Notebook: All Hands on Deck for Versatile Hawkeye Defense, Injury Update

October 16, 2018

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Everybody loves offense. And the Hawkeyes are playing it well.

Perhaps that’s why the team’s defensive exploits are being overlooked. Or maybe it’s because it’s usually strong on that side of the ball and it gets taken for granted.

It’s impressive what the Hawkeyes have done there this season, expected or not. Considering that injuries and inexperience are shuffling the lineup, it’s even remarkable.

It’s the first time in 20 seasons under head coach Kirk Ferentz that one of his teams has entered a season without a linebacker with a start under his belt. On top of that, injuries have dictated Iowa use five different starting combinations at the position through six games. Six different players have started there in ’18.

“All of us prepare each week like we’re going to be starting,” said Djimon Colbert, who has started three games at weak-side linebacker. “As long as we do that and know that we can be in the rotation, then it’s nothing when we get thrown in there.”

A leg injury knocked out starting outside linebacker Nick Niemann the last two weeks. He was expected to return Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2) when the Hawkeyes play host to Maryland for Homecoming.

In Niemann’s absence, coordinator Phil Parker moved starting strong safety into the box as a hybrid. He was replaced in the backend by true sophomore Geno Stone.

That’s coincided with two two freshmen starting at cornerback. Julius Brents and Riley Moss stepped in for the injured Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins, and don’t appear ready to relinquish their No. 1 roles. Free safety Jake Gervase has been the only secondary member to start every game in the same spot.

“I think it’s having trust in one another, trusting that if the coaches are going to put you on the field, you’re going to do your job and that you have the trust of your teammates,” Gervase said.

The No. 19 Hawkeyes (5-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) rank second in the Big Ten in total defense (282.0 YPG), rushing defense (81.5) scoring defense (16.5) and sacks (20). Their 2.7 yards per carry yielded ranks fifth nationally and they’re one of only four teams (Alabama, Auburn, NC State) nationally to have allowed four or few touchdowns on the ground.

Teams have taken to the air against Iowa. That hasn’t proven much more effective. The passing defense ranks fourth in the Big Ten at 200.5 yards a contest.

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Whether or not his hand has been forced by injuries is up for debate, but Parker is utilizing more sub packages then ever before. It’s the most versatile defense of the Ferentz era.

Gervase said the sub packages evolved through the spring and summer. Still, the defense stayed mostly in base during the offseason, so the effectiveness of doing it on the fly has been satisfying.

“It’s something we just took and ran with,” he said. “We made some good adjustments when guys went down and we’ve played well in different packages and it’s something we think we can take advantage of.”

For years, fans have pulled their collective hair out watching linebackers cover receivers. It happened in a loss against Wisconsin this season. Now, the Hawkeyes have been more often matching up with what the opponents throw at them.

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“The coaches are doing a really good job of finding the right personnel to get in at certain points depending on who we’re playing,” defensive lineman Sam Brincks said. “They put the right guys in there that fit that position. I think we’re just trying to respond to it and just do what they ask. It’s been working so far.”

With how deep into the roster Iowa has dug for contributors this season, a lot more players own a piece of the success than in years past. That’s helped create a strong camaraderie.

“We have a long list of guys who are contributing on defense. It’s more than just 11 guys like sometimes you would traditionally get. It’s making everybody stronger, top to bottom,” defensive lineman Parker Hesse said.

INJURY UPDATE: After missing the last two games with a leg injury, Niemann is expected back against Maryland. Starting running back Ivory Kelly-Martin also should return after sitting out last week’s game with a head injury. Both are practicing this week.

The news regarding the status of linebacker Jack Hockaday (leg) and Brady Ross (leg), the team’s starting fullback, wasn’t as good.

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Ferentz said Ross could be out several weeks and he listed Hockaday as “doubtful” for this week.

“I would not count on him being back with us (for Maryland),” the coach said.

KEEPING IT TOGETHER: Maryland comes into Kinnick Stadium in better shape than outsiders expected after controversy hit the program during August. A ruling could come down this week on the status of suspended head coach D.J. Durkin.

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is serving as the Terrapins interim head coach. He has them at 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten with a win against No. 7 Texas.

“I don’t know all the details of what’s going on there. I just know it had to be a really challenging time for everybody there, their entire staff and football team. The way they’re playing, you have to give everybody credit,” Ferentz said.

“It starts with him. He’s certainly been the one that pulled them all together, kept everybody going in the right direction. When you watch film, you would never know there was any turbulence there. That’s impressive.”

EXTRA-POINTS: Ferentz said Brents and Moss will start at cornerback again this week…The coach sees parallels between the Maryland offense and that of Georgia Tech, who Iowa beat in the ’10 Orange Bowl…as of Tuesday afternoon, limited tickets remained for Saturday’s game…Iowa will be playing in its third Homecoming game in the row. They played at the Minnesota and Indiana Homecomings…Hesse, Gervase, Nate Stanley and Keegan Render are the Iowa captains this week.

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