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IOWA CITY, Iowa - Marc Morehouse examines the Hawkeyes' secondary, as spring football practice heats up.
QUICK LOOK BACK: Even with a cornerback who could be Iowa's lone draft pick this April, Iowa's secondary had some numbers the entire group will want to erase from memory.
The Hawkeyes allowed opponents to complete 63.5 percent (224 of 353) of its passes. A lot goes into that number, including pass rush, but that is the highest completion percent ever allowed by an Iowa defense. Since Iowa's near-championship season in '09, the completion percent allowed has climbed, going from 49.6 that season to 62.2, 62.0 and 63.5 last season.
Also in '09, Iowa led the Big Ten in yards per attempt (which basically measures if it's worth it for your opponent to try to pass against you) with 5.2. Since that season, it's gone 6.3 (respectable and second in the B1G in '10), 7.2 and 7.5 last season.
The way Iowa plays defense over/under 4-3 with mostly zone coverage and not a ton of blitzing puts a lot of pressure on the front four to provide a pass rush. We went over this with "Four Downs" on the D-line. The 8.5 sacks from last season were the fewest by an Iowa D-line in the last six seasons. Iowa had 30 sacks in 2009, and hey, look at the numbers in regard to the secondary that season 49.6 in opponent's completion percentage, 5.2 yards per attempt.
Some other passing numbers from '12: Iowa was 92nd in the country in completion percentage (57.8) on third down; Iowa was 89th in pass efficiency defense; Iowa's 41 first downs allowed through the air was tied for 69th; opponents completed 22 passes of more than 15 yards against the Hawkeyes (106th).
It all goes together. That said, safety play has to improve.
Junior Nico Law (6-1, 200) replaced Tommy Donatell in the lineup for the final four games and showed the learning curve you'd think a true sophomore getting his first starts would have. Senior Tanner Miller struggled. Simply put, it was a year of bad angles and late arrivals. If anything was lost in the translation between Phil Parker moving from defensive backs to defensive coordinator last season, it was safety play.
FOURTH DOWN CONCERNS: We touched on safety and that will remain a concern until it's not.
Miller (6-2, 207) had an excellent sophomore season, his first as starter at free safety. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including a 98-yard TD return against Northwestern that essentially exorcised the demonic spirit that Dan Persa was to the Hawkeyes. He finished fourth on the team in tackles and had three tackles for loss.
All those numbers but tackles for loss were down last season.
The pieces were in place for Miller. He came off a solid sophomore year, a year of growth. He seemed poised to make the leap. Then, there was a coaching change, with Phil Parker moving from defensive backs to coordinator and Darrell Wilson sliding over to secondary. Even after an Iowa win last season, Wilson and Miller ran off the field together with Wilson still trying to make a point. Miller shook his head and uttered an expletive.
Here's the percentage game we've been playing here. There are no real answers. 1) How much did the coaching change matter? Wilson left for a job at Rutgers after Kirk Ferentz asked him to move to running backs. Parker is back with the defensive backs and is still the coordinator. Parker coached defensive backs at Iowa for 13 years and 11 years at Toledo before that. He also was an all-Big Ten safety at Michigan State. His return to the secondary can't hurt. But one factor that shades this is Iowa didn't play a new scheme last season. Wilson or Parker, no one was asked to do anything differently in the secondary (Cover 2, matchup zone).
2) Physical mistakes were made. To say otherwise would be disingenuous. Is there legit competition here? Right now, it's junior John Lowdermilk (6-2, 207) and, maybe, redshirt freshman Anthony Gair (6-2, 200). Maybe redshirt frosh Ruben Lile (6-3, 210), who's coming off a torn ACL. Greg Mabin (6-2, 190) is probably a year away from seeing time in the defense and moving from WR at the beginning of spring practice. That said, do you see a change here? No, no you don't. Ball's in Miller's court.
Law just kind of ran around at times last season. He made the first starts of his career. Last year is over, so what has he learned? The answer to that question is kind of a big deal.
"I'm working on everything," Law said last week. "Last year was my first time touching the field. I got a little experience. I'm a little more comfortable back there, a little more confident. Now, it's just working on the little kinks and little details."
Law spoke of knowing things before they happen, being a coach on the field. He said he wasn't at that level last season, but feels as though he's there now.
By the way, the corner opposite senior B.J. Lowery (5-11, 193) is open and, yes, that's kind of a big deal, too.
Sophomore Jordan Lomax (5-10, 195) is the front runner after missing '12 with a torn labrum that required surgery. From injured to starter is quite a jump. Sophomore Sean Draper (6-0, 180) draws high work out marks and might be ready. He played some nickel and dime package last season. Also, sophomore Kevin Buford (5-10, 180) played some extra-defensive back packages as a true frosh last season.
