie and Dom Alvis was the only junior in the bunch aside from Gaglione and Bigach. Everyone else who saw time on the line this year was a sophomore, redshirt freshman or true freshman (Drew Ott). That means aside from Alvis, every one of the players who saw time this year has at least two years left to play. The experience they gained this year, combined with a long, long offseason spent with Chris Doyle, should start to pay dividends in 2013.

The big question will be how much will this group be able to improve?

Darian Cooper came on at the end of the year in an obvious way. His play against Nebraska might have been his best all season. He had flashed earlier in the year but also disappeared. He was disruptive at times against the Huskers and gets to take that memory file with him this off season. He will be one of your starters at defensive tackle next season and could prove to be a disruptive force; he has three years left to play.

Louis Trinca-Pasat flashed early and often for Iowa in September and October but disappeared somewhat down the stretch. This was his first season seeing any real action so he might have hit a wall. I believe Kirk Ferentz said he had ‘dead legs’ late in the year, not uncommon for players getting their first real tastes. He showed promise and could team with Cooper as next year’s starters.

Carl Davis played better this year than he did in 2011, which was an injury filled year for him. He flashed here and there in games but you would not say he was consistent. In fact, it’s hard to remember him at all over the last few games. He has two more years to play, he has good size but must learn to play with better leverage and become more aggressive with his hands. Where Cooper began to employ violent hands, which the great ones do, Davis struggled shedding blocks and got too high too often. When a big guy like him gets high, or stands more upright, he’s much easier to push around and has lost all of the advantages of his girth. That’s technique and a long offseason is good for technique reminders.

Drew Ott was thrown into the mix against Northwestern as Riley McMinn was nicked up. Ferentz said he would have preferred to have redshirted Ott, but they didn’t have that luxury. What little we saw of Ott was promising. No, he didn’t set the world on fire and had just three tackles in five games. But he showed some wiggle at end and the foundation for a decent pass rush. If he follows the path of former true frosh who played on the defensive side (AJ Edds) he should arrive in camp next fall well ahead of the learning curve had he just redshirted. Alvis will be one of your defensive end starters and Ott stands a good chance to be the other.

Were I to project a starting DL for Iowa next year (sans injuries) it would be Ott, Alvis, Cooper and Trinca-Pasat. McMinn and Melvin Spears will get looks at end as will Ekakitie. Davis, Johnson and Mike Hardy should all see time on the inside.

That’s ten names with five players having at least one full year’s experience at a minimum. Everyone but Johnson and Ekakitie saw some meaningful reps this year and I would expect the 2013 defensive line to improve their play from 2012. As for how much? I am not expecting them to be the cavalry but I don’t expect them to allow over 180 yards rushing per Big Ten game they way the 2012 defensive line did, either.

THE LINEBACKERS

WHO IS GONE: NONE OF THEM
WHO IS BACK: All of them. Strong math skills there. Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Chris Kirksey will all return as seniors next season. they were Iowa’s Top Three tacklers, with Hitchens being 5th in the nation and first in the Big Ten with 125 tackles and Morris third in the Big Ten with 113. Morris tied for the team lead with 9.0 tackles for loss. Of the three, I’d say Kirksey might have had the best season on balance. He’s playing out of position and would be better suited played in Hitchens’ position. He’s a good cover linebacker who tied for the team lead with two interceptions, returning both of them for scores.

Should you expect all three to play better than they did this year? Yes, if we say ‘play smarter’ or ‘play more fundamentally sound’ football. There were way too many ‘blow up’ attempts; trying to knock ball carriers down with big hits as opposed to basic wrapping and driving tackling techniques. I think that is what earned Hitchens a seat on the bench late in the year and Morris’ tackling wasn’t clean as the year wore on, either. He was nicked up with an elbow injury which might have contributed to his woes.

Morris looked real good during the middle of the season but took himself out of several plays in the latter half of the year. Kirksey was steady all along and finished at the highest level of the three.

With that much experience returning, plus playing behind a line that should be improved, I’d expect a better season from Iowa’s linebackers than we saw in 2012.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

WHO IS GONE
CB Micah Hyde: Big contributor during his Iowa career. Broke up a team best 15 passes this year, had one INT and recovered three fumbles. He’s a player you’d want back.
CB Greg Castillo: Career backup and saw action in nickel and dime sets. Iowa favored younger players as the year went on in Kevin Buford and Dean Draper.
S Tom Donatell: Had an off and on season at strong safety, mostly off as the year neared completion.

WHO RETURNS
CB BJ Lowery: Injury early in the year may have gotten him off his game, but I expect bigger things out of him for 2013. He has very good skills and just needs to learn to trust his technique more from a trail position. The good news is that he has those abilities.

S Tanner Miller: Like Donatell, Miller faded as the year went on as each player was benched for a spell in some games. Miller struggled in the second half and was replaced by junior to be John Lowdermilk. Miller will be a senior but I would not rest on my laurels were I him.

S Nico Law: The fan favorite before the season began, Law got his nose wet more often over the final four games. That experience will serve him well and he is the ‘heir apparent’ at SS if there is such a thing in the secondary. He has the speed, size and fearlessness and should be an asset in run support, but it’s the passing game skills that will tell the tale as to how much he plays.

Buford and Draper are going to challenge for Micah Hyde’s corner position, but so will Jordan Lomax. Kirk Ferentz singled out Lomax in his end of year press conference last week, which was a big surprising. Lomax tore his labrum in the early going last fall and sat out the 2012 season, taking a redshirt. He will be a third year sophomore as he played as a true freshman. Ruben Lile will also be in the mix in the secondary and would have played this year had he not tore his ACL in camp; Ferentz also mentioned him and said he should be ready to go in the spring.

Torrey Campbell was injured in either late September or very early October and he didn’t record any tackles stats for the season. He will be a third year sophomore next fall.

This group would benefit from an improved defensive line, but I don’t think the line is going to make enough improvement to where the back four will be able to rest easy. Iowa needs playmakers and while there are some interesting names on paper, they have to emerge and get the job done. It would be a stretch to assume that production will improve from this unit next year, but then again it’s hard to imagine an Iowa secondary giving up as many big plays in 2013 as they did in 2012.

SYNOPSIS

Iowa will return a great deal of experience next year. Not ‘front of media guide’ names across the board, but players who saw action in several Big Ten games. I think this group will begin to slowly find its way and improve upon what we saw in 2012, which was the most challenged Hawkeye defense since the 2000 season. I thought that would be the case last winter and I at least got that one right. How much better will next year’s defense be? I don’t know. Can they be significantly better? I think so, but since so many players are going to have to make major strides along the defensive line I wouldn’t run out and bet the farm.

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