THIRD DOWN ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Micah Hyde was arguably the most credible voice for a 4-8 team that ended the season with six consecutive losses. Why? Hyde did it on the field. He ended up with one interception, a low for his three seasons as a starter, but he had 14 pass breakups, forced two fumbles and returned another fumble for a 9-yard TD that gave Iowa a chance for victory against Purdue.
Hyde also had a well-publicized public intoxication arrest during the team's off week. He showed up that Tuesday and answered all the questions. He might be Iowa's lone pick in April's NFL draft.
Tommy Donatell lost his strong safety job to law, but stayed engaged on special teams and in nickel packages. His dad, Ed, is a longtime coach in the NFL. Expect Donatell to follow a similar path. Donatell and fellow senior Greg Castillo tied with linebacker Christian Kirksey for the team lead in interceptions last season with two apiece. The highlight for Castillo, in and out of the lineup through out his
career, was sealing the Michigan State victory with an interception in the second OT.
Parker isn't afraid of using freshman in the secondary. This year's recruiting class has a developmental feel, but never say never here.
Desmond King (5-11, 185) King snared 29 career interceptions at Detroit's East English Village Prep, which plays in a league that doesn't have a lot of passing. " Tremendous athlete and even a better attitude. He's a kid who makes you feel good when you're around him. I think he's one of the steals of in our class. I think he is really a good football player," Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson.
Malik Rucker (6-0, 170) Iowa brought him in as a corner, but he could make the move to safety. From all accounts, he's a hitter. "The way he has no regard for his body and just throws that thing around, the physicality he plays with . . . He loves the game," Johnson said.
Solomon Warfield (6-0, 185) – Warfield is coming in as a safety. "Solomon Warfield is a head hunter. He's the strong safety to Malik Rucker's free safety. And I think those two complement each other extremely well in this class. Warfield does have some deficiencies in pass coverage, not that those can't be fixed. He's very rangy but more in a run support aspect. He's a guy who can come up from that safety spot and be almost like an extra linebacker, because he hits like a linebacker," Rivals.com midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt.
SECOND DOWN BATTLES BREWING: Just that one corner spot is open.
Lomax played as a true freshman. If he would've been healthy last season, either Draper or Buford might've kept a redshirt. Lomax was among the first preps from Baltimore/Maryland to come to Iowa. Aside from one big season from RB Marcus Coker in '11, the big payoff has yet to happen. That could change this year with Law (Clinton, Md.), DT Darian Cooper (Elkridge, Md.) and Lomax (Upper Marlboro, Md.) in the starting lineup.
Draper seems poised to be the No. 3 corner this season and perhaps a starter in place of Lowery in '14. But he won't be handed that and Buford, sophomore Torrey Campbell (5-11, 188) and redshirt freshman Maurice Fleming (6-0, 188) will contend. In fact, this spring Fleming is listed as Lowery's backup.
This position group doesn't lack young, capable bodies. The question is can they develop quickly enough to provide real competition at safety? There might not be a change in the lineup there, but competition will make it better. (A good example is Jordan Bernstein/Collin Sleeper in 2011. Bernstein was the better player, his teammates made some noise Shaun Prater made as much as he could without being banned for life from media and the switch was made in week 3. Can Iowa find that at safety? Does it need to?)
FIRST DOWN WHAT COULD HAPPEN: Lowery is the star of the group. He missed two games and was kind of in and out for two others with a high-ankle sprain, but Parker has depended on him to make big plays (Lowery pretty much won the '11 Michigan game). That will continue.
Lowery is a tough tackler and physical in coverage. A big year gets him on the draft radar.
– What's a realistic goal for opponent's completion percentage? Remember, it's not all on this group. There's a mathematics between QB pressure, sacks and how successful teams can be through the air. That said, Iowa has allowed QBs to complete 62.0 percent or better in the last three seasons, including the 63.5 percent last season, which looks to be the worst in school history.
– Interceptions don't require any analysis. More is better. Last season, Iowa had 10, which was No. 78 in the nation. In '11, it also was 10 and No. 73 in the nation. The three-year run before that was stellar 19 (T 11th), 21 (T 5th) and 23 (4th). More are better. Plus, you saw the offense last season. It needs all the possessions it can get.
– Linebackers coach Jim Reid coordinated Viriginia's defense last season. The Cavaliers' overall product was a stinker, but they did finish 28th in the nation in total defense, so Reid, 62, knows defense. He repeated what Iowa has repeated for going on 15 years under Ferentz.
"It all starts up front on offense and defense," Reid said when asked how much of the team's success is tied to the D-line holding up its end of the deal. "And then the linebackers are the heart. They tie in the front and they tie in the secondary. On the back end are the guys who make the dynamic plays and have to have great daring and great understanding.
"So, it's all together, but looking you square in the eye, and I could be wrong...coach Ferentz might have a different view, but in my humble view, it all starts up front."